Adrian Lee is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s opinion section and the host of The Globe’s future of cities podcast, City Space.
For a surprising number of Hong Kongers of a certain age, April 1, 2003, was more momentous than July 1, 1997. Sure, 1997 may have been when the then-British colony was returned to China – a handover marked by a since-corroded promise by the Chinese Communist Party to maintain “one country, two systems” for 50 years – but six years later brought the death of Leslie Cheung, ripping out Hong Kong’s cultural soul.
Mr. Cheung was an icon: an androgynous heartthrob, a stormy leading man who won plaudits at Cannes, and a queer pioneer. But what made him famous was his Cantopop music – a syrupy style of yearning balladry sung in the Cantonese dialect spoken by the overwhelming majority in Hong Kong, and a genre that was once arguably its most significant cultural export.
When Mr. Cheung died by suicide at 46, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers attended his memorial service, even amid the raging SARS epidemic. He remains an outsize presence in the city to this day, through annual memorials and tributes: Families in Hong Kong and from its diaspora – mine included – have effectively canonized the man so beloved he was nicknamed “Older Brother,” as well as his fellow tragic figure in the Cantopop world, Anita Mui, the “Madonna of Asia” who also died young in 2003.
It is through that lens we should consider the recent arrest of Denise Ho, a Cantopop singer who was among those caught up earlier this month in yet another raid by Hong Kong police against a now-shuttered media outlet (a group that also included 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen). Ms. Ho, a Canadian citizen, is a vocal advocate of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and has suffered for it. She has been arrested before, for protesting with the 2014 Umbrella Movement and again in December; she and her music have been banned in mainland China and attacked in the state media.
Ms. Ho, like Mr. Cheung, is a gay Cantopop star; Ms. Mui, who in 1989 supported the protesters in Tiananmen Square, was Ms. Ho’s mentor. Yet her arrest has elicited only a muffled response in Hong Kong, where harsh crackdowns have quieted protests against Beijing’s national security law. The Cantopop industry, neutered by decades of plunging sales and crushed by South Korea’s massive K-pop machine as today’s defining East Asian sound, has been muted. It’s a sad state of affairs for a city that calls its Cantopop legends “gods” and “kings.”
If, as John Lennon once said, “music reflects the state that the society is in,” its fade and absence should surely refract as sharply. And so Ms. Ho’s arrest signals something deeper: the loss of a unique culture, in a place undergoing a forced identity crisis.
Historically, Cantopop’s lyrics only occasionally flick at Hong Kong politics, but it is nonetheless political. While the genre had scored hits since its creation in the 1920s, as University of Hong Kong professor Stephen Yiu-Wai Chu wrote in his book, Hong Kong Cantopop, its golden age – from the late 1970s to the 1990s – timed precisely with a period of enormous economic and political growth in Hong Kong. It was at this time that Britain started up talks with China about its lease on the caught-between colony, and when a generation of refugees escaping famine and political oppression in mainland China effectively came of age.
Amidst protests against both Communist terrorizers and the thumb of British colonialism, Hong Kong began to cohere a distinctive culture: a hybrid of Western entrepreneurialism on the world stage and Eastern ethics and tradition.
So, of course, Cantopop – a hybrid music that exploded by blending the pentatonic lilt of Chinese operas with Western soft rock and electronic instrumentation – became the era’s soundtrack. With performers such as Mr. Cheung, Beyond and Jacky Cheung flooding markets across Asia partly thanks to the then-nascent vehicle of karaoke, Cantopop joined with Hong Kong cinema to briefly displace Mandarin as the language of Chinese pop culture, even becoming dominant in mainland China, which had banned pop songs for decades but had just begun to open up to the world.
One Cantopop song, Roman Tam’s Below the Lion Rock, even became an enduring rallying cry for the city, setting out a spirit and value system around solidarity and industry that provided Hong Kongers an “American Dream” framework at a time of huge economic growth. (Today, this “Lion Rock Spirit” has been taken up by the pro-democracy movement to push against social inequity.)
Cantopop’s popularity has since collapsed – with sales falling by about 70 per cent from its heyday – and in many ways, it marginalized itself; many of the genre’s core elements failed to evolve, and it can sound schlocky or saccharine. Nostalgia for the likes of Leslie Cheung – and perhaps for the Hong Kong he represents – has in part held it back. But that still speaks to a loss of a valuable identity that was once quintessentially and confidently Hong Kong: neither British nor Chinese, simultaneously local and international.
That’s true, too, of the language that Cantopop championed. While Cantonese today has at least 80 million speakers in China, Hong Kong and the wider diaspora, Beijing proscribed Mandarin as the “basic language” by law in 2001 and has since pressed to primarily educate Hong Kong children in the dialect. Similar reforms in schools and municipal departments are even strangling Cantonese in China’s Guangdong province, where it originated, and Cantopop singers have increasingly turned back to singing in Mandarin. Now Cantonese, like Hong Kong itself, finds itself in a strange, limbic kind of palliative care: hale but unquestionably dying.
Which brings us back to Denise Ho. By leaning more explicitly into political Cantopop, she represents a potential way forward for the genre – and for that, she has been stifled by Beijing. Art needs leaders to foment and ferment it, and mainland China – which can move markets all on its own – has blocked Ms. Ho from trying. The streets in Hong Kong are empty of the protesters who defended its culture, and, indeed, the very future of protest there is murky.
So Ms. Ho’s situation is another object lesson in Beijing’s willingness to stomp out the separate system it vowed to uphold in 1997 – the smothering of a genre, a culture, a world.
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