Cantopop's origins can be traced to Shanghai before the Communist Revolution. Shanghai, like Hong Kong now, was a fashionable port city famous for trade and multicultural interaction. Western music became popular here, and during the 1930s and 40s, Shanghai developed a thriving swing and jazz scene. In 1949, when the Communists took power, Western music became forbidden. Many people involved in Shanghai's music industry fled to Hong Kong.
Prior to the 1970s, popular music in Hong Kong was limited to traditional Cantonese opera
, film scores sung in Mandarin, and imported records of Western stars like Elvis and the Beatles. During this time, Mandarin was considered the language of the Chinese elite, while Cantonese, the dialect of Southern China's Guandong region and the native language of most Hong Kongers, "languished as low-class fodder"
with little marketability.
But during the 1970s, as Hong Kong became a global financial centre, the music industry changed its tune and began promoting Cantonese music. Since then, the Cantopop industry has developed into a global commercial empire, astounding when you consider it's produced in a city of 7 million people for a mostly Cantonese audience. Yet, with more than 66 million Cantonese-speaking people scattered around the world, Cantopop stars sell out venues outside Hong Kong. In 2007, Cantopop icon Jacky Cheung (one of the genre's first legitimate global superstars) began a world tour with two sold-out nights in Las Vegas
. He also played to a capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre the same year.
(above: Hong Kong star George Lam talks about Cantopop's Golden era with the South China Morning Post)
The Cantopop industry, like the music business around the world, has suffered recently. Piracy has decimated CD sales: The International Federation of Phonographic Industry estimates that annual Hong Kong Music sales dropped
from 1.7 billion Hong Kong dollars ($248 million CAD) in 1997 to 560 million Hong Kong dollars ($82 million) in 2006.
This would explain the increasing trend for Cantopop stars to market Mandarin-language albums to break into the emerging market of 1.4 billion mainlanders.
Evolution of Cantopop time line
This time line presents samples from over three decades of Cantopop music. Experience how the Cantopop sound and aesthetic has changed over the years, from pioneers like Sam Hui to Mr. ("Mister), the first rock band to be signed by a Hong Kong major label in over 10 years.