Living in Hong Kong, you are bound to have come across Cantopop, whether you grew up with it or if you have overheard snippets from the radio. The genre became associated with local popular music in the 1970s and reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s, with Western influences and inclusions in soundtracks from the booming Hong Kong film industry.
If some names in this list sound familiar, it might be because you have read about them in our iconic actors round-up, as it was popular for stars from days past to make the leap onto the silver screen. Here is a list of some of the most iconic Cantopop stars from the golden age of the genre, with song recommendations in one handy playlist at the very end.
Roman Tam—or “Law Man” (羅文)—as he’s more commonly known, is truly the undisputed “Grand Godfather of Cantopop.” His illustrious career began in 1962 when he immigrated to Hong Kong from Guangzhou for better opportunities after being rejected by a Cantonese opera academy. Before breaking into Cantopop, Roman Tam was first in an English band with his friends, then a Mandarin duo with the iconic Lydia Shum.
Tam then signed with a Japanese label and became the first non-Japanese singer to win the All Japan Kayo Championship, a televised singing competition which finally lead him back to Hong Kong, when he was invited to record the Cantonese theme song to TVB’s broadcast of the hit Japanese show Brighter Futures in 1976. The popularity of the show and the theme song was the boost needed to jumpstart his legendary career, where Tam went from singing an abundance of wildly popular TV show theme tunes to becoming the first Chinese person to perform in Royal Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, and O’Keefe Center.
Passion for global music was what created his unique sound; Tam fused his background in Cantonese opera with genres like jazz and big band and used that same background to magnify the hyper-clear enunciation of his tones and voice. He was also an avant-garde fashionista, who exuded charismatic androgyny in his flamboyant get-ups, aesthetic-forward album art, and an open-mindedness that was not common in his time. He was the first performer to dress and perform in drag and to pose naked for photoshoots.
Considered Hong Kong’s first original superstar, Law Man produced over 50 albums in three decades. After his retirement in 1996, he dedicated his time to training famous singers like Joey Yung, Ekin Cheng, Shirley Kwan, and Hins Cheung. He also did charity work, and his generosity in both his public and private life made him a beloved figure in Hong Kong. His death in 2002 caused reverberating mourning both in the music industry and Hongkongers of all ages. He is credited as a pioneer of Cantonese music and an inspiration to many performing artists.
Known as the “God of Songs,” Sam Hui Koon-kit was credited with popularising Cantopop with his 1974 album Games Gamblers Play, which was also the soundtrack to a film of the same name. He first performed popular English songs during his time as a TVB youth music television show host, but graduated to becoming a prolific singer-songwriter.
Hui preferred to write in vernacular Cantonese rather than standard written Chinese. Having grown up in working-class Diamond Hill as a refugee from China, he was not afraid to use his voice to humorously satirise the concerns of working-class Hongkongers of the time. His relatability earned him the affectionate nickname “Brother Sam.”
He’s also known for his flamboyant biker-style way of dress and guitar skills, as well as artful use of the Cantonese language to deliver philosophical messages. Hui retired in the 1990s, but has made appearances in several comeback concerts, most notably in 2004 when he paid tribute to his close friends Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui.
George Lam is a veteran Cantonese artist who played a part in shaping the landscape of the genre. He grew up exposed to western cinema and music by his family, and was also educated overseas, which influenced his music.
“Ah Lam,” as he is known colloquially, taught himself how to play the guitar, as well as how to write and produce his own music. Not only is his vocal range wide and hard to imitate, but so is his style of composition: His discography encompasses differing genres, from powerful rock ballads to soulful jazzy tunes. He successfully transitioned into becoming a singer with the release of Disco Bumpkins in 1980, his first hit album that included a range of influences from Euro-disco to folk music. While his performance on Disco Bumpkins was criticised as being “too Western,” the album solidified his musical style and status as a Cantopop legend.
Lam also pioneered the Cantopop medley in 1985 when he was frustrated with how he would not be able to cover all of his favourite hits from the 1980s. His 10-minute-long track “10 Songs 12 Inches” became an instant hit, and included songs like “Monica” by Leslie Cheung and “200 Degrees” by Sally Yeh (who later became his wife).
Lam’s signature bushy moustache has been with him for as long as he has been popular, and he still releases music to this day, though mostly writing songs for other artists.
Danny Chan Pak-keung was one of those stars that just possessed a certain magnetism. He has had a passion and talent for music since a young age, teaching himself how to sing and play the piano despite not being able to read sheet music. His father, an avid Cantonese opera enthusiast, took notice of this interest and sent him to California to pursue his musical education, where Chan produced several songs like “Rocky Road” and “Sunrise,” which led to him being noticed by the entertainment industry in Hong Kong.
At the age of 21, Chan signed on with EMI Group, and his career only went up from there. The release of his bilingual debut album First Love made him an instant household name, selling out not just once, but 10 times. It was common practice back then to rewrite Japanese pop songs into Cantonese, but Chan decided to pursue his own style of music, incorporating elements of Cantonese opera, Western pop, and traditional Cantonese folk songs into his music.
His polished and pretty appearances on stage, as well as on films and television shows, also garnered him a massive youth following—by the mid-1980s it seemed like Chan could not fall from grace. However as his popularity began to be overtaken by stars like Leslie Cheung, he fell into a deep depression and his musical output began to suffer as well. Chan was taken from the world too soon, dying of brain failure after he was found unconscious in his apartment during the low point of his career.
Possibly the most prominent Cantopop star there ever was, Leslie Cheung is a legend. Now considered one of the “Founding Fathers of Cantopop,” Leslie was a singer and an actor who not only swept the world, by storm with his iconic music and dedication to his roles. He was posthumously voted the third “Most Iconic Musician of All Time” in a poll held by CNN, where he received over 100,000 votes, only ranking below Michael Jackson and The Beatles.
It wasn’t always just glitz and glamour for Cheung. After signing with Polydor in 1977, his albums and performances were massive flops, and he briefly took a hiatus before joining Capital Artists in 1982, which lead to the release of his breakout album Wind Blows On. Two years later, he remade a hit Japanese song “Monica,” which became the best-selling single in Hong Kong history, bringing him head-to-head with another superstar at the time, Alan Tam.
He had one advantage over Tam though: Cheung was a vanguard when it came to self-expression. He refused to let the media or society censor him, channelling his predecessor Roman Tam’s magnetic energy in his drag get-ups, Jean-Paul-Gaultier-designed costumes, and his unashamed bisexuality.
Cheung released over two dozen albums in his career, clean sweeping award ceremonies for both music and acting, and basked in the love of tens and thousands of fans as well as his family and friends. But none of the fame and glory helped the fact that Cheung had been suffering from clinical depression for as long as he could remember. His suicide at the age of 46 shocked Hong Kong and the world, with people ignoring the 2003 SARS travel ban to come to the city and attend his public funeral. To this day, Cheung’s legacy remains in the form of his scholarship funds, charity work, and dedicated celebrations and exhibitions held by his legion of loyal fans.
Roman Tam had covered the song “Superstar” before, but Cheung’s version became the most widely listened to, especially after his death. Many believe that the song is particularly haunting as it seems like Leslie had always known he would take his own life and that this song was his way of saying goodbye.
Anita Mui was Leslie Cheung’s best friend, and a legendary Cantopop diva in her own right. Known as the “Madonna of the East,” Anita challenged the standards of being a performer, earning the moniker “The Ever-Changing Anita” for her repertoire of distinctive vocal range, commanding stage presence, dazzling costume changes, and a constantly evolving image that was dizzying to keep up with.
