Before she and her partner quietly slipped out of Hong Kong for Dubai, someone I had got to know reasonably well for over a period of 2-3 years, kept mentioning how Hong Kong was finished as an international city. There was a quiet desperation to what she was saying.
Sure, everyone’s who’s interested in this subject is going to have a different view of things, or the same one with maybe a few deletions and additions.
It was both interesting and therapeutic thinking about who I see as having been game changers in Hong Kong’s music landscape and how they did what they did, where and when timing and a little luck came into play, and if anything can perhaps be taken away from their “master classes”.
Gawd knows, today’s Hong Kong needs something to wake itself up from a comatose state and where there’s so much that keeps things being more and more dumbed down and locked down.
If Music is the magical panacea it’s always been, it needs to be allowed to breathe and inspire and re-activate that motorcade coming over the hill.
Hong Kong might never ever have had a groundbreaking music scene, but the bibs and bobs it did have helped add a little more to everything else that was happening in the city. Like giving a heartbeat to attract tourism. Remember tourism?
Then again, what’s here to attract international tourists? A staycation at a six star hotel? The usual players making the same old noises? It’s time to change channels.
In this city that’s pretty much had everything- except for a genre of music that was Made IN Hong Kong and FOR Hong Kong- and which might even be accepted by the world- seems like a good place to kickstart things.
While looking at a complete makeover for Chinese popular music in Hong Kong, one has to wonder about the future of Western music in this city. How much space will it occupy?
It’s hard to say, because, well, there’s really nothing around except for Canto Pop, which was and is Variations On Desperado and a smattering of old school boyband doodlings that have skirted on the fringes of Backstreet Mongkok Boys. Truly awful stuff. But when there’s nothing else...
Just for a second, however, there was the Canto Pop/Rock of Sam Hui that offered up something new.
This could have been something else until things made a U-turn and went for style over substance and well-rehearsed HKTVB-itis replete with dodgy awards shows and where the real stars were hairstylists.
Is it too late for Hong Hong, and has the Fat Lady sung and gone home, Grasshopper? One would like to think not.
Can anything be learned from Hong Kong’s game changers in music who came before? Or were they only about sticking to a formula and the money?
Apart from wondering if Hong Kong even has the talent young enough to bring something new and fresh and create that Big Picture, I return to Sam Hui and his earliest experimentations in giving Cantonese popular music a new voice.
This was when Aces Were Going Places and those Games Gamblers Play could have trumped Crazy Rich Asians decades ago. But things got sidetracked and ambushed by the big money of HKTVB-itis and creativity was shelved.
Musical creativity has never been a priority in Hong Kong. This has become more and more obvious, especially in recent years and when this city has started to wobble.
During those gold rush days when way over the top Canto Pop concerts at the Coliseum became something that was basically a three hour long TVB Jade television variety show, no one noticed or cared to notice that all this Bigness had nothing to do with music. And here lies a problem being felt today.
For myself, writing is often time in a bottle and a magical mystery tour with the soundtrack to one’s life playing in the background.
It’s about feeding that headspace from somewhere within, and which is exclusive and honest.
It’s a thought process that might lead to somewhere new and exciting- not just more mirror versions of everything that’s come before.
She broke all the rules in order to show that there should be no rules, especially in the stifling cookie cutter Hong Kong music industry- and what passes itself off as “the music business”.
It was about taking control of her career and how to own every aspect of this.
What has the Hong Kong music business and artists learned from Anita Mui?
Could one not borrow from what Anita Mui gave and be inspired and brave enough to give Hong Kong a very different version of, let’s say, Black Pink?
Another thing: Did we miss the big boat and the sampan by not embracing that rainbow coalition when gay icons like Mui, Leslie Cheung and Danny Chan were hanging out at Disco Disco and Canton Disco was bringing some Studio 54-type coolness and outrageousness to Hong Kong?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and so is foresight. Even during these barren rock days, impossible is nothing.
The uncommon common denominator in all three of these Rock bands who performed in English was drummer-vocalist-songwriter Donald Ashley. He drove each band with the same passion and angst and intensity some of us had always come to expect from him.
Some stopped working with Don because of his somewhat erratic behaviour and unreliability.
All I know is that if I insisted to whoever was producing a session that I needed him, and called him, Don would show up.
Despite his Boris ranting emails and anger at those musicians undercutting recording sessions’ hourly rates, he was a unique individual and brilliant all-round musician.
His song “Within You’ll Remain” and a hit for Chyna around this region and Japan was “Chinese” enough to be commercially successful without bludgeoning audiences with a giant char siu bau.
He checked out not having finished what he was sent here to do.
New Zealanders Andrew Hagen and Morton Wilson raised the bar almost immediately after arriving in Hong Kong when it came to producing music for commercials.
