Trisha Shetty (Editor)


Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

Cantopop (traditional Chinese: 粵語流行音樂; simplified Chinese: 粤语流行音乐, a contraction of "Cantonese pop music") or HK-pop (short for "Hong Kong pop music") is a genre of Cantonese music made primarily in Hong Kong, and also used to refer to the cultural context of its production and consumption. Originating in the 1970s, Cantopop reached its height of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s before its slow decline in the 2000s. The term "Cantopop" itself was coined in 1978 after "Cantorock", a term first used in 1974. During its height, Cantopop had spread to China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.


Cantopop is influenced by international styles, including jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, electronic music, Western pop music and others. Cantopop songs are almost invariably performed in Cantonese. Boasting a multinational fanbase in Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi in mainland China, Hong Kong remains the most significant hub of the genre. The most significant figures in the Cantopop industry include Paula Tsui, Teresa Teng, Samuel Hui, George Lam, Alan Tam, Sally Yeh, Roman Tam, Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Beyond, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai, Sammi Cheng, Faye Wong, Kelly Chen, Eason Chan and Joey Yung.

1920s to 1950s: Shanghai origins

Western-influenced music first came to China in the 1920s, specifically through Shanghai. Artists like Zhou Xuan (周璇) acted in films and recorded popular songs and was possibly the first Chinese pop star.

In 1949 when the People's Republic of China was established by the Communist Party, one of the first actions taken by the government was to denounce pop music (specifically Western pop) as decadent music. Beginning in the 1950s, massive waves of immigrants fled Shanghai to destinations like North Point in Hong Kong. As a result, many first generation Cantopop artists and composers hail from Shanghai.

1960s: Cultural acceptance

By the 1960s, Cantonese music in Hong Kong was still limited largely to traditional Cantonese opera and comic renditions of western music. Tang Kee-chan (鄧寄塵), Cheng Kuan-min (鄭君綿), and Tam Ping-man (譚炳文) were among the earliest artists releasing Cantonese records.

The generation at the time preferred British and American exports. Western culture was at the time equated with education and sophistication, and Elvis, Johnny Mathis and The Beatles were popular.

Conversely, those who preferred Cantonese music were considered old-fashioned or uneducated. Cheng Kum-cheung (鄭錦昌) and Chan Chai-chung (陳齊頌) were two popular Cantonese singers who specifically targeted the younger generation. Connie Chan Po-chu is generally considered to be Hong Kong's first teen idol, mostly due to her career longevity. Josephine Siao is also another artist of the era.

1970s: Rise of television and the modern industry

Local bands mimicked British and American bands. Two types of local Cantonese music appeared in the market nearly concurrently in 1973: one type cashed in on the popularity of TVB's drama series based on the more traditional lyrical styles. The other was more western style music largely from Polydor Hong Kong. Notable singers from the era include Liza Wang (汪明荃) and Paula Tsui.

Soap operas were needed to fill TV air time, and popular Cantonese songs became TV theme songs. Around 1971, Sandra Lang, a minor singer who had never sung Cantopop before, was invited to sing the first Cantonese TV theme song "The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs" (啼笑姻緣). This song was a collaboration between songwriters Yip Siu-dak (葉紹德) and the legendary Joseph Koo (顧嘉煇). It was ground-breaking and topped local charts. Other groups that profited from TV promotion included the Four Golden Flowers.

Samuel Hui is regarded by some to be the earliest singing star of Cantopop. He was the lead singer of the band Lotus formed in the late 1960s, signed to Polydor in 1972. The song that made him famous was the theme song to Games Gamblers Play, also starring Hui.

The star of TV theme tunes was Roman Tam. Three of the most famous TV soap opera singers were Jenny Tseng, Liza Wang and Adam Cheng. The Wynners and George Lam also amassed a big fan base with their new style. Samuel Hui continued to dominate the charts and won the Centennial Best Sales Award in the first and second IFPI Gold Disc Presentations twice in a row in 1977 and 1978. Polydor became PolyGram in 1978.

It was at this time that the term Cantopop first arose in 1978, with Billboard correspondent Hans Ebert (who had earlier coined the term Cantorock in 1974) noting a change in its style to something similar to British-American soft rock.

1980s: Beginning of the Golden Age

During the 1980s, Cantopop soared to great heights with artists, producers and record companies working in harmony. Cantopop stars such as Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, George Lam, Alan Tam, Sally Yeh, Priscilla Chan, Sandy Lam, and Danny Chan quickly became household names. The industry used Cantopop songs in TV dramas and movies, with some of the biggest soundtracks coming from films such as A Better Tomorrow. Sponsors and record companies became comfortable with the idea of lucrative contracts and million-dollar signings. There are also Japanese songs with Cantonese lyrics.

The most successful Chinese female recording artist, "Queen of Mandarin songs" Teresa Teng also crossed over to Cantopop. She achieved commercial success with her original Cantonese Hits under the Polygram Label in the early 1980s. Jenny Tseng was a notable addition from Macau.

