Escaping Real Time: On Cantopop Nostalgia

“So bye-bye 今朝呼声瓦解”

—“American Pie,” Anthony Wong, 2016 MacPherson Stadium


Every karaoke night in my youth began with Hacken Lee and ended with Leslie Cheung. We would pile into the booth and put on “Red Sun,” two microphones passed back and forth between the half-dozen of us, the song spiraling into its quickening tempo with every round until we collapsed onto the plastic leather sofas, giddy and out of breath. Even while early-2000s Jay Chou was already relegated to the category of “Classic” (怀旧金曲), the Cantopop ballads from the 1980s and ‘90s that formed the sonic backdrop of our parents’ young adult years thrived in our musical lexicon, narrating our romantic fictions, songs “we know without knowing how we know them.”1Simon Frith, “Pop Music,” in The Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop, eds. Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011), 104.

In decades past, to grow up in Guangzhou was to grow up in the cultural shadow of Hong Kong, a glamorous world made familiar through osmosis and felt acutely in small, enviable glimpses: a neighbor whose husband was across the border, a cousin who returned for the summers; LUX soap, cartoon stationery, packs of perfumed Tempo napkins. Even before Hong Kong entertainment truly came to dominate the sinophone world, historical ties combined with cultural exports forged a strange proximity; the movies, songs, and stars were things we claimed but never truly possessed.

But after the 1997 handover, the Asian financial crisis, and the entertainment industry’s subsequent decline, nostalgia became the primary affect with which Hong Kong media and entertainment were consumed in the mainland. In recent years, Hong Kong, in mainland consciousness, has been more fractured than ever: as a cultural entity, it is seemingly frozen in time; as a political entity, the city is now defined by its immediacy in a never-ending news cycle.

The viral Weibo compilations of faded photos of Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung or endless Cantopop recommendation threads may seem disconnected from the political current, but it can form one implicit narrative: of Hong Kong’s decline. Gangfeng 港风 is both a temporal and spatial marker, a static aesthetics of past glamor lost. What then, about the present?


We all loved Leslie, Hacken, Hins—an effect of our retrospective consumption being an anachronistic perception of Cantopop stars—but my favorite was Tat Ming Pair, whose New Wave synth-pop-inspired electronic sound stood out in the predominant balladry of Cantopop.

I would put their 1990 album Nerves on repeat, looping over “The Ten Young Firemen” twice. I watched recordings of their Viva! Viva! Viva! tour and reread interviews over the decades. I was infatuated with Anthony Wong’s seductive vocals, his flamboyant, gender-bending eroticism. And as I grew slightly older, the lyrics took on deeper meaning; the allusions to the events of the previous year became clearer.

Tat Ming Pair’s engagement with politics was more explicit than most mainstream Cantopop, which, as noted by the late James Wong in his 2003 doctoral thesis, had often engaged in political self-censorship for a myriad of reasons. In Bennett Pang’s “Borrowed Land,” the “land” in the original lyrics 「這是片暫借的土地生不了根」(“we cannot grow roots in this borrowed land”) was changed to “dream.” In Sam Hui’s “加价热潮,” the line「其實無他,塊面黃梗冇力,早知當初入埋英國籍」was replaced with「我望能生對翼,即刻飛上月球搵過食」—removing all reference to the erstwhile British colonial nationality.

Cantopop emerged as a concept and term during the ‘70s to describe popular Cantonese music in Hong Kong, which was at the time still marginalized in a colonial society that considered the language inferior to both English and Mandarin. Over the course of that decade, the genre rose in popularity in tandem with the ascent of Hong Kong’s film and TV industries and came to represent the city’s significantly hybridized culture. The ‘80s were Cantopop’s golden era, which continued into the prosperity of the early 1990s before becoming eclipsed by the rising influence of Mandopop—and, in more recent years, K-pop.

During the height of the anti-extradition protests, there was an upsurge in journalistic coverage of Cantopop that urged people to understand the music in terms of its galvanizing potential. “Protest music is not just a part of Cantopop, Cantopop itself is protest music,” writes Matt Taylor.2Matt Taylor, “Songs of Survival – Cantopop and the Fight for Hong Kong,” Asian Pop Weekly, June 18, 2019,​ It is “a song of survival that leaves a lasting legacy.” Statements like these feel rather dramatic especially given the common characterization of all Cantopop as cheesy, frivolous romance. Both points of view seem distant from the reality of the present-day industry, whose annual record sales have plummeted to HK$200 million from HK$1.6 billion over the last twenty years,3Celine Ge, “With no kings or queens, can Canto-pop find its star again?” South China Morning Post, July 22, 2017, link.​ and has been transitioning towards a dynamic scene that features more independent artists.

More often than not, songs by Serrini or My Little Airport are not anthems of anything other than small, private feelings and everyday absurdities, of romance and cynical observance in local slang. “Pop does not start beliefs or instill principles or create action ex nihilo,” Mark Greif writes in his essay “Philosophy of Pop.” “It couldn’t overturn an order.” But the insistence on finding ways to retain the thoughts and feelings that a larger power should have extinguished can be politically significant in its own right.