What they produced weren’t fluffy jingles. They were soundscapes- and quality Award winning work.
Though having only used Schtung for a McDonald’s track that needed something less jingle jangling and more filmic, I was to work much more with Morton, below, during my decade with EMI Music.
Morton brought to us the Shanghai Divas Remixed project that used our classic Pathe recordings.
Personally, I believe that EMI outside of Hong Kong did a lousy job of getting behind this release.
From here, I had his team at Schtung work with me and our A&R teams in India and elsewhere on remixes for Bowie, Robbie Williams, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Deepak Chopra and Dave Stewart. Gorillaz and many others.
The work was excellent, it was unique and certainly didn’t go unappreciated by Mr Bowie-though once again, the EMI offices outside of this region either didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it.
When the Danny Diaz Trio beat Teddy Robin and the Playboys to win Hong Kong’s big Battle Of The Sounds, one wonders if it was a popular result.
After all, though desperately needing a sense of style, the all-Chinese Teddy Robin and the Playboys were Hong Kong’s most popular mainstream pop group.
Danny Diaz and the Checkmates were a professional and sophisticated group comprising the three musically accomplished Diaz brothers and their drummer. The Checkmates and their jazz chords and material were in a different league though you wouldn’t know it from the record sleeve below.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see the career paths taken by the individuals in each band.
Teddy Robin Kwan made a few solo recordings before branching out into the Hong Kong film world. The other Playboys did a bit of this and a bit of that and nothing of much consequence.
Guitarist and leader Norman Cheng, meanwhile, worked himself up from studio engineer and producer to become one of the most successful Chinese music executives.
He became head of PolyGram, Universal Music and EMI Music in the region.
We worked closely together in each of these companies and had our fair share of different home runs.
Also a horse owner, Norman had the A&R skills to sign up legendary names in Canto Pop like Jacky Cheung, yes, Sam Hui, Alan Tam, and mapped out the return to recording of the iconic Teresa Teng...
He also saw the end of the music business as we knew it hurtling our way and made contingency plans.
He sold his Gold Typhoon music and management company and cashed out. Timing is everything.
It was the combination of Wallace Chau on guitar and charismatic frontman and singer Sam Hui that made the Lotus the drawcard they were in Hong Kong.
We all knew that it was always a matter of time before Sam would go it alone and become hugely popular. He was the total pop package and readymade for television and the movies.
With the Lotus and when in concert, Sam Hui might have covered Western hits by bands like the Searchers, the Hollies and Paul Revere and the Raiders, but he knew his chords and had a naturally original voice.
Though I haven’t seen nor heard from Sam in decades, those who have seen him in concert always mention that his singing is like it’s always been.
Back in the day when with my ex wife, we used to see Sam and wife Becky pretty regularly.
I had known Sam since my days at KGV Secondary School and when he was already playing professionally with the Bar Six at the Firecracker Bar of the Hyatt Regency.
I was to write the song that became his first solo hit- “April Lady”- and the two follow up singles.
When Sam started to write and record songs in Cantonese for the movies, I was writing for the American trade publication Billboard and dubbed this new music genre Canto Rock.
It was at this time that the term Cantopop was first coined. The Billboard correspondent Hans Ebert, who had earlier coined the term Cantorock in 1974, noted a change in its style to something similar to British-American soft rock, therefore started to use the term Cantopop instead in 1978.
This became Canto Pop when others jumped on the bandwagon and the music turned bland and took a backseat to style over substance. But not Sam. He stuck to a style that was his own and which others could not copy.
While the solo singers who were signed to mainly PolyGram often released turgid ballad after ballad and stuck to this formula, Sam’s ballads always harked back to his Western folk roots and where it was always about melodies and lyrics that mattered.
He certainly wasn’t Bob Dylan, but the songs of Bob Dylan worked best when covered by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Sam was the Chinese Jim Croce and Don McLean- slightly before Jim Croce and Don McLean.
I still don’t know if Hong Kong music fans understand just how much Sam Hui changed the face and sound of Chinese music- at least for a short while.
Songs from this era are still talked about today. Maybe they should be remixed and refried?
They shouldn’t just be left on the shelf as a quaint little curiosity piece.
With the past being back there and a good place to visit once in a while for inspiration and to see what can be learned, surely it’s time for Hong Kong to finally grow some balls and do everything it should have done years ago?
What should be remembered is that all this everything happened long before social media was unleashed on the world and when priorities suddenly got lost in the shuffle of clicks and clutter and a vapid numbers game. The technology long tail was not wagging the dog.
Instead, things were allowed to get all soft and dopey and with too many still in music looking after number one and their already bulging bank accounts.
This is why and when we need Bruce Lee now more than ever...