Could Hong Kong’s Popular Culture Connect with the Global Market?

Could Hong Kong’s Popular Culture Connect with the Global Market?
Hong Kong artist Khalil Fong.
What you need to know

Whether Hong Kong has the same conditions, energy and vision to become the entertainment capital of Asia is debatable. Yet, it is worth noting that the popular cultures that are internationally successful all have very strong regional characteristics.

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When my article “If South Korea’s popular culture can do it, how about Hong Kong?” was published, many readers commented on popular cultures in East Asia, while some others criticized the piece for diminishing the popular cultures of Japan and Hong Kong. As mentioned in the previous article, this series is not aimed at labeling certain popular culture or the production model of any specific country as the best. Instead, this series is aimed at exploring Hong Kong’s possible tactics through examining the examples of Japan and South Korea.

Japan’s popular culture industry focuses on internal demand, and South Korea’s popular culture relies on export. The reason is that Japan has a population of 100 million — more than double that of South Korea’s. Back in the 70s and the 80s, Hong Kong’s entertainment industry also relied heavily on exporting, not only because the demand from overseas Chinese in the Southeast Asian region was strong, but also because Hong Kong’s market was too small to feed the entire industry.

Nowadays, South Korean popular culture has taken over. Regardless of one’s verdict on these cultural products, it might be worthwhile to reconsider their values on top of entertainment.

Popular culture as an identity builder

The most important value of popular culture is to build the identity of a country or region. It also carries a strategic value, as mentioned in the previous article. Even Japan, which focuses on internal demand more than exports, aligns with these two values. Although Japan does not have near endless cultural promotion funds like South Korea, Japan does have organizations such as the Nippon Foundation, which bridges Japan and the international market through various cultural exchange activities and media publications.

The strategic value and the export of entertainment products have a symbiotic relationship under a flexible structure. There are two possible routes: First, private organizations, such as the government or entertainment agencies, can actively promote cultural products (e.g. actors/ actresses). Second, individuals or small groups can venture out independently.

In Hong Kong, there are also entertainers who attempt to break into foreign markets. As Professor Simon Shen mentioned in an earlier article, the Hong Kong group As One (despite limited success in both Hong Kong and South Korea) would be an example of the first route. Meanwhile, Khalil Fong, who collaborated with South Korean musicians under his own music label and performed in South Korea, would be an example of the second route. Furthermore, Jackson Wang of Got7 and Elkie Chong of CLC, both of whom entered the South Korean entertainment industry through auditions, could be deemed as representing a third route.

Venturing out independently vs. collaborating with South Korean agencies

On Nov. 16, 2016, Khalil Fong attended the first Asia Artist Awards (AAA) in Seoul as an independent musician, receiving the Greater China Region New Wave award. This is one of the few instances of Hong Kong musicians being invited to a South Korean music awards ceremony.

Notably, AAA is organized by Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), one of the three main television channels in South Korea. While this ceremony is not the biggest of its kind in South Korea, and is in its first installment , SBS – as a national broadcaster – has a solid viewer base. Hence, Fong’s appearance could act as a benchmark for other Hong Kong musicians to emulate. Through AAA, Fong has an opportunity to connect with a South Korean audience, and even foreign K-Pop enthusiasts. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s media almost completely neglected the occasion, which was disappointing.

As the only representative from the Greater China Region at AAA, Fong did a solo performance in his signature black suit and sunglasses. His uncluttered performance was a stark contrast to the fancy styles of other South Korean musicians. Notably, the song Fong performed – “Flavor” – is a collaboration between Fong and South Korean musicians Crush and Zion T.

Crush mentioned in an interview that he saw Khalil Fong’s performance on TV in his early teens. He liked Fong’s music so much that he memorized Fong’s song, “This Love,” in Hangul. Later on, Crush recommended Fong’s music to Zion T., and he called collaborating with Khalil Fong “a dream.” The fact that Crush has realized his dream is exciting for music fanatics, and symbolic in cultural exchange.

After all, musicians in Hong Kong and South Korea do not collaborate that often. Nonetheless, South Korean entertainment agencies’ management of composers and singer-songwriters could prove inspirational for musicians in Hong Kong (especially now that Fong runs his own label and hopes to train new talent).

Entering the global market as an independent singer might take one further than collaborating with a South Korean entertainment agency. Khalil Fong is bringing his own work to work with musicians in South Korea, resulting in new music. This resembles how Crush fell in love with Fong’s music because of its unique fusion of American R&B and traditional Chinese music.

Mixing East and the West has always been a Hong Kong characteristic. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s popular music has run in circles over the past few decades, trying to cater to “market tastes” and that characteristic has diminished over time. Taking As One as an example: they are attempting to copy South Korean girl groups’ style to enter the South Korean market. Yet, why would K-Pop enthusiasts pay attention to As One instead of the countless “authentic” girl groups in South Korea?

Auditioning for the South Korean system

Apart from entering the South Korean entertainment system via an organization in Hong Kong (like As One) and collaborating with South Korean musicians as an independent (like Khalil Fong), entering the system as an individual is the third option. Jackson Wang, a member of South Korean boys group Got7, is a native Hong Konger and a former member of the Hong Kong Fencing Team. He was ranked number one in Asia at youth level and number 11 in the world before he joined the entertainment industry.

Got7 is managed by JYP, one of the three biggest entertainment agencies in South Korea. Got7 is fairly well-received in South Korea, Japan, the U.S., Southeast Asia and other regions. Apart from being the second South Korean group to enter the Billboard Top 100 Artists chart in the U.S., their music video amassed over 10 million views on YouTube within a week. Although the number is not nearly comparable to those of the top bands in South Korea, that number puts many Hong Kong singers to shame.

