The relationship between Cantopop Music and Hong Kong



Cantonese opera music used to be the most popular form of music in Hong Kong. However, as Western cultures were introduced to the Orient, significant changes in the musical atmosphere took place in the region. The influx of Western style music and the emergence of new musical technology gave birth to a new form of pop music. Cantopop, as it came to be known, kept the literacy feature of traditional Chinese lyrics while including the western musical elements. Interestingly enough, Cantopop carries some peculiar social values that is unique to Hong Kong only, and is not found in other communities. This creative blend of music makes it worthy of study, especially the deeply rooted relationship of Cantopop in its community. This report is an attempt to examine the influence Cantopop has, not only as a form of entertainment, but also as the medium for expressing important social messages and political implications in the Hong Kong community.


The Socio-political Context of Cantopop Music

The Sino-British conflict, which became known as the “Opium War”, broke out in the year 1839 and ended in 1842 with an unfair treaty that ceded the Chinese territory of Hong Kong into British possession. Hong Kong has had significant changes in the social milieu since it becoming a British colony. The influx of British nationals and other foreigners to the tiny peninsula engendered the rise of many western cultures, such as music and entertainment, which were well received by the Hong Kong people and adapted to form their unique blend of art and culture in the later part of the colonial period.

  Despite the influx of foreigners stimulated by the economic prosperity in the post-war period, Hong Kong still remained distinctly Chinese with a 98% yellow-skinned population that is mainly made up by indigenous Hong Kong people, and Cantonese that emigrated from Mainland China. In the 70s and 80s, there was a surge in the number of Mainland migrants, the main ‘push-pull factor’ were the introduction of the “Touch Base Policy”, a migration-favoring policy, and the high demand for labor from the developing textile and manufacturing industries. The new Cantonese migrants coupled with local native workers formed the ‘blue collar’ social class of Hong Kong. They constituted a large portion of society and were the ‘grass-root’ foundation. The hardship endured by the grass roots inspired and laid the seeds for the blossoming of Cantonese Pop music in the 70s and 80s. Many songs were written to encourage people to stay strong, and also to express the resentment against social unfairness, and the widening of the social gap. 

   The late 80s and 90s enjoyed the success brought about from the earlier hard work of that generation and continued to boom with expanded property markets, and the mainstream music in this period were mostly adapted from Japanese and Korean pop songs with Cantonese lyrics reflecting the interaction and prosperous climate enjoyed in whole region.

In the new millennium, Cantopop music has come to a turning point in its history. The manufacturing industries shifted to Mainland China, and were gradually superceded by the service industry, which set Hong Kong up to be one of the financial centers in the world. While the musical demand from workers began to shrink, the needs from another group of patronages began to take shape. An army of teenagers that tended to materialistic satisfaction has become the new target and driving force of the mainstream music market. As soon as the entertainment industry saw this changing trend and realized that it could be a golden business opportunity, they repackaged the music and singers, into ‘songs and idols’, as lucrative commodities and created a new fad of Cantopop. The highly commercialized repertoires lacked deep meaning and inspiration in comparison to the work created in the era of hardship. It was mainly love theme related which is abstract. As love songs full of cloying sentiment spawned all over, the archetype of Cantopop began to fade out.


Characteristics of Cantopops

Early Cantopop was developed from Cantonese Opera music hybridized with western pop music. The musicians gave up using traditional Chinese musical instruments, like Zheng and Erhu fiddle, and switched to western musical outfits. Cantopop songs were usually sung by one singer, sometimes with a band, accompanied by piano, synthesizer, drum set, guitar, and bass guitar. They are composed under the ‘chorus and versus’ basis and adapts the monophonic format. The musical style of Cantopop varies a lot from artist to artist, for example some artists use guitars and shout in fast tempo, while some prefer graceful tempo and sing softly. For this reason, it is not wise to draw a quick conclusion about the musical features from just analyzing a few pieces from songs. So we now return to a basic question, what defines Cantopop? Cantopop can be generally defined as a music type with lyrics that are written in Chinese (either colloquial or classical) and sung in Cantonese accompanied by western musical instruments.