As Cantopop gained large followings in Chinese communities worldwide, Hong Kong entrepreneurs' ingenious use of the then new Laserdisc technology prompted yet another explosion in the market.

1990s: Four Heavenly Kings era

In the early 1990s, the Cantopop stars Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung, Samuel Hui, Priscilla Chan, the songwriter Joseph Koo, and others either retired or lessened their activity. Chan left Hong Kong to pursue her studies at Syracuse University while the rest left Hong Kong amid the uncertainty surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

During the 1990s, the "Four Heavenly Kings" (四大天王), namely Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai dominated music, and coverage in magazines, TV, advertisements and cinema.

New talents such as Beyond, Grasshoppers, Hacken Lee, Sally Yeh, Vivian Chow, Cass Phang, Kelly Chen, Sammi Cheng and Faye Wong emerged as contenders. However, due to contractual disputes with PolyGram, Hacken Lee never became one of the member, and was replaced by Cheung and Lai, who were both with the same record company.

The sovereignty handover created a culturally challenging atmosphere for the industry. Establishment of Basic Law and language ordinances made the adoption of Mandarin inevitable.


At the turn of the century, Cantonese was still dominant in the domain of Chinese pop. The deaths of stars Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui in 2003 rocked the industry. A transitional phase also took place with many overseas-raised artists such as Nicholas Tse and Coco Lee gaining recognition. As a result, Cantopop is no longer restricted to Hong Kong, but has become part of a larger music movement.

In 2005 Cantopop began a new upswing. Major companies that drove much of the HK segment included Gold Typhoon Music Entertainment (EMI, Gold Label), Universal Music Group, East Asia Entertainment and Amusic and Emperor Entertainment Group. Some of the most successful performers of the era include Joey Yung, Twins, Eason Chan, Miriam Yeung, Leo Ku, Janice Vidal. The new era also saw an explosion of bands such as at17, Soler, Sunboy'z, Hotcha, Mr and Rubberband. Many artists such as Stephy Tang, Kary Ng, Kenny Kwan and Renee Li later ended up going solo. The decade has also been dubbed a "People's singer" era (親民歌星), as most performers were frequently seen promoting in public. This is contrasted with the 1990s when previous era "big-name" singers (大牌歌星) unapproachable.

A number of scandals struck some of the stars later in the decade. In 2008 the Edison Chen photo scandal involving Edison Chen and Twins singer Gillian Chung, among others, who were the subject of explicit photos uploaded online. The scandal occupied the front pages of the local press for a solid month, and also garnered the attention of international media. The scandal tarnished the image of the previously "squeaky-clean" Twins, and resulted in their going into hiatus in late June 2008, four months after Gillian was caught up in the scandal. Other events include the street fight between Gary Chaw and Justin Lo. In 2009, Jill Vidal and her singer boyfriend Kelvin Kwan were arrested in Tokyo on 24 February 2009 over allegations of marijuana possession. Kwan was released without charge after 32 days in jail, while Vidal later pleaded guilty in Tokyo court to heroin possession, and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, suspended for three years.


After the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Mandarin became more important and the influence of Cantonese became vulnerable. Nevertheless, in addition to the 7 million people of Hong Kong and Macau, the genre continues to enjoy popularity among a Cantonese-speaking audience of in excess of 100 million in southern China, plus 10 million Cantonese-speaking diaspora in Canada, Australia and the United States. In 2010, a proposal that Guangzhou Television station should increase its broadcast in Mandarin led to protests in Guangzhou. While the authorities relented, this event reflects attempts at marginalising Cantonese and the ascendency of Mandopop.

The first major award of the decade 09 JSG award was a highly controversial one with the ongoing HKRIA tax case. The case was reportedly solved in early 2012 though. In January 2012, the 11 JSG award was again controversial since one of the biggest awards, Record of the Year, was handed to Raymond Lam with his unpopular song "Chok". Some of the successful performers of the era are Eason Chan, Joey Yung, Juno Mak, Gillian Chung, Kay Tse, Hins Cheung, Pakho Chow, Ivana Wong, Sugar Club, Mag Lam, Alfred Hui, C AllStar, AGA, James Ng, Phil Lam, Kary Ng, Fiona Sit and Khalil Fong.

Instruments and setups

Early Cantopop was developed from Cantonese opera music hybridised with Western pop. The musicians soon gave up traditional Chinese musical instruments like zheng and erhu fiddle in favour of western style arrangements. Cantopop songs are usually sung by one singer, sometimes with a band, accompanied by piano, synthesizer, drum set and guitars. They are composed under verse-chorus form and are generally monophonic. Practically all early Cantopop songs feature a descending bassline.


Cantonese is a pitch sensitive tonal language. The word carries a different meaning when sung in a different relative pitch. Matching Cantonese lyrics to Western music was particularly difficult because the Western musical scale has 12 semi-tones. Through the work of pioneers like Sam Hui, James Wong and Lo Kwok Jim, those that followed have more stock phrases for reference.

