Header image courtesy of kknews.cc
Though indie, vaporwave, K-pop, and whatnot might be what’s mainstream now, Cantopop used to be all the rage back in the late twentieth century—and not just in Hong Kong, either. In China, Japan, and all across Cantonese-speaking communities in Southeast Asia, Cantopop was king. Though its popularity has since waned, some golden oldies are just too good to go and have seared themselves in Hong Kong’s collective memory. We’ve gathered some of the most quintessential songs that every Hongkonger should know, regardless of age—how many of these classics do you recognise, or perhaps even know by heart? It’s karaoke time!
Beyond is probably the most influential Cantopop band of all time, and they often used their songs to speak out against social injustice. This signature rock ballad is not an exception; while their other golden oldie “Glorious Years” (光輝歲月) paid tribute to Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid, “Boundless Oceans Vast Skies” celebrated his release from prison. The wistful melody starts low but gradually expands and soars into a higher range, mirroring the song’s hopeful message of vanquishing adversity in pursuit of freedom.
Sadly, this was Beyond’s last song before the tragic death of their leader Wong Ka-kui at the height of the band’s popularity. Yet the song’s legacy lives on to today and is well-known in Malaysia, Singapore, and even in Japan, as Beyond also released a Japanese version for the song.
A signature piece from Faye Wong’s early career, “Vulnerable Woman” offers up a drunken woman’s musings on the highs and lows of love, with a particularly heart-breaking refrain of that begs the listener to “please have pity on my heart.” Her song grew even more renowned when it was used in a climactic episode of TVB’s celebrated crime drama The Greed of Man, so that now many immediately associate the tune with the scene. However, it was purported that “the Diva” never liked the song and rarely performed it at her concerts.
One of TVB’s most beloved series of all time is The Bund (上海灘), a riveting drama set in Shanghai in the 1920s and often hailed as “The Godfather of the East.” Sung by Frances Yip, its stirring opening theme of the same name has since been enshrined as a Cantopop classic as well. The song draws poetic parallels between the river of The Bund in central Shanghai and the turbulent waves in life and in love. The passionate, intense ballad is further enhanced by traditional Chinese musical elements, which is why Chinese people around the world recognise it despite the fact that it’s sung in Cantonese.
A master of slow love ballads, it’s curious that Alan Tam’s catchiest hit is fast-paced and riveting. Anyone who has listened to “Love Trap” can’t help but groove to the beat, and sing along with the theatrical last lines of “This trap, this trap, this trap—I have encountered it!” (這陷阱，這陷阱，這陷阱，偏我遇上!). “Love Trap” also happens to sound very similar to the opening theme of the Japanese anime Megazone 23, which has led to accusations of plagiarism when the composer for both songs Hiroaki Serizawa simply recycled the melody he wrote for Tam for the theme.
One of the first major superstars of Cantopop, Sam Hui’s enormous fame stemmed from his relatability. He wrote most of his songs in vernacular Chinese and sang about modern social and philosophical concerns. “Eiffel Tower Above the Clouds” was one such musing, inspired by a short stint abroad. After seeing the world, Hui concluded that no place is as good as Home Kong, declaring that not even the wonders of the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji, and the Statue of Liberty could compare to home in this poem-turned-song. The sentiment struck a chord with Hongkongers, many of whom still know the dreamy tune by heart.
Leslie Cheung is a singer known to practically every Cantonese speaking person and more, seeing as he was posthumously voted the third “Most Iconic Musician of All Time” in a poll held by CNN. Still, every star has got to start somewhere, and for Cheung, it began with this title song from his breakout album of the same name after a few massive flops in his career. “The Wind Blows On” was originally a Japanese song sang by the idol Yamaguchi Momoe; Cheung simply channelled its wistful spirit to the max to perfect the song. Other great hits such as “Monica” and “Superstar” would follow, but “The Wind Blows On” will always remain Cheung’s first signature piece.
Known as the “Madonna of Asia,” Anita Mui was the beloved queen of Cantopop in Hong Kong and abroad. However, her story was not always one of glitz and glamour. She had a tough childhood growing up, where she and her sister often had to sing on the streets and in bars to make ends meet. The would-be legend finally got her big break at age 19 when she won a prestigious singing competition and continued her winning streak from there on out.
“Sunset Melody” is one of her award-winning songs that likens the fleetingness of life with a fading sunset. Its melancholic lyrics made it a favourite final number to be performed at her live concerts as a fond farewell, including her last concert ever after she revealed to the public that she had entered the final stages of cervical cancer. When fans hear the song today, they will recall Mui’s final farewell—complete with the stunning wedding gown she donned for the occasion—with a touch of sadness.
While Ken Choi is nowhere as famous as all the other superstars on this list, his song sure is. You might’ve guessed from the dramatic song title—the high-energy number laments a tough break up, but Choi’s ridiculous poses during his performance were what distinguished it from just another break-up song. As he reaches the chorus hollering “Absolute emptiness!”, Ken slides beat by beat into a sideways split while holding the mic in one hand, enthusiastically pumping his fists in the other. Words cannot do his flamboyance justice—just watch the video for yourself. The bizarre spectacle sealed itself in public memory and “Absolute Emptiness” is still being remade into parodies to this day.
Jacky Cheung was one of Hong Kong’s “Four Heavenly Kings,” a nickname given to a supergroup of four huge stars on the music scene back then. It’s not hard to see why—Cheung has sold over 25 million solo records in total, and one of his most well-known love ballads, “Loving You More Every Day,” has even been on the billboard for over 30 consecutive weeks! No wonder practically everyone who was in town back in the 1990s knows the song.
Anyone who’s ever done karaoke back in the 1990s would instantly recognise this song, a rueful duet between a man and a woman who both think that perhaps it would have been best if they had they never met. The original version was sung by Ram Chiang and Rita Carpio and became an instant hit to sing at parties and family gatherings, winning a slew of awards. Its popularity has since inspired a number of parodies, including “相逢何必曾 Big Mac”, a mirthful McDonald’s ad for Big Macs performed by none other than Ram Chiang himself!