Cantopop: A Cantonese Style of Pop Music

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Cantopop is big business in Asia and its blockbusters stars constantly find themselves both at the top of the charts and on the front of the newspapers. And, while Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake are all big business in Hong Kong, Singapore and Beijing, Edison Chen, Gillian Chung and Janice Vidal are a much bigger business.


Cantopop actually means Cantonese Pop and was originally a hybrid of Western Pop, and other influences, with Cantonese Opera. While the original songs often featured traditional Chinese instruments, these have, mostly, been phased out and nowadays Cantopop is more like a wholesome version of Western Pop sung in the Cantonese language.

Unlike their L.A counterparts, Cantopop stars rarely mention sex, drugs or rock and roll, although the last few years have seen the industries clean-cut image damaged by a series of sex scandals. Songs tend to be sweeping, sloppy love ballads, with most of the genre’s fanbase consisting of female teenagers who swoon over the blockbuster stars.

A Short History

It’s claimed that the original Cantopop stars came out of Shanghai, where Western and Chinese musical influences were first mixed, before fleeing China when Mao’s Communists seized power in the 1950s. While immigrants from Shanghai certainly influenced the forming of the genre, it wasn’t until the 1970s in Hong Kong that the current genre really took shape. The '70s saw a number of dedicated Hong Kong record labels emerge who pushed Hong Kong bands singing Cantonese covers of English language songs from the UK and US.

The '80s and '90s saw Cantopop enter its Golden Age and during these two decades, the genre’s greatest stars emerged.

Several major stars retired in the late '90s, as the uncertainty of the Hong Kong Handover and the depression of the Asian economic crisis saw fans turn away from the relentlessly upbeat lyrics. While Hong Kongers faced shrinking incomes and major concerns about their freedoms under Chinese control, Cantopop singers were still penning songs about their dream date with the hunky looking guy next door.

The last few years have seen Cantopop enjoy a surge in success, as a new batch of stars has emerged. The genre has gained a strong following in Korea and continues to court Japan. It’s probably fair to say that it’s set to become Asia’s most popular musical genre.

Who Are the Big Stars?

Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok and Leon Lai, aka the Four Heavenly Kings, are Cantopop’s answer to New Kids on the Block or Take That while Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are arguably the genre’s legendary crooners. In recent years, Edison Chen, Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi (The Twins) and Janice Vidal have taken center stage and also courted controversy with a series of sex and nudity scandals.

Where You Can Listen to Cantopop

Cantopop is most popular in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea, and also to a lesser extent in Japan. Cantopop stars also make world tours, making stops in cities with big Chinese communities, including L.A, New York, San Fransisco, Vancouver, and London.

In Hong Kong, concerts by Cantopop stars take place almost continually. Look for local listings.

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