Tuning in from the mainland, however, sometimes this articulation of private feelings can invoke a sneaking suspicion that we are the wrong audience. If the music is speaking to a particular historical situation—which some may find questionable to begin with—we are not on the same side of it. British sociomusicologist Simon Frith writes in his essay The Discourse of World Music that musical response involves recognition, sympathy, and commitment: “This is a process of idealization both in formal terms (the way in which music provides a narrative, an experience of wholeness and completion) and as a matter of staging, in events in which solidarity is made physical.” And beyond recognition and sympathy, what kind of commitment are we ready to make?


In his book Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History, Yiu-Wai Chuposits that the emergence and popularity of karaoke played no small part in the Cantopop industry’s decline. The market encouraged songs that could be easily sung in karaoke bars and performed by amateurs over technically innovative or demanding sounds, which contributed to Cantopop’s stagnation and loss of hybridity during the mid-to-late 1990s.

This at least partially explains why for so many of us, Cantopop seems to compel our bodily involvement. The unifying cultural memory is not just tied to how recognizable these songs are, but in how easily we can all sing them. In performance, we hear the melody in our own voices and imbue the lyrics with our own sentiments. It is at once banal, familiar, intimate.

But the performability is just one marker of good karaoke music. Paid by the hour, karaoke booths are defined only by the time scale of the music. Choosing songs is a way of commanding its presence “to make us feel we are living within a moment, with no memory or anxiety about what has come before, what will come after.” As Simon Frith writes, songs are “organized (it is part of their pleasure) around anticipation and echo, around endings to which we look forward, choruses that build regret into their fading.” Good karaoke music engulfs us in its own time frame. It eclipses real-time.

Nostalgia, too, is a form of escaping real-time. We recognize a past that we cannot return to, but in grainy film photos, melodic love songs, we immerse ourselves in it anyways—and breaking that immersion can be jarring. Walking out of a movie theater or karaoke booth always results in a brief moment of disorientation, of dissonance after the puncturing of the suspended time-space.

The 2010s, for mainland Cantopop fans, was a long negotiation. After the Umbrella Protests, Denise Ho and Anthony Wong were amongst the first artists to be banned from mainland streaming platforms, which most bemoaned but accepted grudgingly. Lin Xi’s penning of the song “Raise the Umbrella” had caused rifts in the community, giving rise to the incessant arguing. From 2015 to 2018, online fans frequently cited Lin Xi’s “Beijing Welcomes You”—the theme song for the 2008 Olympics—and his decision to anglicize his name in pinyin instead of jyutping as evidence of his patriotism, an effort that seemed less rooted in actually engaging with his politics than in providing a justification for their own consumption.

The demand for Cantopop stars to perform patriotism is most often a symptom of nationalistic fervor. Sometimes, however, it is almost a plea for these stars to maintain a level of plausible deniability and stay one step behind what the public finds too far. More than any declaration, many mainland Cantopop fans seem to want a way to continue past time.

While writing this essay, I have been obsessively rereading Afterparties, the debut story collection of Cambodian-American writer Anthony Veasna So, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 28. I kept returning to a passage in the story “The Shop,” where the protagonist says this of his mother’s old Khmer CDs: “I barely understood the lyrics… When I tried articulating my feelings about home, my mind inevitably returned to these songs, the way the incomprehensible intertwined with what made me feel so comfortable. I’d lived with misunderstanding for so long, I’d stopped even viewing it as bad. It was just there, embedded in everything I loved” (90). In her review for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Summer Kim Lee describes how the nosey force of music in So’s stories are “a near refusal of nostalgia because the loop of the familiar yet misunderstood assures that the song never ends.”4Summer Kim Lee, “‘Of Course, Of Course’: On Anthony Veasna So’s ‘Afterparties,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, August 30, 2021, link.

Emotional resonance aside, the comparison falls short, not least because of the political forces that can easily press “pause” on the loop. On July 26, 2021, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced their New Karaoke Regulation: “Trial Provisions on the Management of Karaoke Content in Song and Dance Venues,” to take effect on October 1st, 2021.5“Trial Provisions on the Management of Karaoke Content in Song and Dance Venues,” China Law Translate, August 11, 2021, link.​ A new national experts group will review karaoke content and establish a national list system for prohibited songs. Random check-ins and self-review platforms will be implemented in KTVs. Music researcher Nathaniel Amar writes that the new regulation follows a general tendency of curtailed public expression and censorship in the music industry.6Nathaniel Amar, “China’s Ministry of Culture New Karaoke Regulation,” Hypotheses, July 27, 2021, link.​ Our memories of midnight nostalgic karaoke sessions may very well become a source of nostalgia unto themselves. Behind us, sounds settle like sediment beneath layers of remembrance, while the future stubbornly pulls us forward.

Ting Lin is a writer and journalist currently based in San Francisco. Her words have appeared in The Baffler, Sixth Tone, RADII and other publications. She is part of Chaoyang Trap, an experimental newsletter about life on the Chinese internet.

Album Cover of “Red Sun” by Hacken Lee

Album cover of "Zhen Jin Dian" by Bennett Pang

Screenshot of "Beijing Welcomes You"'s MV

Published: 2021.11.04