Actually, the essence of Cantopop does not lay in the music, but in its lyrics. There are two types of lyrics written by songwriters. The first type is the poetic lyrics written in literary or classical Chinese. The formation of lyrics of this type was influenced by the classical Chinese lyrics in traditional Cantonese opera. Songs with literary Chinese were usually used as the theme songs for TV shows about ancient China. The second type is less formal and the lyrics written in colloquial Cantonese, usually for the TV shows filmed under modern contexts.

Starting from the 90s, musicians began to introduce Japanese pop music to Hong Kong market by rewriting the lyrics with Chinese. In recent years, the same phenomenon is witnessed for Korean pop music. However, the hybrids were still considered as Cantonese songs because its lyrics are re-written in Cantonese. Songs like “Love you a bit more everyday” sung by Jackie Cheng and “Can’t afford” by Jade Kwan were originally composed in Japan and Korea, but they enjoyed huge successes in Hong Kong after their adaptation.

Regardless of which type of lyrics is used, Cantopop songs share an overriding theme or a common characteristic, an ‘end rhyme. Almost every last word of a phrase is rhymed. The first few phrases of the song “Impression” by Samuel Hui exemplify this feature. (see the extract below). The last word of every phrase ended with the sound ‘–oeng’. The song sounds more acoustically pleasant when it is incorporated with these rhymed lyrics.


“Impression” (in Cantonese phonetic symbols), by Samuel Hui

Soei ling ngo dong maan goei zi sat soeng

Nab zi gam mong gwan nei nang gin joeng

Daan gok maan fan gan zoeng

Gaai jan gan nei jyu soeng


Important Musicians and Their Contributions

James Wong (1941-2004), who is considered as one of the most talented contemporary musicians in Hong Kong, pioneered the early development of Cantopop, and shaped the prototype of this music in the 70s. His work, encompassing “Beneath the Lion Rock”, showed his sympathy for the underprivileged and sums up his encouragement to the Hong Kong people. His songs and style were influential to other Cantopop songwriters. Samuel Hui, a singer songwriter, known in every household for his distinctive colloquial songs that expressed the resentment felt by blue collar workers in the 70-80s. In the 90s, Beyond (a band) was probably the last group that created songs with deep meanings, such as “Mama, I love you” (A paean of praise for all mothers), “Transcending boundaries” (A song which expressed the yearning for the freedom of life)(Press here to see Appendix 2A.), before the spiritual Cantopop music fell into decay, and commercialized repertoires took over the music trends in the market. Other songwriters such as Joseph Gu Ga Fai and ‘Tak Ming’ Pair also created representative pieces partnering with Wong and Hui and riding with their success.


The Role of Cantopop in Hong Kong

The earlier pieces of Cantopop reflected the maturity of the growing Hong Kong society into a modern metropolis undergoing dramatic changes that eventually reaped success. The Hong Kong philosophy that ‘hard work will reap success’ became the driving force for its transforming from a small fishing village to a manufacturing focal point.

Although Hong Kong started to enjoy prosperity, many people were still left behind and out of bounds of normal rights. Samuel Hui, people honored him as “The God of Song”, sprang up at that time with his sarcastic songs that were sympathetic to the underprivileged whilst complaining about the injustices of the world. His work was strongly bound with social affairs because his song themes addresses problems, like the shortage of water supply and the resentment of workers.

While Cantopop is well-known for its satirical social messages, it is also relaxing, and caters for families too. Cantopop songs are primarily transmitted through TV. They can always be heard at the beginning and the end of TV shows, which accompanies Hong Kong peoples’ lives every night. A popular lifetime TV show, “Enjoy Yourself Tonight”, which brought happiness to Hong Kong families through Cantopop music and comic dramas, had a song entitled “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” ( Press here to see Appendix 2.B), as it is played at the end of every show to sing goodnight to the Hong Kong families. This song has been sung for more than twenty years to energize the Hong Kong people who have labored and contributed fully to the community on a daily basis. Hong Kong people, especially the older generation, recognized it as one of the emblematic songs of Hong Kong’s unison. 

