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Shirley Wong | © Lionel Leong/Flickr
Shirley Wong | © Lionel Leong/Flickr

A Brief History of Cantopop in Hong Kong

Picture of Sally Gao
Updated: 3 April 2017

Cantopop, short for “Cantonese pop,” is a music genre originating from Hong Kong that began in the 1970s and reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the years, Cantopop has garnered fans in Taiwan, mainland China, Singapore, and among overseas Cantonese speakers. Here’s a brief history of one of Hong Kong’s most influential cultural exports.

In the first half of the 20th century, mainstream music in Hong Kong came from Cantonese opera. Modern pop music came to the city via two channels. The first of those was the arrival of Mandarin pop via Shanghainese immigrants, who left the mainland after the Communist Party took control in 1949. Shortly thereafter, pop music – especially Western pop – was deemed immoral and banned in mainland China. However, Mandarin pop and Taiwanese pop quickly found a foothold among Hong Kong’s elite.

The second major influence for Cantopop was, of course, Western pop music. As in the West, Beatlemania took hold of Hong Kong in the 60s, especially after the Beatles visited the city in 1964. Hong Kong youths voraciously consumed English-language music and rushed to form their own amateur bands.

In the 1970s, Cantopop took Hong Kong by storm, overtaking music sung in English and Mandarin. Hong Kong’s economy flourished and soon, there was a television set in every household. Local television shows were accompanied by Cantonese theme songs. One immensely popular example is The Fatal Irony (啼笑因緣), the theme song of a drama series of the same name that remains a classic to this day.

Cantopop was also broadcast on the radio. Meanwhile, the authorities in the Chinese mainland relaxed their attitude toward Western-style music, allowing Cantopop to find an audience in mainland China, in addition to Cantonese speakers living abroad.

As Hong Kong society became increasingly prosperous and stable, its local culture developed in tandem with a growing sense of local identity. Popular music and television shows addressed a range of relevant topics, including Hong Kong’s social issues, love, life and philosophy. Meanwhile, Cantopop stars such as Anita Mui, Priscilla Chan, Leslie Cheung and Alan Tam became household names.

However, after the 1990s, Cantopop began to lose its prevalent position in Hong Kong’s popular entertainment.  In 1997, record sales from Cantopop records reached HK$17 billion, but nowadays, it is less than HK$1 billion. The rise of the Internet is partly to blame, but the surging popularity of pop music from mainland China and Taiwan are the main reason that Cantopop has been pushed to the side. Compared to the wide-ranging influence it had in the past, Cantopop nowadays occupies a small niche in Hong Kong’s entertainment world.