Jackson joined JYP through an audition in Hong Kong in 2010, when he was 16 years old. He was handpicked from a pool of 2,000 candidates, and later sent to South Korea to be a trainee. Jackson is the first Hong Konger who debuted through a trainee period in a South Korean entertainment agency, and also the first foreigner to host the signature music program “Inkigayo” on SBS. All this raised barely a mention in Hong Kong’s media.

In 2014, Got7 debuted in South Korea and Japan, and also toured Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, JYP sent Jackson to host various variety shows in mainland China, boosting Jackson and JYP’s popularity on the mainland. Their videos have received hundreds of millions views.

Prior to China’s imposition of sanctions on South Korea, Korean entertainment agencies would always cater for the Chinese market, not only because of its gigantic size, but because Chinese television stations offer performance fees that are 20 to 100 times that obtainable in South Korea. Hong Kong’s media and entertainment agencies would be well aware of these financial concerns. Nonetheless, in contrast with Hong Kong’s companies, JYP does not rely solely on mainland China. They don't forget the 7 billion people in the global market. On Got7’s 2016 concert tour, despite a mere 100,000 people attending, dozen countries.

As a matter of fact, South Korean entertainment companies (such as SM, JYP, YG, and CJ E&M) have branches all over the world to support their global activities. If a Hong Kong singer were to hold a concert in Southeast Asia, they might have a harder time finding a partner the South Korean companies do. Also, the strict and comprehensive training experiences offered by South Korean agencies are simply not replicated in Hong Kong.

Ironically, the South Korean entertainment mammoths tend to base their Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong (their global headquarters in Seoul). Each of these offices has 300 or more staff, proving that Hong Kong is a springboard for South Korean popular culture. While Hong Kong has the facilities to connect with the world and export popular culture as a soft power, Hong Kong’s youth can only fully realize their potential and enter the world market via South Korea. How could this not be disappointing?

Hong Kong in the eye of the overseas market

As these three systems are still in an experimental stage, and Hong Kong has no organization specialized in promoting local culture, how does the overseas market view Hong Kong?

South Korea hosts an annual Asian Music Festival, which often invites guests from Hong Kong. Singers who have been invited include Leon Lai (2004), Kelly Chen (2005, 2006), Gigi Leung (2007), Karen Mok (2008), Leo Ku (2011), G.E.M. (2013), and William Chan (2015).

Founded in Seoul in 2004, the Asian Music Festival is broadcasted in over 40 countries. In other words, millions of audiences across the globe saw William Chan, among others, representing Hong Kong. Would the audiences’ understanding of Hong Kong align with the view of Hong Kongers? If not, is there anything Hong Kong could do as a remedy?

Whether Hong Kong has the same conditions, energy and vision to become the entertainment capital of Asia is debatable. Yet, it is worth noting that the popular cultures that are internationally successful all have very strong regional characteristics. Take K-Pop and K-Drama as an example – regardless of whether you like it or not – one cannot deny their unique styles. K-Pop choruses are easy to sing along with, and the songs are sprinkled with English lyrics and performed by group dances. In dramas, there are attractive protagonists, delicate settings, and fancy costumes.

Panning back to Hong Kong, the overseas audiences of Jackie Chan’s kung-fu and Wong Kar-wai’s aesthetics are also fascinated by these characters’ Hong Kong (or Asian) characteristics. For the public, these are entertainment; for corporates, these are lucrative businesses; for the government, these could be weapons more powerful than bombs and guns.

On another note, a performers’ home base or roots lay the foundation for them to venture overseas. When Khalil Fong collaborated with South Korean musicians, they recorded in Hong Kong. As for South Korean musicians who have hundreds of overseas concerts every year, they would always hold shows in Seoul, not just the better paid foreign (e.g. Chinese) television programs. This is not only an emotional or personal attachment, but also a strategic decision to consolidate their career base.

In fact, Japanese media often report on the Japanese artists who venture overseas (such as in South Korea). Taiwanese media would also pay special attention to Chou Tzu-yu in the South Korean girls’ group Twice. Yet, Hong Kong media and audience are often shamefully cold on the overseas adventures of Hong Kong’s musicians and actors. Noticing the people who venture overseas, in order to develop a sense of belonging at home, Hong Kong, would be the first baby step Hong Kongers could take.

Showing the world an authentic Hong Kong

Although it might be hard to imagine Hong Kong’s popular culture reconquering Asia (or even Europe and the Americas) like it did in the 80s and 90s, Hong Kong still has musicians like Khalil Fong, who can blend East and the West and venture across various countries with their unique product. There are also organizations like As One’s entertainment agency, who are willing to experiment joint ventures with foreign agencies.

Regardless of the success or failure of these products, the vision of venturing outwards is the first step to finding an exit. If one has any hope in Hong Kong’s popular culture industry, one should pray that Hong Kong’s youths can leverage our “springboard” quality to show the authentic Hong Kong to the world, instead of going to South Korea and attempting to use their model.

Last but not least, if Hong Kong’s popular culture is still a knife, destroying its own characteristics and twisting itself to match the (almost non-existent) market demand is no different from turning the edge inside. Even if Hong Kong’s audience feel helpless in reverting the trends, they should still support the last remaining popular culture with Hong Kong characteristics. Otherwise, when it’s all gone, one can do nothing but mourn.

The Chinese version of this article was previously published on The Initium.

Editor: Olivia Yang