The Teen Girls Trying to Make It in Hong Kong's 'Cantopop' Music Industry

In the 1980s, women hoping to succeed in the tiny, but thriving Cantonese pop music industry had legitimate hopes of a rags-to-riches fairytale. Today, that career is basically off limits to anyone who isn't wealthy.

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Sep 6 2016, 2:30pm

The Cantopop star G.E.M. Screengrab via YouTube

At Warner Music, one of the biggest music production companies in Hong Kong, many aspiring Cantonese pop singers in the city begin their careers. But for nearly all of the wannabe starlets who'll start out here, this office is, more often than not, the end of the road, too.

"You really only discover talent once every ten years," says Schumann Lee, who's been producing Hong Kong's for more than 20 years. We're sitting at a long wooden table on the top floor of the glittering glass YHC Tower in industrial East Kowloon with Randy Chow, one of the city's hottest up-and-coming producers, and Robin Ch'i, Warner's local A&R—arts & repertoire—manager, who finds its music talent.

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"Now, young artists have [distractions like] Pokémon Go and say, 'Come on, let's catch it.' It's much harder for them to [focus on] one thing, like music," Lee says.

Cantopop music by nature is lovey-dovey and emotional, and the lyrics tend to be sad. "The true Cantopop songs are karaoke love songs," says Ch'i. While this hasn't changed at all over the years, the profile of the female Cantopop artist has shifted dramatically.

Cantopop first hit its stride in the 1980s, and pop stars mostly came from poor family backgrounds, Lee tells me. They would perform in public, like in the busy, neon-soaked Mong Kok neighborhood, or at bars and nightclubs. Sometimes, they'd be discovered.

Anita Mui was one of these girls. Arguably one of the biggest Cantopop stars of all times, she's immortalized in a bronze statue overlooking Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. When she passed away of cancer in 2003, the city collectively mourned her death. Mui was a real, relatable girl: She grew up without a father, dropped out of school, and had to provide for her family from early on. And her on-stage style was revolutionary: She brought flamboyant, outrageous costumes to the stage in Hong Kong. When she toured the UK, she was dubbed "the Madonna of Asia."

But Hong Kong's music scene soon moved away from the days of singers like Anita Mui pulling themselves up from their bootstraps. Now, girls who try and break into the industry have mostly lived abroad and come from wealthy families; they tend to be just returning from the West and attending expensive international high schools in Hong Kong. "They think they have talents that their friends don't have," Ch'i says. These girls tend to be around 16 or 17 years old, and I can't meet any of them because of their busy, intense schedules—they're booked up for months. (It's clear from my meeting with these talent makers in Hong Kong that the industry mostly operates on hard gender lines: men molding the female talent.)

The bronze statue of Anita Mui on Hong Kong's Avenue of the Stars. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This new crop of young girls has created an interesting, if complex, problem for Cantopop producers: Right now, Warner Music doesn't have many Chinese girls on contract who can read Chinese characters. In fact, only two out of their six female artists can.

"They can speak Cantonese," Lee says. "They just can't read it."

To get the girls through the process of reading sheet music to Chinese songs, producers like Lee and Chow have them read phonetics instead of the characters themselves. On a basic level, then, these girls don't know what they're singing—other than sounds from letters. And because Cantonese words are so linguistically and tonally complex—more so than Mandarin—this can often become a complicated stumble in the studio.

"We explain [the lyrics] to them word by word, line by line, and give them a back story about everything that happened in the song. Phonetically, they write down their own syllables and then ask, 'What does this line mean?' and you tell them, and they'll digest it and try to sing it," says Ch'i.

"It's one of the weirdest things in the world," Chow adds. "Every lyric, every word—to me, there's a color to it—it has meaning. But when you don't understand it, then you can't bring that color to the voice, and that's the challenge for me."

I don't think I consider any new-generation Cantopop singers as having made it.

With the amount of training required, it's no surprise that these girls, living from coast to coast through their formative years, are coming into the industry from money—now, they need it. In space-hungry Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, there are only a couple of music studios—and they're expensive. The studios themselves are struggling to pay rent.

"The first three-to-five years of a girl's singing life, she's not making any income," says Chow. "So it's switched to wealthier girls. Their first hit songs are just to pay off their debt." Ch'i says that none of the three have encountered a truly "local" girl come through Warner.

