Can Cantopop Make a Comeback?

Can Cantopop Make a Comeback?
REUTERS/Barry Huang

What you need to know

'Cantopop culture is a very important part of Hong Kong identity. Over the past few years the so-called 'local conscious' has risen, but Cantopop has been in decline.'

Hong Kong’s iconic rock ballad “Under the Vast Sky” rang out among the yellow umbrellas and bleary-eyed protesters of 2014’s historic Occupy movement. But the beloved classic by Beyond belongs to a music genre and cultural trajectory that is fading from view.

Various factors have been attributed to this slow death of a once wildly popular cultural product that filled concert halls and stadiums in China as in Hong Kong.

Some experts cite dwindling resources in an industry hit by the rise of streaming and illegal downloading, others diversifying and increasingly global tastes. And others cite widespread apathy towards local products and identity.

“In the 90s, Cantopop was the trendsetter. Albums by the 'four heavenly kings,' Hong Kong’s biggest superstars (Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok), sold millions,” said Professor Stephen Chu, a Hong Kong music academic.

“Now, most of my students don’t listen to Cantopop; they say it’s outdated, they don’t think it’s trendy and they prefer Kpop and Mandopop. In my opinion, this is due to the demise of production and the fact that Cantopop is associated with old-fashioned love ballads”.

While Chu cites concerns that Cantopop is considered outdated, others in the music industry believe that Hongkongers simply have a greater access to more diverse strains of music. Jazz, indie, metal and electronic acts are all garnering appeal in Hong Kong as tastes diversify in our world of increasingly porous borders.

“I wouldn’t say that Cantopop is dead or dying - it’s such an established machine it’s going to be around for a long time,” says one local jazz musician. “But now people are more open to new styles, probably because of the internet and accessibility. It’s a lot easier to access different genres.”

But Chu is concerned by the implications surrounding the extent to which the Cantopop market has shrunk since its heyday in the 80s and 90s. Part of this, he says, means the industry has had to make cuts that drive down the quality of the music, turning more off the genre which is increasingly felt to lack diversity and sophistication.

“Some of my friends, who are in their 40s and 50s, don’t listen to Cantopop. They think there’s no choice except romantic ballads,” says Chu. “There’s more, but audiences aren’t willing to listen. Some producers having been trying high-quality production, but there isn’t a market for this.”

Chu says he had hoped this demise would be offset by the rise of bedroom music producers using laptops who can drive more underappreciated genres forward. Underground genres and innovators worldwide, otherwise suffering the hit of dwindling album sales, have prevailed in other ways thanks to the internet.

“I thought at one point that Cantopop would rise again through new media since anyone can produce a Cantopop song on their laptop. But that hasn’t really happened.”

Chu’s concern for the dwindling interest in the genre extents to a concern surrounding Hong Kong’s cultural identity, shared by many academics and Cantonese culture experts.

“Cantopop culture is a very important part of Hong Kong identity. Over the past few years the so-called 'local conscious' has risen, but Cantopop has been in decline and I believe this will have a negative effect on our cultural identity,” he said.

Editor: Edward White