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Every great city needs a good MOM- Museum Of Music.

Updated: May 6



Someone I didn’t know at all, but where fate and timing brought us together for nothing else other than getting to know each other, was asking me about music- specifically about the musical history of Hong Kong and why the city still doesn’t have a museum of music.


To her, my friends and myself, it’s surprising that the city has a Hong Kong horse racing museum that many don’t even know exists, let alone have visited, but there’s nothing to see and hear the role that music has played as the ongoing soundtrack to the city as it’s grown up.


As for the musical history of Hong Kong, from what I remember when first arriving in the city from Colombo, my elder cousins and Uncle would go out every weekend to nightclubs like the Metropole in North Point and The Blue Heaven in Central.


The Blue Heaven was where the music was provided by a group of Italian musicians led by someone named Giancarlo.


There weren’t many of these nightclubs as Hong Kong was still taking shape.


There was no Lan Kwai Fong and no Soho. There was Wanchai and this area was mainly for American sailors on shore leave, looking for a good time and the home of Suzie Wong.



The Blue Heaven and the handful of other nightclubs in North Point and Central were where there would always be a very attractive resident songstresses like the iconic Rebecca Pan and others like Mona Fong- the future Mrs Run Run Shaw- and the tantalisingly beautiful Kong Ling.





These were divas, often originally from Shanghai, dressed in a tight cheongsam with a thigh high slit and who sang hit songs in Mandarin and moved sensually to the rhythms of what was called the Cha cha.


I couldn’t wait to get older.


This happened soon enough with the opening of the Scene discotheque in the basement of the Peninsula Hotel that had some of the better ’live’ bands playing and who attracted many of the schoolgirls whereas across the road was the Bayside.  


The Scene

The Bayside was a nightclub for a more mature crowd with ‘live’ music from the Topnotes and a short stint during those swinging sixties by the Beatles of the Philippines- the Hijacks.


These were also the days when the city’s Cha Cha king was being crowned- Bruce Lee before The Dragon took over with fists of fury and changed the face of Kung fu movies forever.




Decades later, artists like David Byrne, and David Bowie and record producers from Hong Kong like my friend Morton Wilson were influenced by this hip nostalgic music- and brought its sound and fashion to the cool, upmarket dance floors around Europe.



Morton Wilson

The music was retro nouveau chic and brought back memories of those chic nights when Shanghai was the Paris of the Orient. 




Long before all this and to bring some extra money to the household, my father was doing part time work for Ceylon’s most powerful impressario- Donovan Andre- and bringing Hong Kong based Filipino entertainers to the island- magicians, acrobats and musicians like a very young group of Filipinos called the Rocky Fellas. 


Rocky Fellas

One of the members of the group was Chris Babida, who became one of Hong Kong’s most respected and well known writers, arrangers and record producers.


Chris Babida

The first pop group I remember seeing in Hong Kong, and who were friends of my family were the Fabulous Echoes- the Ruivivar brothers and Bert Sagum from the Philippines, bassist Stan Robertson and singer Cliff Foenander from Ceylon. 



They were more entertainers than pure musicians, but this is what television audiences at the time wished to see, and the Fabulous Echoes were booked on top rated American television variety programs like the Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore shows.


It wasn’t until the Hong Kong Hotel became the Hong Kong Hilton, and the first international hotel in the city that we saw regular international acts performing at the Eagle’s Nest and the Den, venues at the hotel, plus appearing at the Lee Theatre.  



The Hilton presented the city with an international array of artists the calibre of Eartha Kitt, Judy Garland and the Allen Brothers featuring songwriter Peter Allen who performed at the hotel venue known as the Eagle’s Nest.


Hotel guests like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, the Carpenters and others performed mainly at the City Hall and the Lee Theatre.



Hong Kong was coming alive and music was giving it a heartbeat and a soundtrack to our lives.


Never to be forgotten was Mr Sinatra performing at the City Hall for school kids like myself for HK$1. 



