AND THAT’S HOW HONG KONG ENDED UP WITH CANTO POP- AND CANTO PAP
By Hans Ebert
Often one wishes for that the Cha Cha was still in vogue in Hong Kong. Going back to watch those old black and white Cantonese movies from the fifties, there was always a scene in a nightclub where the lead actors were talking while doing the Cha Cha. It was cool kitsch.
For a while, there was the Offbeat Cha Cha which, one supposes, was trying to change something so simple and perfect for the sake of change.
The Cheongsam and the Cha Cha went together. It was sex on heels. All those gorgeous Chinese actresses like Lin Dai and those sassy Cha Cha moves.
Word is that a then unknown Bruce Lee was a Hong Kong Cha Cha champion and even made appearances as an extra in some of these movies. The Dragon was still to break down walls with those Fists Of Fury.
Then life and everything else changed forever. The Beatles happened. The entire British Beat Boom happened.
Though resonating in Hong Kong, particularly with those attending English language Secondary schools like KGV and St George’s, the Beatles minus Ringo, performing at the Princess Theatre in Kowloon, meant that no one could ignore the phenomenon.
Everyone needed to be in a band and those school bands weaned on the instrumental tunes of the Ventures and the Shadows had to find themselves a lead singer.
It really didn’t matter how good they were or how good their English was. It was more style over substance and soon there was a Hong Kong Pop Scene with fledgling pop groups playing at tea dances, Pop concerts, pop bands appearing on television variety shows, Go Go dancers, the locally produced programme “Soundbeat”, and with nearly all these groups signed to the local recording label called Diamond Music.
Diamond Music later became Polydor and then Polygram before becoming gobbled up by Universal Music. But those Polydor years were the most important to the Hong Kong music industry.
This early “scene” was supported by radio disc jockeys like Ray Cordeiro, Darryl Patton, and Tony Myatt.
Suddenly, everyone was making records- even these disc jockeys. The Brylcreem was washed out and hair was combed forward. Everyone seemed to be in a band with usually the least talented member being the rich kid whose family didn’t care about their apartment being used for band rehearsals.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the expat families who lived up on the hill had their dirty little secrets and there was plenty of excess going on a few years before drug overdoses by a couple of American students and usage of heavy drugs in certain schools made headlines.
The expat lifestyle in Hong Kong might have looked wonderful on the surface, but those huge apartments in May Road didn’t come without its very dark problems.
It was very far removed from the squeaky clean and pretty awful pop recordings on four track machines by equally squeaky clean local bands like Teddy Robin and the Playboys with Norman Cheng on guitar, Sam Hui and the Lotus, Joe Junior and the Side Effects, Danny Diaz and the Checkmates, Mod East, the Mystics, the Menace, Roman Tam and the Four Steps etc.
Some of these names were very instrumental in what I coined “Canto Rock” in 1974 when writing for Billboard, the world’s leading trade publication. None more so than Sam Hui.
His days with the Lotus were ending and a solo career was starting. After a few innocuous albums in English and a TV show with his elder brother came the need for two upbeat original Cantonese songs for the first movie starring Michael and Sam Hui and a token appearance by younger brother Ricky.
Called “Games Gamblers Play”, it gave Hong Kong this “Canto Rock”- fun, very commercial, lighthearted and which was an honest take on Hong Kong at the time and the lead up to 1997. The theme song, written by Sam Hui included former member of the Playboys Norman Cheng, pictured below guesting for son Ronald, today a successful businessman.
Back then he was, running Polydor following a very rapid rise up the corporate ladder. He also found time to play guitar on the theme for “Games Gamblers Play” along with Wallace Chau who was with Sam Hui in the Lotus.
Other Hui brothers films followed. Only Sam Hui understood and had the musical knowledge to take this new music, which was very much musically based around Brit Pop chord progressions merged with colloquial Cantonese lyrics, to where it needed to go. But this was short circuited.
When he needed a break from the movie making and recordings and decided to take an extended break from everything to chill out in LA, out rolled the ballads that’s now known as Canto Pop- formulaic songs from the same sausage factory where “idols” and “The Four Heavenly Kings” were created.
Being played out in the background were politics, contractual wrangling, management wars, songs by the same writers, plenty of backhanders for everyone and lucrative side businesses. Even angels have dirty faces. Very very few are ever clean.
With Western music all but silenced on radio by those who had a vested interest in all this Canto Pop crooning came new names- some good like Jacky Cheung and Alan Tam, formerly with the Wynners, a pop band originally named Loosers- no idea why- and others with the “right” looks. And hairdressers. Nothing else.
Over forty years later they’re still around touring Mainland China, wherever there’s a big Chinese community and holding ‘live’ concerts that are often a testament to Cheese.
Much has been done to try and retain those ‘looks’ and Cheese sells. Selling it includes a now 70 year old Sam Hui following a much heralded comeback after a mystery illness. It’s all corn and showbiz. Supply and demand. And selling nostalgia for very big bucks.
“Leave the audience wanting more” has taken on a very different meaning. It’s about milking the golden goose dry.
Some, like Faye Wong, below, went against the trend and succeeded extremely well. She remains the only living Canto Pop superstar along with Jacky Cheung.
Meanwhile, actor-singer Leslie Cheung decided to check out of life and exorcise those personal demons years earlier whereas also lost way before their time were singers Teresa Teng and Danny Chan and the iconic performer Anita Mui.
Though bands like Beyond, Chyna and LMF fought hard for their musical independence, the path was open for style over substance and what has largely become one big dose of musical Valium along with very Big Business and everything that comes with big business. Could Beyond and Chyna, below, have broken this stranglehold? No.
Chyna, especially, led by the late Donald Ashley refused to play the fame game with those who controlled the media, especially television and those ubiquitous awards shows which came very close to at least one executive being jailed for corruption and several music executives lucky not to have been prosecuted.
It’s not unlike the entertainment business anywhere in the world. It has very little to do with songs or the music. It’s selling television variety shows in a ‘live’ setting. It’s trading in commodities. It’s about keeping up false pretences and with, by now, everyone able to have a slice of the pie ensuring that no one can kill the steely beast.
Where’s it all heading?
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