The little red songbook

Hong Kong has just hosted the East's first annual fair for the record industry. As 1997 draws ever closer, Phil Sweeney assesses the state of the colony's pop
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The Independent Culture
Hong Kong and the music business go together like braised pork and crispy noodles. The first Midem Asia, an eastern version of the music world's annual showcase/ conference/ trade fair in Cannes, filled the centre's yuppie nightclubs and vast, chilled marble hotel foyers with glitz, hyperbole, wheeling and dealing and conspicuous consumption.

Across the border in mainland China, dozens of petition signers and dissidents cool their heels in detention until the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising is safely passed. Here in the colony, singers and composers continue to leave for the USA and Canada (Vancouver's Cantopop scene is booming nowadays) as evidence of China's intentions after the 1997 handover accumulates. Record executives scoffing champagne and duck canapes at Midem's opening reception at the Cafe Deco up on the Peak don't seem particularly worried though, and looking down at the forest of skyscrapers, neon, and bumper- to-bumper Mercedes it's easy to understand the remark of Don Atyeo, former editor of London's Time Out and currently general manager of Channel V music television company. "It seems to me Hong Kong is just as likely to take over China."

The reason for Midem Asia and the presence in Hong Kong of offices for all the multinational record companies is the importance of the Asian market - around a billion people under the age of 25, with a decade's economic boom already completed and the vast Chinese market just coming on stream. At the same time, a recent levelling-off of record buying seems to show that consumers are fed up with the vapid Taiwanese ballads, Hong Kong's Cantopop idols and Bon Jovi ad nauseam that have hitherto sold in container loads.

Part of Midem Asia therefore centres around a search for new sounds. In this, much is made of alleged precision knowledge of individual nations, rather than the discredited "Pan Asian" ideal. Channel V, whose ousting of MTV from the leading music channel slot is a subject of much gossip, is said to have prospered due to local street savvy, though you wouldn't know it from the bland programmes and saccharine young VJs with Ronald Reagan body language. "Enya is my idol, she's changed my life," I was told by VJ starlet Shadow Chan, and Channel V and MTV programme directors looked blank when asked if they follow genuine roots music such as the hugely popular Malaysian-style dangdut.

Creatively, China is much touted as the coming force, with a new crop of rock bands, and curiosities such as the girl singer Dadawa, signed to a Warner's affiliate internationally, and presented with much fanfare at Midem. Dadawa's new album is inspired by Tibetan culture, presumably what was left of it after the Chinese government's belated decision to preserve for tourism the little they hadn't obliterated by the end of the Seventies. The music consequently features ethereal choirs, chanted male choruses, and lyrics dealing with the colourful and primitive spirituality China's ethnotourists see in Tibet. