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From Mayday to Beyond: A Foreign Listener’s Guide to Cantopop and Mandopop Music

Pop music idols. We all had them – but just the ones in our part of the world.

In China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, there are millions of fans who go gaga for local singers who produce heart-stirring songs in Cantonese and Mandarin while weakening the knees with high energy shows and big fashion.

Many would say that Hong Kong first lay the claim to the Asian musical kingdom with Cantonese pop, or Cantopop, placing a local signature on popular music rather than sticking to the import of foreign tunes.

By the 1980s, Cantopop was in full stride – with Japan (J-pop), Korea (K-pop) and Mainland China (Mandopop) taking notice and offering their own bubblegummy flavors throughout the next three decades.

If you don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, or read the local trades, there’s a good chance you’re not familiar with a host of impactful songs; the names of legendary artists who recorded them; and the tragic fates of some of these singers.

You also probably don’t know why the table of girls next to you keeps staring at you. Answer: They’re most likely checking out the foreign pop star behind you.

If you like world music, enjoy opening your mind or ears, or finally want to understand why a group of Asian women are fluttering their eyes at you, we’ve compiled a basic who’s who primer of the Cantopop and Mandopop scene.

In no particular order of popularity, we bring you:

Alan Tam

Alan played a major role in the 1980s in developing the Cantopop scene, especially the romantic ballads. Before that he was part of a popular Cantonese band in the 70s known as The Wynners – to the locals, some might remember them as the Chinese version of the Beatles. There isn’t really one song that defines a great for Mr. Tam, but his genre defines the 80s style of Cantopop:

愛的根源 (The Root of Love)

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Faye Wong

Faye’s native language is Mandarin but combined her music with mainstream Cantonese pop. Her music style in the early 90s deviated from the traditional 80s pop style and was recognised in 2000 by the Guinness World Records as the best-selling Canto-pop female. I remember the Faye Wong era….and her “cool” or “quirkiness” at the time sparked some resemblance to that portrayed by Björk.

誓言 (Pledge)

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Jacky Cheung

Not to be confused with Jackie Chan, Jacky Cheung is known for his baritone voice. Unlike most modern canto/mando stars who are famous for their “looks” or the “packaging”, Jacky didn’t actually achieve supremacy in Cantopop at the start in the 80s. He was not known for good looks either but earned respect through the meaningful lyrics and songs he wrote over time. He explored various music genres and as such, you will never get bored of Jacky’s songs. Here’s an all-time favourite where the lyrics highlights something along the lines of “together we exist as one, love is eternal when the one I love is yoU…” Awwwww…

愛是永恒 (Love Is Eternal)

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Leslie Cheung

Leslie was a Hong Kong singer, song writer, actor, film director, record producer and screen writer. Yes, “was” – sadly “哥哥Gor Gor” meaning big brother, had a sad end to his life due to severe depression.

On the global scene, many will remember the film Farewell My Concubine where Leslie was nominated as best actor at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and remains to date the only Chinese-Language film to win Best Film. We salute you, Gor Gor…

追 (Chase)

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Anita Mui

Known as the “Madonna” of Asia, Anita challenged every style and genre at the time, again in the 80s, and was not shy of revealing her wild dancing and on-stage persona and femininity. She was also a successful actress and received the Best Actress award at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival Awards in 1989 for the film “Rouge” – where she starred alongside Leslie Cheung (Gor Gor).  Sadly, Anita lost her battle to cervical cancer in 2003.

烈焰紅唇 (Red Lips)

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Beyond

One of the first Hong Kong rock band formed in the 80s and one of the most successful and influential Canto band. The lead singer sadly lost his life due to an accident whilst they were filming at a show in Tokyo, where the singer fell off a broken stage and sustained massive head injuries. Rumour has it that the fall happened during a time when they released the tremendously successful song “Boundless oceans vast skies” and one of the lyrics noted, “for fear I will fall one day…..”— Nevertheless, his legend and together with the remaining band members continues to influence many avid young bands today.

海闊天空 (Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies)

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Mayday

Moving on to more recent times, Mayday, a Taiwanese alternative rock band formed in the late 90s are known for their student band roots. They continue to remain as a band even after almost 20 years since its first formation in 1995 whilst studying. The band’s rock style is influenced by their admiration for the Beatles, with musical influences including U2, Oasis and Sting.

星空 (Starry Skies)

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Eason Chan

Eason, a prominent singer in Hong Kong was ranked number 6 in the 2013 Forbes China Celebrity Top 100 list, and noted by Time Out Hong Kong as “King of Asian Pop” in 2012. He has been praised by critics and musicians alike as a key influence to lead the new generation of Cantopop. Westerners not quite in on the Cantopop scene might find this hard to grasp, but Eason already knows how to light a path. He’s the only person of Chinese descent to carry both the Summer and Winter Olympic torches.

歲月如歌 (Time Reflected in a Song)

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Stephanie Sun (Sun Yanzi)      

Stephanie is a Singaporean singer and songwriter with her first album released in 2000. So far she has sold 30 million copies of albums. Stephanie is regarded as one of the most accomplished local artists in her native homeland, Singapore. We like it that she’s a positive influence too, where she received the Business China Young Achiever Award in 2011 for her work as a bilingual and bicultural role model for the young ones.

遇見 (Encounter)

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Jay Chou

A Taiwanese singer, songwriter and actor, Jay was discovered for his piano and song writing skills. In 2003, he was on the cover of Time magazine (Asia) acknowledging his influence on pop culture. His style is a Chinese-Western fusion of R&B, rap, rock and classical music, and he is famous for his slurred enunciation. On the global scene, he starred in The Green Hornet as Kato, the main lead and his first Hollywood debut film. He’s big in Asia, but in this interview he maintains his humble charms.

Jay Chou: The Green Hornet Interview

This song [說了再見 After goodbye] was also a theme track for the Chinese-Hong Kong 2010 drama film “Ocean Heaven” where martial arts superstar Jet Li played the role of a father to his 22 year-old autistic son. There’s no kung fu fighting, but Jet Li’s performance is a success. You will forget throughout the entire film that you are watching Jet Li and become totally consumed by the father figure trying to ensure his son survives independently when the father (Jet Li) learns he only has months to live. Jet reportedly only took a single dollar to work on the film as his participation was given due to the film’s humanitarian message.

說了再見 (After Goodbye)

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Stay Tuned For More International Music Round-Ups!

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Lindsay Cheng was born in southwest England to Chinese parents, and from the get-go explored the world around her with wide-eyed curiosity. Over the years, Lindsay has traveled the globe while living in Bath, London, Holland and Shanghai. She currently works in Hong Kong, where she is a marketing ace as well as NewsWhistle’s esteemed nightlife editor. You can reach Lindsay by clicking here.

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Lead-in Photo of Eason Chan Courtesy of Jess Yu / Shutterstock.com