By far, the millennium's most successful Cantopop star today is G.E.M., who was at the right place at the right time when she was discovered on stage. She had all the right ingredients that would make her the perfect Chinese pop star: She's a Shanghainese girl—so she was born on the Mandarin-speaking Chinese mainland—raised in Hong Kong, and she was exposed to the West early on. Able to switch fluidly between Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, her charm literally translates; she's won over audiences from Hong Kong to the sprawling Chinese mainland—and now, even stateside, where she's the talk of Chinatowns from Boston to San Francisco.

G.E.M.—or Gloria Tang—got started professionally singing as a teenager in Hong Kong but later was discovered during a televised singing competition on the Chinese mainland. Now 25, she's a bit different than today's girls at Warner. She didn't attend a fancy international school in Hong Kong—and most notably, she can read Chinese.

The pop star G.E.M. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

G.E.M. started her career at Hummingbird Music in Hong Kong—and she is its only significant artist—but the likelihood of another G.E.M. coming out of Hong Kong anytime soon is probably slim. "There's a large Cantonese-speaking audience, but the trend's not there at the moment," Ch'i says. Cantopop stars these days aren't seeing much success outside of the city—despite dreams of stardom in Australia, Canada, and the US, which all have large Cantonese-speaking communities.

"I don't think I consider any new-generation Cantopop singers as having made it," says Ch'i. "I'd probably say Janice [Vidal], but she's not new—she's been around ten years. In the past five years, I can't name any females that have made it."

Ch'i also points out that G.E.M. herself didn't even technically make it as a Cantopop star. Although she came out of a Hong Kong production company, she wasn't thrust into fame until she started singing in Mandarin for an audience on the Chinese mainland.

One of the hardest things for Warner's Cantopop talent makers is watching these young girls fail—especially when they're hardworking and good at their craft. "It's devastating," says Chow. The market just isn't big enough for many Cantonese signers—and Hong Kong, with its outrageously expensive overhead, is a tough place to make it as a dreamer.

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There's still an alternative, though, for artists who want to find their niche singing in Cantonese, steps down from stardom. There's a rather unusual local appetite for music called the "hi-fi market." It's chill, has very low instrumentation, and tends to feature a lot of breathing. Hi-fi, in Hong Kong, still sells.

Bianca Wu, who sings slow, jazzy Cantonese-language covers of classic tunes, heavily produced in-studio, is one of the most successful hi-fi artists in the city. In some ways, she's broken the mold by moving into hi-fi in her 30s—most hi-fi artists are much older. "Hi-fi artists tend to be mature women singing covers, but she's younger and better looking," Lee says. Wu's just been in New York recording a new album with LMC, a Hong Kong label.

Both Wu and another famous hi-fi singer, Susan Wong, started off as front-line Cantopop singers before moving into the more relaxed hi-fi market. "Most Cantopop artists will fail, to be honest," says Lee. "The Hong Kong solution—and it's not something you can do in the US—if the artist can sing, but they're going downhill, is resorting to a hi-fi audio release. If I have to do it, I have to do it." For Lee, this is the last resort to save an artist.

Ch'i says it's tougher for a Cantopop girl to make it in Hong Kong, regardless of her talent as a singer, than it would be for a girl in America or anywhere else in the West. In addition to their music careers, Cantopop singers in Hong Kong are expected to act, appear on game shows, model, and more. "Justin Timberlake wanting to act is a hobby," he says. In Asia, Lee says, music artists to have to do "the three big things—film, TV, and music."

Everything foreign is good, but everything local they criticize first before they can see any good in it.

The Cantopop industry has another hurdle to overcome when it comes to staying afloat: the Mandarin pop industry. Mainland China is working up momentum, but it churns out its own singing starlets in droves. Lee and Chow say that while the industry's infrastructure on the mainland is still poor, it's getting closer to a place where it can begin to thrive.

This also means that when girls fail at making it as Cantopop stars, they often try to find success in mainland China, where they can join the cast of a second-rate television drama. "Because we're so close to China, everything is going up north," Chow says. Lee says that if a girl is good-looking and she's failed in Hong Kong, she tends to find her way to the Chinese mainland. "It's better to have money there than to be a singer here," Lee says.

Adding insult to injury, in Hong Kong, the Cantopop industry faces an uphill battle culturally. Because of the city's British colonial past, people there tend to idolize anything that's foreign, and cast away what's domestically produced. Hong Kong's local industry is losing out not only to mainland China's growing music scene, but also K-Pop—South Korea's tourism bureau is investing heavily in promoting the music overseas—and popular songs coming in from Japan.

"Cantonese listeners are much more critical of Cantonese music, and they just criticize and criticize—it's very Hong Kong," Ch'i says. "Everything foreign is good, but everything local they criticize first before they can see any good in it."