Cantopop, Hong Kong’s local music genre, has long been representative of the city’s unique cultural identity. Retracing the history of Cantopop, one begins to appreciate how the genre beautifully weaves elements of pop music from around the world into the eloquence of the Cantonese language.
Western-influenced music first arrived in the major cities of Mainland China in the 1920s, but the Communist Party of China soon denounced pop music as being corrupt following their victory in 1949. As immigrants flowed from Shanghai to the then British-ruled Hong Kong in the 1950s, they brought over western styles of music, which inspired many artists to blend the rhythmic nature and the verse-chorus structure of pop music with traditional Cantonese operas and ballads, creating songs with melodies sung in Cantonese accompanied by guitars, drums, and electric pianos. Cantopop’s appeal was how it captured Hong Kong’s unique identity: it reflected the culture of both its local and foreign populations as well as expressing that identity through the medium of music.
In the 1970s, the introduction of television in Hong Kong gave way to Cantopop theme songs for television shows, thereby allowing it to reach the mainstream public. For example, Frances Yip’s Shanghai Tan was the theme song for the popular television drama The Bund, propelling her to international fame. While the song featured an opera-style Cantonese melody, it was accompanied by harmonies of violin and electric guitar and supported by drums. Yip would later compose albums in many languages and perform at worldwide concerts, but still continued her work in composing songs for television shows and movies.
The 1980s saw the golden age of Cantopop. The arguably most famous band of this era was the group Beyond, whose signature song Glorious Years told the story of Nelson Mandela’s battle against apartheid in South Africa, making it stand out from the other love songs of that generation. With a fierce electric guitar solo as well as a catchy whistling melody in the bridge, the song’s uniqueness helped it gain popularity in the Cantopop world.
After Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, the influence of Mandarin in Hong Kong’s music industry seemed inevitable. However, music in the Cantonese language continued to be popular not only among the residents of Hong Kong, but also those in southern China who spoke Cantonese, as well as millions of the Cantonese diaspora in Australia, Canada, the United States, among other countries.
When I moved back to Hong Kong from Canada at the age of seven, Cantonese was a foreign language to me. Despite sharing much vocabulary with Mandarin, the major pronunciation differences between the languages made Cantonese extremely difficult for me to learn. Yet, there is no shortage of Cantopop songs being played throughout Hong Kong; being a musician, the same few familiar melodies were stuck in my head. Over many years, as I gradually deciphered each piece of music through separating the lyrics from the harmony, I slowly picked up traces of the Cantonese language. Whereas the complexities of Cantonese make it one of the most difficult languages to learn, Cantopop saved me from all that frustration through appealing to my love of music.
In contrast to Western pop and other Asian pop genres, Cantopop’s distinguishing feature is its complexity: because there are six tones in the language which differentiate words, singers must be precise to convey the correct meaning. Adding the twelve different notes in music (and seven or eight different pitches per note), Cantopop is arguably one of the most difficult genres to understand and master. Yet, this complexity also contributes to the genre’s beauty: the uniqueness of each individual piece thus enables great variety within the genre.
While Cantopop originally was a local music genre, its distinctive compositions and its memorable tunes have helped it achieve worldwide popularity. As music becomes more and more internationalized, musicians and bands from Asian countries have suddenly seen a surge in popularity, and Cantopop has already seen its influence grow. When I find myself at karaoke, I often pull up a few Cantopop songs: it’s easy to sing and its tunes are exciting, but it also expresses this part of Hong Kong’s culture that I grew up with and continue to love today.