Mui had a hard life growing up on the streets, where she worked as a street singer to make ends meet for her family. She was ostracised as a child and dropped out of school when she was just 13. For five years, she performed in bars, until TVB hosted the inaugural New Talent Singing Awards in 1981. Anita dazzled the judges and won by a landslide, covering Paula Tsui’s “Seasons of the Wind” in her signature contralto voice.
Anita Mui exuded confidence in all her stage and screen performances, using strength and boldness to take back the “songstress” title that branded her an outcast, and instead channelled it into her loud, sexy, electric career. She released 50 albums and sold over 10 million records altogether. Mui was one of the youngest singers to hold a concert series at the Hong Kong Coliseum, and even opened the 1988 Seoul Olympics with Janet Jackson.
She was also stunning in her acting work, frequently collaborating with Leslie Cheung. She was also a philanthropist, personally helping causes like Operation Yellowbird which helped activists flee China after the Tiananmen protests, opening a nursing home in San Francisco (which lead to the mayor naming April 18 as “Anita Mui Day” in the city) and establishing the Anita Mui True Heart Charity Foundation, which continues to make contributions in the arts as well as cancer research.
Although no one could compare to her success, Mui was troubled by the tabloids and by her lack of luck in love. She hid her cervical cancer diagnosis from the world until she no longer could, holding a series of eight shows at the Coliseum to say goodbye to the stage that she had loved so much. Anita Mui passed away at the age of 40 on 30 December 2002, but her legacy never rests.
Priscilla Chan is another female star of the genre, and still performs occasionally in Hong Kong and overseas. She was discovered as a teenager, when she often competed in singing competitions, and recorded her first song in 1983, titled “Forgotten Promise.” Her solo debut album Feelings of a Story was released in 1984 to great acclaim, thus prompting a voracious output of her signature emotional love songs and upbeat dance music.
It wasn’t until 1988, however, when her Cantonese remake of the Spanish song “La Loca,” “Silly Girl,” was released that her status as a Cantopop icon was solidified. Chan chose to suspend her career at the height of her popularity, a move that baffled the industry and her fans, but she had promised her family she would continue her academic career. A woman of her word, she moved to New York to pursue a degree in psychology at Syracuse University.
In her farewell album Always Be Your Friend, she released a hit single “Thousands of Songs,” which truly elevated her to heights alongside her peers Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui. Chan returned to her musical career in 1995, releasing two chart-topping albums Welcome Back and I’m Not Lonely, which put her back in public favour.
The tabloids were relentless in prying into her private life, her family and love interests were closely scrutinised, and she has spoken out many times on the fickleness of the Hong Kong audience. Nevertheless, she continues to perform for her loyal fans and is very active on social media.
Cantopop wasn’t just all singers, and Beyond is perhaps the best representative of the “band wave” that came with the rise of Cantopop. Beyond is considered the most influential Cantonese band of all time, experimenting with different genres and often using their music to speak out on injustice.
Lead singer Wong Ka-kui and drummer Yip Sai Wing formed Beyond in 1983, bound together by a love for Pink Floyd’s progressive rock, and working together to join a music contest. Beyond went through a shifting line-up before finally settling on the legendary combo of Wong Ka-keung—Ka-kui’s younger brother—as the bassist and Paul Wong as the lead guitarist. Before they were signed to a label, Beyond was the definition of a struggling band. They financed everything themselves and often played to empty rooms.
The band recorded their first album Goodbye Ideal in 1986, and started to gain some traction in the underground music scene. Their second album, Arabian Dancing Girls, became a commercial hit, and from there, their popularity grew. The release of their 1989 song “Great Lands” lead them to the awards ceremonies, and propelled their career forward with tracks like “Glorious Years” (inspired by Nelson Mandela) and “Amani” (inspired by the war in Tanzania), which stood out from the barrage of love songs that Cantopop was known for.