 Not only were there social messages, Cantopop songs’ lyrics were often used by politicians as a tool to deliver messages of encouragement and well wishes. The lyrics were quoted by celebrities in public speeches or interviews. The quotation by the former financial Secretary of Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Antony Leung, demonstrated the effects of how Cantopop music performs its political function. He cited the lyrics from the song “Beneath the Lion Rock” in his speech of annual financial report to encourage Hong Kong people to stay united and strong in the adversities after the Asian financial turmoil. (Press here to see Appendix 1).

  In recent years, the role of Cantopop in Hong Kong community has changed. The songs no longer reflected the disadvantaged. They overwhelmingly depict love stories, which are full of weak sentiments. The social and political importance of Cantopop was undermined by the proliferation of love songs across Hong Kong. However, this type of songs brought young people to a new era of entertainment ever since karaoke was introduced to Hong Kong.


The Role of Canton-Pop in Individual (or My )Life

The Japanese modern music culture, mainly Karaoke, has deeply rooted in our everyday lives. The introduction of Karaoke was conducive to the formation of functions of Cantopop music in the community. Since the new millennium, singing Cantopop has become the most preferred choice of entertainment for Hong Kong youngsters and for the “white collar” class. Although karaoke originated from Japan, singing Cantopop in karaoke boxes is ubiquitous in Hong Kong. We sing Cantopop to vent our bad feelings, to release our tension from work and other aspects of life, and to divert ourselves in special occasions. They are the general effects of Cantopop that influence individual lives.


Personally, Cantopop gives me identity and vice versa, I can say, my identity is ascertained by the music. The music defines my identity as a member of the Hong Kong community in two ways. Firstly, it is an important topic of conversation within the ethnic peer groups. Since most Hong Kong young people listen to Cantopop, it is an important topic when I converse with my friends. My friends and I would discuss the lyrics and songs as a past time. I find myself more involved in the circle when we talk about the issues found in the songs. As I grew, Cantopop has become an indispensable element of my social life. Almost every time I had reunions with my friends, we sang Cantopop in karaoke boxes. Secondly, it is a reminder of my daily life. In Hong Kong, listening to Cantopop seems to be a daily routine. When I was small, I used to watch TV shows with Cantopop theme songs. When the theme song of my favorite TV show was broadcasted, I would drop all my work and run to the living room to enjoy it. The song implicitly reminded me what time of day it was. For instance, I recognize that it is dinner time when I hear the theme song of “The tale of Twin Dragons”, which is always aired at 8 pm. The fact that only Hong Kong people follow this pattern of life distinguishes me as a true “Hongkonger”,

Through the above activities, Cantopop defines my identity as a member or youngster of the Hong Kong community.



In summary, Cantopop music reflected the prosperity and adversities faced in the Hong Kong society. The music is a modernized and westernized version of Chinese traditional music. In spite of the cultural assimilation brought about from the Western world, the oriental spirit was still preserved and survives in the local music today. In the music, you will discover that Hong Kong people inherited a strong sense of nationalism, racial cohesion, and the sympathy for the underprivileged endured by the older generation. From the content of the songs and the roles it played in Hong Kong peoples’ lives between the 70s and 90s, Cantopop served as a medium for the dissemination of social and political messages in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the commercialization of the Cantopop music has raised other issues that challenge its future, for instance, will Cantopop finally lose its social values continuing in this current trend?; and will this decay cause structural changes within society?. It is hard to say at this present time, history shall be the judge.



Materials Referred

1. In Memory of James Wong (Chinese Website)

2. The Rise and Decline of Cantopop: A Study of Hong Kong Pop Music (Excerpt) (Chinese Website)

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