When I arrived in Hong Kong in the second half of the 70s, Cantopop – with artists such as Sam Hui, George Lam, Roman Tam, Teresa Teng – was already rising as a genre of Cantonese-language western-influenced 1960s soft-pop music – think The Carpenters, Fifth Dimension and so on. Even the ‘harder’ sounding songs were softer rock from the likes of the Beatles – ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Michelle’ are probably still two of the most requested, and murdered, songs in any karaoke lounge with anybody over 40. It seemed the one sole rock band of any popularity at the time was Beyond, singing a kind of Hong Kong garage rock that took its influences from American rock and folk music – perhaps not surprising with the influence of US rock music during Hong Kong’s time as an R&R spot during the Vietnam war.
In the 80s the genre exploded of course with the arrival on the scene of huge artists like Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Leon Lai, Prudence Liew, Priscilla Chan, Sandy Lam, and others, adopting musical influences as wide as disco, folk, rock and synthpop. And so the Golden Age of Cantopop was born. I have two other blogcasts highlighting music from these eras that can be found in the blog archives.
It came as a bit of a surprise when I started to DJ here in the 80s and began to dig more into the oldies from Hong Kong’s music past to satisfy older local clients. While cha cha and ballroom styles were still popular at that time with most people over the age of about 30 – and still are – I discovered that Hong Kong in the 60s had enjoyed a swinging and rocking scene, incorporating styles from UK beat music, US garage rock and psychedelic folk, alongside sweet Mandarin songs from the 40s and 50s and swinging jazz updated to the modern style.
The cause of this was of course influence from overseas on one side. Hong Kong had a huge Chinese diaspora all around the World – and you can still find village elders who’ve returned after decades overseas speaking with a Liverpool, Essex, or New Jersey accent – and on the other side there had been a massive influx of people from all nationalities and race decamping from post-war China. This brought to Hong Kong a number of highly accomplished Chinese ballroom singers, Macanese and Filipino band leaders and musicians, all coming together in the melting pot that was Hong Kong at the time.
While a lot of recordings from the time have sadly become hard to find, the sterling work of RTHK DJ Ray Cordeiro, who holds the record as the World’s longest working DJ and was a key mover in getting these artists and their music onto the radio in the 60s, and later entertainment impresario Anders Nelsson who grew up in Hong Kong, has helped keep these names and their music alive so that there’s a rich vein to tap into, so much that Hong Kong Beat’s tribute has been split into four 30ish-minute long sides.
Side 1 brings a mix of tunes infused with rock, pop, beat, and Latin influences, featuring –
- The Thunders, a Macanese band and winners of the 1968 Star Show organized by HK-TVB channel who were, unusually for the time, writers of much of their own music with the self-penned ‘She’s in Hong Kong’ with echoes to the style of Freddie & The Dreamers to me
- Giancarlo & His Italian Combo was a nightclub dance band covering Mina’s 1959 Italian jive hit ‘Tintarella di luna’. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an elegant Chinese lady in her seventies twisting to this
- Michael Remedios & The Mystics were another mostly Macanese band, one of the few bands playing soul music at the time. First offering a great cover of Arthur Conley’s soul burner ‘Sweet Soul Music’, in a medley with shout-outs to local English pop wave artists of the time. Second offering a faithful cover of Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’
- The Lotus was a Hong Kong band where it all kicked off for Cantopop and movie giant Sam Hui, with a dreamy cover of The Beau Brummels’ garage rock hit ‘Just a Little’
- The Fabulous Echoes were a mainly Filipino group who later changed name to The Society of Seven and exported themselves to the USA in the late 60s. They were huge on the nightclub and recording scene often backing other artists, such as Kong Ling, in the Diamond Records studio. Here they are accompanied by English radio DJ, Tony Myatt with his self-penned song ‘Everybody Knows’
- Teddy Robin & The Playboys, another highly influential Hong Kong group on the later music and film scene, covering The Knickerbockers’ one-hit-wonder, Beatles-inspired garage rock US hit ‘Lies’. Teddy Robin was a very versatile singer and could knock out great covers of most top singers of the time
- The Zoundcrackers – an early success for Macanese music, TV and movie artist Joe Junior – here with a cover of Gary Lewis & The Playboys perky sunshine pop song ‘I Gotta Find Cupid’
- Rebecca Pan Di-hua [潘迪華] one of the top Shanghainese singers and actresses who came to Hong Kong in the late 40s, and is one of those traditional ballroom singers who made the transition to a Hong Kong pop style. Here with a Latin-flavoured rendition, sung in English and Mandarin, of Cliff Richards and the Shadows ‘Theme For a Dream’ that I personally think is much smoother and inviting version than the original
- Tony Orchez was a top Hong Kong DJ and singer who hosted a pop show on TVB in the 60s who went on to write film scores and had successful radio shows in Los Angeles and Singapore, here with a smooth cover of Dusty Springfield’s Bacharach and David penned ‘The Look of Love’. Some nice vocal phrasing and vibrato in his voice in this version
- D’Topnotes was a family group consisting mainly of the children of former Shanghai-based Filipino band leader Lobing Samson, who had all moved to Hong Kong after the war. The non-Samson family group members would later form the successful Cantopop band The New Topnotes. Offering a catchily-tempoed cover of James & Bobby Purify’s 1966 soul hit ‘I’m Your Puppet’ here
- Mona Fong (Li Menglan [李夢蘭]) who later became the wife of film mogul Sir Run Run Shaw and also known as ‘Lady Shaw’, was another top Shanghainese singer who came to Hong Kong post-war and was another of the ballroom singers to make the transition to pop style, later becoming a highly successful TV and film producer. To me, I think she had one of the best voices of the time and reminds me a lot of Sarah Vaughan. Here offering a lush big band cha cha version sung in English and Mandarin of ‘Bengawan Solo’, originally an Indonesian language penned song about the Solo River that became a hugely popular song with Mandarin lyrics among Chinese singers around Asia in the 50s and 60s.
With thanks for much information from Hong Kong English Pop Music Blogspot