Music Below the Lion Rock
Social and Political Life in Hong Kong through the Lens of Transnational Cantopop, 1964–2004
Produced and aimed primarily for mass consumption in Hong Kong, Cantopop — a contraction of “Cantonese popular music” — has been indispensable to social and political life in the global metropolis often described to be where “East meets West.” Yet given its important role in shaping and consolidating the unique “Hong Konger” identity, Cantopop, not unlike other forms of culture, is strangely absent in most historical narratives of Hong Kong. In this interdisciplinary study of how four decades of transformation in Hong Kong had been reflected by the origin and evolution of Cantopop, I specifically examine the ways in which it, although primarily produced and consumed locally, had been shaped by a range of global forces and music styles from around the world, while simultaneously impacting an audience beyond the boundaries of the locality.
I take the Beatles’ tour to the colony in June 1964 as a point of departure and trace the impact of the British Invasion in inspiring the first generation of young musicians to play rock and roll, although initially only in English. This was changed by the rise of television coupled with the colonial administration’s policies to foster a sense of belonging among local residents in response to the Leftist Riots of 1967, elevating the status of the common language. The music scene was thereby encouraged to shift toward Cantonese beginning in 1972 and continuing throughout the rest of the decade. Popular songs during this time tended to reflect grassroots problems in everyday life.
I then analyze the role of Hong Kong’s East Asian neighbors, especially Taiwan and Japan, in influencing mainstream Cantopop in the 1980s. Simultaneously, a Cantorock movement was on the rise since 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed to affirm the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in thirteen years to communist China. Globally, popular music and humanitarianism became closely intertwined when supergroup singles (i.e. “We Are the World”) and benefit concerts (i.e. Live Aid) were proven to be effective methods of protest in the midst of the Ethiopian Famine. I argue that the combination of these local, national, and global factors contributed to inspiring “All for Freedom” and the outdoor Concert for Democracy in China in May 1989 that aimed to raise awareness and funds among Hong Kongers for the then-ongoing Tiananmen Square student protests in Beijing.
Moving on to the heydays of the 1990s, I detail the rise of the Four Heavenly Kings — Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai, and Andy Lau — and examine their unprecedented success not only in Hong Kong, but also regionally and globally. Ironically, in response to such reasons as the rise of the karaoke culture and restrictions of the rapidly expanding Chinese markets, their songs were, unlike those of earlier decades, often dumbed down to repetitive romantic ballads and catchy dance anthems that lacked deeper meaning. I finally conclude with an intervention in the ongoing debate on whether Cantopop has declined in the 21st century, suggesting in the epilogue on the troubled year of 2003 that music was actually crucial in reviving the “Hong Konger” identity in times of crisis.
Supervised by David Ludden and Thomas Looser, this project was proudly named the N.Y.U. Best History Honors Thesis of 2016. In addition, I received the Helen M. Jones Prize in History, granted annually to the senior who has attained the best year-long record and most outstanding achievement in the history honors seminar course. The bulk of my research has been done over the Christmas break of 2015–16, during which I returned to Hong Kong for a month and visited several libraries and archival collections there. This trip was made possible by a grant from the N.Y.U. Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund. The abstract of the thesis is on pages 28–29 of Inquiry: A Journal of Undergraduate Research 20 (2016), a journal published by N.Y.U.’s College of Arts and Science.