Some years later, fate played a very big card by giving me the opportunity to interview Sammy Davis Jr at a press conference at the Hilton.


I was a junior reporter at the Hong Kong Standard and the only person available at the time to interview the world’s greatest entertainer. 



I don’t remember much about the story I phoned in during these days of landlines and fax machines except mentioning that Sammy was wearing a one-piece bright orange jumpsuit.


I still haven’t forgotten the night out we had with his fabulous looking dancers and smoking some very heavy weed.


By the time I got home, which was around 4am, I think my parents thought I had died.


I probably had and gone to heaven with the dancers.


During the British Beat Boom, the Beatles had Hong Kong going Yeah Yeah Yeah in 1964 and did a very short set/show at the Princess Theatre in Kowloon with Jimmy Nicol deputising for an ill Ringo Starr. 



To be honest, it was an awful show with terrible sound and saved by opening act Sounds Incorporated but, hey, we got to see the Beatles.


Before the Beatles, the Kinks had opened for Manfred Mann at the football stadium and which offered Hong Kong group the Kontinentals the chance to be the warmup act.


The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, the Searchers, the Beach Boys and Peter and Gordon all played in Hong Kong at a time when a fledgling music scene was starting up.


I had persuaded my parents to buy me a guitar and which they did on the condition that I take guitar lessons from Tony Carpio, a friend of my father and the best guitarist in Hong Kong. 



He wasn’t exactly the easiest man to get along with whereas he wanted to teach me how to play jazz guitar and I wanted to learn a few rudimentary chords. I think I had about six lessons before going solo.


As for Tony Carpio, he was a legend and his hugely popular Sunday Jazz afternoons at the Dicken’s Bar certainly brought in the expatriate crowd.



There had been numerous amateur talent shows, but there were now local school bands and a few others inspired by soft pop music and having their fifteen minutes of fame.


Almost every singer and band was signed to Diamond Music, and though perhaps lacking in musical muscle, they made up for it through enthusiasm and built for themselves loyal fan bases- especially bands like the Lotus, Teddy Robin and the Playboys, below, the Mystics, Joe Jr and the Sound Effects, the Menace and a few others.  



My best friend at secondary school in KGV- Steve Tebbutt- was in the Rebel Sect, one of first blues influenced bands in Hong Kong. Even though 14, Steve knew who he wanted to make music with and the type of music he wanted to play.


Rebel Sect

Steve was a complete natural- a gifted drummer and guitarist, someone confident, cocky, and, most definitely, a chick magnet.


Because of him, I got to know the professional bands performing in the city, mainly in Kowloon, and the scene happening around them- an audience comprising a slightly older local crowd and plenty of showgirls from especially Australia and the States looking for a good time and some money for honey to be made on the side.


Steve and I grew up fast enough though I didn’t have his restless spirit.


Hanging around the clubs featuring professional bands like the Four Steps featuring the operatic pop of Roman Tam, below, the Bar Six that included Sam Hui and other bands, all comprising Chinese musicians, one could see a pop scene happening with radio and television variety shows plus pop columns getting behind these acts. 


Four Steps with Roman Tam

There was popular disc jockey “Uncle” Ray Cordero and his request shows, below, there were tea dances where the semi professional pop bands played and the young girls danced- but the real money in making music was going to come a couple of years later from the production of contemporary Cantonese pop music. 


Uncle Ray

When in 1974, Sam Hui needed a Cantonese theme song for the comedy “Games Gamblers Play”, the idea was to have a guitar oriented backing track that was a combination of Western chord progressions plus a poppy melody line and Cantonese lyrics about life in Hong Kong.


This one track was a game changer and Hong Kong music was suddenly playing with a new sweet bird of youth and a sound very different from the more sophisticated and mature television theme music written and produced by such pioneers as Joseph Koo, Vic Cristobal and Michael Lai.


The genre of music Sam created was named Canto Rock and later, Canto Pop when I was writing for the world’s leading music trade publication called Billboard.


It had to be called something…

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.