Their greatest hit, however, would be Wong Ka-kui’s last with the band. “Boundless Oceans Vast Skies” was inspired during Wong’s trip around Africa in 1990, and flowed from his disillusionment with the popular music industry. It has since become an anthem for local protests, fundraising campaigns, and many more movements, and is still widely popular to this day. Unfortunately, Wong Ka-kui died in an accident in 1993 during an appearance on a Japanese game show, when he fell off a three-metre-high stage and sustained severe brain injury.
The band Beyond continued to release music after his death, with Paul Wong replacing him as the lead singer before eventually disbanding in 2005, only reuniting to perform in tribute shows or charity events.
On the other side of the bands spectrum, Grasshopper is a Cantopop “boyband” known for their looks and dancing skills. Grasshopper consists of brothers Calvin and Remus Tsoi and their childhood friend Edmond So.
The members of Grasshopper grew up in a low-income public housing estate but had high aspirations, with Remus Tsoi being the leader and often participating in talent shows. They named themselves Grasshopper after their favourite cocktail and their agility on stage, and finally caught their big break in 1985 when Anita Mui took a shine to them during their audition on the New Talent Singing Awards. They were invited to perform as back-up dancers and singers for Mui, and she mentored them while giving the band copious amounts of exposure on her tours.
Grasshopper released their self-titled debut album in 1988, a collection of electronica hits, and continued to perform as a trio and with Mui, even as the three also pursued acting careers. The flamboyant band continues to tour to this day, in addition to hosting their own shows and producing musicals and documentaries. They have said they will never disband, and will keep performing until they die.
We cannot write about classic Cantopop without mentioning the Four Heavenly Kings. Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, and Leon Lai were all superstars in their own rights, but the four were often promoted together as a supergroup, and their clean-cut good looks and undeniable charisma and talent made the Chinese diaspora swoon from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. All four singers also forged mega-successful careers as actors, and films starring any one of the four were guaranteed great box office returns.
Jacky Cheung is perhaps the most lauded of the four, with more than 25 million solo records sold and also sharing the title of “God of Songs” with Sam Hui, though he himself has stated that he does not deserve it. He has a rich baritone voice with a dramatic vibrato, which lends itself well to his repertoire of ballads. Cheung was the first of the group to branch out into different musical styles, and his jazz album Private Corner became the first Cantonese jazz album released to critical acclaim. He was also the first Cantopop and Mandopop artist to contribute items to the Hard Rock franchise memorabilia collection.
Andy Lau has been one of Hong Kong’s most commercially successful actors and singers since the 1980s, and was entered into the Guinness World Records for the most awards won by a Cantopop male artist—numbering more than 300. He is also a lyricist, often penning his own songs. Unlike Cheung, he did not have a strong voice made for pop music, but his work ethic and charisma contributed to his success as a Cantopop icon. His songs are mainly romantic ballads or movie companion songs. Lau has also never shed his endearing heartthrob image, using his evergreen fame to participate in charity work. He was awarded a Bronze Bauhinia Star and a Medal of Honour for his work.
Considered the most good-looking of the four, Aaron Kwok started his career as a model and dancer. He initiated the trend of “fast dancing,” largely influenced by Michael Jackson, and in 1999, he even collaborated with Janet Jackson and Ricky Martin for her promotional single “Ask for More.” His songs lie mostly in the dance-pop genre, and it’s impressive how to this day he still maintains the same enthusiasm and energy in his stage performances. It’s hard to hold a tune and do the moonwalk at the same time, folks!
Leon Lai uses the stage name Lai-ming—meaning “dawn.” He was the second runner-up in the 1986 New Talent Singing Awards, and received mentorship from local musical legends like Dai Si Chung and Mark Lui. He rose to prominence after Lui influenced him to branch out into electronic music, and his collaborations with other famous artists in encouraging or romantic duets are beloved in Hong Kong. Lai is now best known for his illustrious acting career and commitment to charity work, and was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star in 2019.
The Four Heavenly Kings are still active in the scene, mentoring the next generation of Cantopop stars, and Andy Lau in particular has expressed his desire for the group to reunite. One can only hope!