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Who's been minding the Western Music store in Hong Kong?

by Hans Ebert

It’s always bothered me that there’s been so little international coverage of what’s happening in music in this region, let alone in Hong Kong.

The quick reply, of course, is that there’s nothing much happening out here and so there’s nothing to write about as there’s no interest in this news.

Could be as this is such a disparate region for music, something MTV discovered when they marched into this region with their army of VJs and launched a one-size-fits-all channel in Asia that tanked before one could scream, “Bismarck!”

Someone at the channel’s parent company Viacom hadn’t done their homework.

Hindi music and their respective Bollywood videos weren’t embraced by Chinese audiences and vice versa whereas musical diversity rarely, if ever, travels throughout Asia.

It’s why MTV Asia is today beamed via three different channels, one channel each for a specific audience. But that was then and MTV Asia and its competitor Channel [V] are pretty much dead brands. Moving right along...

Right now, there are a few overseas publications interested in writing about the popularity of Hong Kong’s 12 member Canto Pop boy band Mirror, and the enormous marketing efforts put behind them as they spread “happy vibes” wherever they go. And gawd knows, this sombre city today needs happiness.

Being in Hong Kong and having followed the multi dimensional, multi media and multi everything rise of Mirror, one has to wonder if this baker’s dozen has the legs to go the distance.

After all, this hybrid of “Harry styles” is not exactly new. Here are 12 fairly good looking young guys who sing and dance, and if one is to believe the press strategy, have women in love with them and are tearing marriages apart in Hong Kong.

Shades of Beatlemania and “Would you allow your daughter to date a Rolling Stone?”, but, who’s to know and nothing to lose sleep over. It’s another showbiz story.

Mirror is hugely popular, they’re making people happy, they’re making money and have sponsors queuing up for part of the action. Good for them.

Who, however, is minding the dimestore selling non-Chinese music in Hong Kong? Who’s been charting its course for the future? Who’s been giving it the necessary weight not to be a lightweight tag on?

Let’s just be mighty thankful that little old Hong Kong still has the best and most international horse racing and record turnover figures. It has given us much pride of place here and around the world.

While other racing jurisdictions are falling by the wayside, Hong Kong racing grows from strength to strength.

This was most obvious even during these past two years when we found ourselves in the new abnormal. How? Why? Because of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s relentless pursuit to protect its brand and those who contribute to keeping this brand going and continuing to evolve.

You should see the pretty amazing venue called Eighth in the new members only Clubhouse in Happy Valley with its own champagne bar, cigar divan, whiskey bar, music room etc etc. As a venue, Eighth is a 10. Maybe a 12.

There’s also something very different in the works for the next musical chapter of the Club’s Happy Wednesday brand.

Of course not everyone can be the Hong Kong Jockey Club, but what about other Made In Hong Kong products? Are these evolving- and evolving into what?

What else does Hong Kong have going for it in 2021 other than perhaps some good dim sum? Why is this?

Lethargy? Lack of imagination? Politics?Jealousy? Divisiveness? Too little creativity and talent that’s not good enough? All of the above?

What can be done to rectify this problem? How can, for example, Western music be more than it is in this city and have a USP that cannot be ignored?

Let’s be frank here: Do you think that if Canto Pop artists or bands were managed by this city’s well-known and influential fat cats, these confusingly convoluted “social distancing” rules putting a dent on ‘live’ appearances by musicians wouldn’t be at least loosened?

Think that if venues started offering Canto Pop as ‘live’ entertainment fare, this wouldn’t help business?

Without getting into a dissertation on the rise and rise of Canto Pop as big business and starting in the Nineties, this music genre is the sound of Hong Kong. This is the sound many in the government grew up listening to.

What Mirror is producing is no different to what Nineties Canto Pop was churning out- except this time around it’s for a younger audience that’s not “HKTVB Jaded”.

Western music was all but killed off in Hong Kong for almost two decades by radio, television stations, music companies and concert promoters coming together and controlling what they had a vested interest in-the very lucrative world of Canto Pop.

Canto Pop grew bigger when it morphed into Mando Pop and Hong Kong artists started to tap the much larger Mandarin speaking Mainland China market.

Western music was left out in the cold and has never been invited back in. It was allowed to flounder on its own and be on life support.

In Hong Kong, it remains the Rodney Dangerfield of music. It has no respect, because there’s nothing of weight behind it.

Who’s to blame for this? Think about it.

These days, with a dwindling local population and the city no longer being the tourist attraction it was, Hong Kong is going through an identity crisis.

It’s no longer the international city it was whereas being “the gateway to China” is making squeaking sounds.

If one is to believe that out of chaos comes opportunity, it’s time for many in music who are not involved in Canto Pop to wake up and inhale the various realities of their situation.

Canto Pop isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay whereas there are some interesting pockets of alternative music happening through Chinese artists like Merry Lamb Lamb and Olivia Dawn, who seems to have now departed these shores.

Hong Kong multi media artist Nathan and his Norwegian filmmaker girlfriend Sonja who are readying themselves for prime time could be what this city has always needed.

Their blend of ambient music and experimental films of Hong Kong are inventive and creative and cannot be labelled.

What about mainstream popular Western music in Hong Kong, however? Where is it right now and where is its audience going to come from? And who IS its audience in this city in 2021?

What exactly could this “Western” music be as a viable ‘live’ attraction option, especially when many venues are trying to rebuild their businesses for a price conscious and often staycation clientele?

Surely, it cannot be more of what’s come before?

Two years ago, there was no Mirror. They were twelve individuals in a television talent competition.

With the backing of relatively new player viuTV, management and hard work, they were brought together, twelve became one and have become bigger than anyone thought they would. Timing was everything.

In these same two years, what have those making Western music in Hong Kong done to further their cause, especially when knowing that the odds have always been stacked against them?

One would hope that they would have regrouped and found more effective ways to market themselves and their musical product.

There are no fairy godmothers and nothing happens without some serious effort being made to create opportunities.

These lockdown times should have given musicians here all the time in the world to step out of safety zones and actually create something new and fresh and with the goal being to have their work heard globally despite travel restrictions.

Surely, it’s about being more than clinging to the past and wishing like hell that it returns.

A musician in Hong Kong like bassist Franklin Torres is an enormous talent waiting for the world to discover everything he has. So is drummer Tobe Senor-Cafe.

It’s about learning from the past and past mistakes and returning with ways to turn things around without glib empty promises and more copycat karaoke thinking and some fluff with another cameo from Snoop Dogg.

We should be long past all that deja-vu.

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