Why Canto Pop needs a facelift

by Hans Ebert

Maybe now that Hong Kong has reached a point in its history where no one knows where it’s heading and what its future might be, these surreal times might just inspire someone to finally write a really REALLY good song about this city that’s always lived on borrowed time.


It’s always struck me as, er, odd that in a city, where so many who profess to be musicians, and with some believing they occupy some rarefied space in the lifeblood of this city, how there might be some good copyists, but, wherefore art thou, the creators?


This is not to say there aren’t some very good young Made In Hong Kong talent. They can be seen busking all over this city.




Others are probably hiding away in their home recording studios somewhere in Tuen Mun or Wong Tai Sin making brilliant new music. Who’s to know?


How can this new generation of local musicians make themselves heard, AND be accepted, especially if offering up something different to what’s come before on those tedious and dubious HKTVB Awards shows?



Would these new musicians need to “comply” with Les Predictables before being given a platform to let young music fans decide for themselves- young being the operative word?


Front and centre for the past 20-30 years, at least when it comes to Western music, are the usual now middle aged suspects one has heard over and over again at places like Grappas, Peel Fresco or hotel lounges where things never veer from another round of covers.


As for original material, let alone a song about Hong Kong, there’s mainly been a roaring silence.

As some will know all too well- and why it happened- Western music in this city was pretty much driven “underground”.


This was when there was a very much focused business objective in the Nineties to promote Canto Pop across all mediums by those who came to control it.


These “lobans”- big bosses- made billions out of Canto Pop before cashing in and bailing out when the Independent Commission Against Corruption got too close to the truth. Others were extremely fortunate to have a Get Out Of Jail Free card.



It was during these days that the future of Hong Kong music was well and truly signed, sealed and stuffed.

As time progressed as did the city, the music moved into the karaoke world where one only sings the old hits. This is where it’s been allowed to stay.


It’s mind boggling that the only “Hong Kong” song one can recall is the kitschy “Kowloon Hong Kong” written in the Sixties by Vic Cristobal and recorded by a Filipina quartet known as the Reynettes. But this odd ode to colonial Hong Kong with lines like “Come here, come here, rickshaw boy”, are a million miles away from what this city was and where it’s at today.



Where IS Hong Kong today? Probably somewhere between the Tai Po marshes and searching for an identity.

Maybe- just maybe- a really really REALLY good song might help lighten the load?

Why not try without only being bloody trying?


Of course, many have written songs about Hong Kong, but none of these have ever really gone anywhere. Not that I recall, anyway.


During the SARS crisis and when at EMI’s Regional office, Norman Cheng and I thought it would be a good idea to ask entertainer Danny Diaz to record one of his originals.


Called “Hong Kong”, and recorded in English at the old Schtung Studios, it was a nice enough track and immediately dumped onto a compilation CD given away for free during what turned out to be the farcical Harbourfest extravagozola. Let’s not go there.


Before that, there had been the jaunty commercial Canto Pop of Sam Hui, which, much too quickly, morphed into the bloated ballads of people like “The Four Heavenly Kings”.



Though Hui’s songs were at least a clever and fun musical commentary on life in the city at that time, there’s not been a squeak about Hong Kong in song.

Hell, even Bangkok has a song written about one night in the city.


My love ballad to lap sap, which was actually an advertising jingle for the Government Information Services about “Pitching In” to keep Hong Kong clean, is best left alone though friends mention what a “big hit” it was. Where? Mongkok?


With Ben Semmens, we wrote “Home”, which was meant to be about this city, but suddenly took a left turn and ended up being about a girlfriend.


Kat Coetzee and I recorded a song called “Hong Kong” around five years ago, but that’s best left wherever it rests today on life support.


If there’s to be a song about Hong Kong today, what could it be about?


There’s already been a “Puppet On A String”, so there goes an idea for a song about Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam.


The brainiacs at the Hong Kong Tourism Board are no doubt looking at the currently extremely popular local Canto Pop boyband Mirror to come up with a ditty, if and when there’s something here to see tourism return.



If this were to happen, what are the odds that it would be something very commercial- absolutely nothing wrong with this- but with more than a hint of Nineties deja-vu?


With it, no doubt would be an accompanying video featuring Mirror and the usual bunch of Yesterday’s People giving the ‘V’ sign while holding hands and swaying to the music.


Would this help elevate the mood of Hong Kong 2021?


What exactly have most Canto Pop recordings ever been, anyway, other than various derivative versions of the Eagles’ hit “Desperado”?


The other question is whether Hong Kong audiences would accept anything else other than Nineties Canto Pop?

Perhaps they have been bludgeoned into submission by the Canto Pop machinery for so many decades that the indoctrination process is complete?


Recently came news of some familiar names to do with the Hong Kong music industry and now living in Vancouver banding together to create a different variation of Canto Pop which has already been dubbed #Vantopop. At least they’re trying to do something new.


#Vantopop 可以係個新概念、亦都係一個行動。由幾個溫哥華香港音樂人發起,喺當地製作廣東歌。期待其他散落於世界各地擁有共同語言文化嘅人,一同以各種形式延續 Cantopop 嘅故事。


#Vantopop is a brand new concept and movement. It was established by a group of Hong Kong music producers in Vancouver for the purpose of creating a local industry for Cantopop. No matter where we all may reside, we hope to inspire other diaspora with this shared language and culture to continue the next chapter of Cantopop”.


What about musicians in Hong Kong- those involved in producing popular music in Cantonese?


Is it going to be more of what was churned out in the Nineties and have overstayed their welcome?


Or is someone finally going to use these days and nights when there’s nothing much happening to make something that’s musically freshly baked, take this out of the oven, give it a new name and feed it to the forty thousand along with the rest of the seven million people in Hong Kong?


Let’s hope so.


#CantoPop #hongkong #SamHui #corruption #bigbosses #fourheavenlykings #mirror #vancopop #westernmusic #music #madeinhk #creativity


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