Funkie Gao throws regular Cantopop parties in bars around Beijing.
Culture

In Beijing, underground Cantopop nights evoke Hong Kong’s rebellious spirit

Sep 02, 2019

In a quiet alleyway in Beijing, a lone DJ spins Cantonese pop songs from the 1980s.

The discreet hutongs of China’s capital might seem like an unlikely place for Hong Kong’s homegrown genre of music, especially in light of antigovernment protests that have rocked the city.

But Cantopop still has its fans in mainland China, especially among a generation that came of age with the music.

Hong Kong’s “summer of discontent” has put Cantonese pop under greater scrutiny in mainland China, where some songs seen as protest anthems have been scrapped from music streaming sites.

But that hasn’t stopped diehard fans from sharing the music.

Fans like 40-year-old Funkie Gao, a Beijing native who has been holding regular Cantonese music nights in bars around the capital.

“Many people from my generation love Cantopop a lot,” Gao says. “The music and many Hong Kong television shows were introduced to China in the ’80s after the economy opened up.”

(Read more: China in the 1980s, when people felt free and uncensored)

For many mainland Chinese who grew up closed off from the rest of the world, Cantopop was their first exposure to music from the outside. The synthetic sounds and ruminations on love, heartbreak, and coming of age contrasted the stale, patriotic anthems of the China in which they grew up.

“I love Tat Ming Pair,” Gao says, referring to the experimental Hong Kong pop duo. “They were heavily influenced by Britpop and electronica. I didn’t know much about these music styles back then.”

An autographed Tat Ming Pair album cover from Funkie Gao’s collection of Cantopop memorabilia.
An autographed Tat Ming Pair album cover from Funkie Gao’s collection of Cantopop memorabilia. / Photo: Courtesy of Funkie Gao

Cantonese artists, as well as those from Taiwan who mostly sung in Mandarin, dominated the charts with their ballads and dance numbers. Their songs were widely covered by mainland singers, and the very first Lunar New Year gala, considered the most-watched show in the world, heavily featured pop stars from Hong Kong and Taiwan, a mark of their widespread popularity.

(Read more: Married to the stage: How Cantopop legend Anita Mui shaped 1980s fashion)

Although Cantopop no longer wields the same influence it did in the ’80s—eclipsed by the growing popularity of Korean pop and mainland China’s own homegrown industry—Gao says his gigs remain popular.

At his Cantonese nights, the DJ plays an eclectic mix of old classics and songs from indie bands like IMF and 24Herbs. His goal is to turn a younger generation onto Cantonese pop and introduce them to music that is not easily accessible in mainland China.

“The songs are filled with Cantonese slang and local cultural elements that are a lot of fun for northerners like us,” Gao says.

An undated black-and-white pubilicity photo of Anthony Wong and Tats Lau of Tat Ming Pair.
An undated black-and-white pubilicity photo of Anthony Wong and Tats Lau of Tat Ming Pair.

With Hong Kong rocked by protests and many Cantopop hits pulled from mainland music platforms as a result, Gao is quick to point out that his shows are not political.

“The music nights are purely for artistic appreciation,” he says.

But at one of his parties in July, a screen can be seen showing protest footage from Hong Kong, as Gao runs through a playlist of Cantonese hits from different eras, evoking the youthful exuberance and rebellious spirit that has pervaded the city and its musical legacy.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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