Hong Kong is currently going through something of an identity crisis, both literally and figuratively. The literal crisis is the rise of a so-called “localist” political movement, some proponents of which have even called for Hong Kong independence. The more figurative crisis are the regular pronouncements that Hong Kong is having difficulty working out its place within China and the wider world.
Part and parcel of these discussions is the question as to whether there is a distinct “Hong Kong identity”. Views on this matter are colored both by ambiguity in definitions but also political objectives. Solid data and rigorous analysis to support conclusions are hard to come by—the subject is inherently amorphous—but Cantopop offer one of largest areas of study available.
So while Yiu-Wai Chu’s new book, Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, is exactly what the title says it is—a musical history—it can also inform this wider issue.
When I first moved to Hong Kong, it was explained to me that Hongkongers d’un certain âge had better English than the younger generation due to Cantopop, or rather the lack thereof when this older generation was growing up: if you wanted to be cool and bob along to something, that something was almost always in English.
Chu’s book gives some credence to this theory: he dates the advent of Cantopop to 1974 and has it in full swing by the end of the decade. For a decade or so prior to that, even local singers and bands performed in English; the competition came from songs in Mandarin.
Hong Kong was cool.
Cantopop obviously hit some zeitgeist-istic sweet spot, for it quickly supplanted almost everything else. Chu goes on to give some sociological and cultural explanations but perhaps one does not need anything more to explain this than to note that Hong Kong people at last had songs and performers of international quality in a language they could understand and sing along to. The Hong Kong economy had further begun to take off; disposable income and supply created a virtuous circle.
But there is more to it than just that: Cantopop was in its heyday “the trendiest music genre in Chinese communities across the globe.” This is quite extraordinary if one thinks about it: Hong Kong was cool.
Chu dates the appearance of something that might be called a “Hong Kong identity” to this period, something which clearly had a symbiotic relationship with Cantopop.
It didn’t last: Chu, following other writers he cites, dates the end of Cantopop to the closing years of the millennium. The decline was more than precipitous: Chu quotes sales figures showing them dropping from over US$2 billion in 1997 to just US$70 million a decade later. Attempts to revive it notwithstanding, Cantopop has been supplanted by less euphonically-named Mandopop (sung in Mandarin) and Hong Kong performers have often found it necessary to follow suit, linguistically and geographically.
This decline—echoed, in should be noted, in other areas of language- and Hong Kong-specific cultural endeavour—is something much agonised over. Chu, in spite of his evident enthusiasm for the subject, art form and performers, is rather phlegmatic about the collapse. He seems not entirely convinced by the arguments made by some that the industry grew complacent, and the the demise can be put down solely to artistic and business failures. He notes that music was becoming a trans-national business, and the largest such market by far was for Mandarin. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The rise and fall of Cantopop, therefore, contain lessons not just for Hong Kong’s attempts to diversity into creative industries, but also for its attempt to develop a tech sector. Cantopop had about twenty years when the Hong Kong domestic market was large and lucrative enough to support the growth of local industry. The international English-language imports set quality standards, while the local language provided product differentiation and a competitive advantage: the two combined to create a world-class industry. For a time: as the world integrated and China developed, Hong Kong alone ceased to be a large enough market to sustain a viable domestic industry.
Hong Kong, in Cantopop, managed to take local strengths global. But the conditions also had to be providential. Finding this combination, whether in this industry or, more likely, in others, remains the primary challenge.
Hong Kong Cantopop could have benefited from some more active editing. Certain passages, quotations and even complete footnotes repeat. This aside, the book will surely be a must-read for those (relatively rare, one imagines) English-speaking devotés of Sam Hui, Jenny Tseng, Karen Mok, et al., as well those more generally interested in Hong Kong and Chinese vernacular culture.
But will also provide a useful perspective for those pondering the nature of the “Hong Kong identity” and wish to put some rigor into discussions on the subject. An perhaps even more usefully, Hong Kong Cantopop is a useful and pertinent case study on the success factors for Hong Kong-based cultural and intellectual service goods industries