Classical Chinese lyrics

The first type is the poetic lyrics written in literary or classical Wenyan Chinese. In the past, Cantopop maintained the Cantonese Opera tradition of matching the musical notes with tones of the language. Relatively few Cantopop songs use truly colloquial Cantonese terms, and fewer songs contain lyrics. Songs written in this style are usually reserved for TV shows about ancient China. Since the 1980s, increasing numbers of singers have departed from this tradition, though some big names like Roman Tam stayed true to traditional techniques.

Modern Chinese lyrics

The second type is less formal. The lyrics written in colloquial Cantonese make up the majority with compositions done in modern written Chinese. TV shows filmed under modern contexts will use songs written with these lyrics. Most songs share an over-riding characteristic, in which every last word of a phrase is rhymed.

The following is an example from the song "Impression" (印象) by Samuel Hui. The last word of every phrase ends with '–oeng'.

Covers of foreign compositions

Cantopop was born in the 1970s and became a cultural product with the popularity of two songs popular TVB drama's themes songs in 1973: Tower Ballad and A marriage of Laughter and Tears. The majority of "hit" Cantopop, however, is not entirely local produced but the cover versions of "hit" foreign melodies. Since the 1970s, covering "hit" external songs mainly from Japan, Korea, Taiwan or other Western countries became a common practice among Hong Kong record companies. At that time, Hong Kong's constantly growing music industry acknowledges simply by using those hits, whose already gained popularity, will be the easiest way to reach success in the market. Cover versions were also widely used as a solution to address the shortage of the local hits due to the lack of local composers. Another important reason of using cover versions is to minimise the production costs. The practice is also done for business reasons of filling up albums and re-capitalizing on songs with a proven record.

The Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs Awards, which is one of the major music awards in Hong Kong since 1979, can reflect the great reliance on Japanese melodies in Cantopop. During 1980s, 139 out of 477 songs from weekly gold songs chart are cover versions, and 52% of the cover versions were covers of Japanese songs. Numerous of legendary songs of Cantopop superstars Alan Tam, Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, for example, Craziness (1983), Monica (1984), Foggy Love (1984), For Your Love Only (1985,) Evil Girl (1985), The Past Love (1986), The First Tear (1986), and Fired Tango indeed were cover versions of Japanese hits, and shown the use of covers contribute to the success of superstars in certain degree.

By definition hybrids are still considered Cantonese songs due to Cantonese lyrics, though the rights borrowed varies country to country. Songs like "Tomorrow sounds like today" (明日話今天) by Jenny Tseng, "Life to seek" (一生何求) by Danny Chan, "Snowing" (飄雪) by Priscilla Chan, and "Can't afford" (負擔不起) by Jade Kwan were originally composed outside of Hong Kong. Many critics disapprove of this practice of covering foreign music as lack of originality, and many albums promoted themselves as "cover-free".

Cantopop stars

Usually talent is secondary to the success of a Cantopop singer in Hong Kong. Most of the time, the image sells the albums, as it is one of the characteristic of mainstream music similarly mirrored in the United States and Japan. Publicity is vital to an idol's career, as one piece of news could make or break a future. Almost all modern Cantopop stars go into the movie business regardless of their ability to act; however the reverse may also occur with actors releasing albums and embarking on concerts regardless of singing talent. They immediately expand to the Mandarin market once their fame is established, hence pure Cantopop stars are almost nonexistent. Outside of the music sales, their success can also be gauged by their income. For example, according to some reports, Sammi Cheng earned HK$46M (around US$6M) from advertisement and merchandise endorsements in one month alone. Many artists however begin with financial hardships. For example, Yumiko Cheng owed her company thousands of dollars. Others include Elanne Kong crying in public with only HK$58 left.


PolyGram, EMI, Sony, Warner and BMG were established in Hong Kong since the 1970s. Local record companies such as Crown Records (娛樂唱片), Wing Hang Records (永恆), Manchi Records (文志) and Capital Artists in the past have become successful local labels. As TV drama themes lost favour in the mid-1980s, market power soon drifted to the multi-national labels. Sales are tracked at the IFPI HK Annual Sales Chart.


Cantopop has been criticised as being bland and unoriginal, since most stars tend to sing songs with similar topics with emphasis on "maudlin love ballads". Cantopop features many songs which use foreign and traditional tunes to which new Cantonese lyrics have been written, including many of the songs of the 1980s golden era. However this reflects the traditional practise and values of Chinese music in which only lyrics and lyricists are valued.

In the late 1990s, there was a shortage of creative talent due to the rising demand for Chinese songs; meanwhile, China and Taiwan had nurtured their own local industries posing serious competition to Cantopop. Renowned legendary lyricist Wong Jim wrote his 2003 thesis on the subject.

However, there are still many indie musicians, with some such as Beyond (who emerged from the "band fever" of the 1960s) and Tat Ming Pair, whose songs reflect the darker, less-expressed side of society, achieving mainstream success.

Major awards

A record chart which includes all genres of C-pop is the Global Chinese Pop Chart.


Cantopop Wikipedia

Similar Topics