Around this time some of us got a jolt to our systems and egos when professional bands like the Quests from Singapore, below, and D’Downbeats from the Philippines arrived in Hong Kong under six month contracts to perform in nightspots like the Mocambo in Central.



These were extremely good musicians- mature, very professional and guys to whom we looked up.


Were we jealous of them? Sure, we were. They were not only really good musicians, but got most of the girls who could stay out until the next morning, or for the whole weekend.


In the venue known as The Den at the Hong Kong Hilton were very good bands from Australia and New Zealand like The In People, the Collection and the Renaissance.


Renaissance

Some of the bands featured singer Peter Nelson from New Zealand with their leader being Noel Quinlan, an Australian guitarist, songwriter and producer who worked with some of the biggest local artists in Hong Kong.


Peter Nelson

Despite being underage, my friend Steve became their drummer before leaving with some of these bands for gigs in Japan and Honolulu. 


Steve Tebbutt

A tragic accident cost him his life when he returned to Hong Kong to try and figure out the rest of his journey. I was with Steve at the Dickens Bar of the Excelsior Hotel the night before he passed away. 


I guess it was written in the stars.


I never saw Steve making it past 30. He was 24 when he left us.


As for Canto Pop, the music genre became big and bloated and made many artists, their management and concert promoters very rich.



Canto Pop quickly became style over substance and with the joke at the time being that the most important person in the popularity of any of these artists was their hairstylist.


Despite the sameness of the music, and the penchant for love ballads, there was the more independent music of artists like Faye Wong and Anita Mui.


Faye Wong
Anita Mui

There was also the very popular Rock band Beyond, the experimental Tat Ming Pair, Ramband and Chyna featuring the drumming and vocals and songwriting talents of Don Ashley.



Tat Ming Pair

CHYNA

He was a strange guy who had his fair share of personal demons, but he was a very good musician. Don passed away in 2014 at the age of 58.


Of course, nothing lasts forever and progress means saying goodbye to the past.


The Hong Kong Hilton made way for a new business centre and clubs with DJs and a more sophisticated crowd. These trendies made Canton the place to be and be seen. 



Hong Kong was Asia’s world city and a magnet for international tourism and talent from overseas.


This made Hong Kong a vibrant, international and wealthy city with a new Club scene led by Disco Disco and then Canton which attracted everyone from Kylie Minogue and Grace Jones to Nile Rogers and various musical tastemakers. 


Playing ringmaster and host was resident disc jockey Andrew Bull.


Andrew Bull

 

HARBOURFEST 



It was the age of decadence, great wealth and Miami Vice style and Hong Kong was keeping instep with the various changes taking place to be part of the new hipness. 


There were new meeting places like Manhattan, the Champagne Bar, JJs, the humongous escort clubs like the Tonnochy Ballroom, China City, Club BBoss, and the rather surprisingly short lived Hollywood East and Star East. 


More and more of us had already starting our own music with some taking the leap forward and becoming music executives and fortunate enough to work with international acts.


The SARS crisis brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2003 and it was again music that InvestHK and the government turned to as the strategy to let the world know that we were back and ready for business.



Though what was called HarbourFest certainly had its problems and different versions of Kaiser Soze hiding in the background feeding on greed, Hong Kong had the resilience to heal itself with the Rolling Stones, Prince, Santana and other big name international musicians overpaid to bring good and positive vibes to Hong Kong. 


It was a pleasant sideshow. Nothing else.





At least HarbourFest helped Hong Kong get its mojo back and on the right foot despite tripping over itself and creating its own virus of deception and greed.


Of course, everything changes because time doesn’t stop for anyone. 


Journeys are about time and taking time and making time and always remembering how something magical like music has taken us from there to here. 


This is why we need the time spent listening to music in a bottle. Or in a museum. And museums don’t have to be about what’s come before. 


Museums today can be interactive and virtual where the past is the present and how the present can be the future. 


It’s something we forget too easily and too quickly.


We might not be here, but the music will continue for generations to come- and from which they can understand and learn and create a new and better Hong Kong.


 


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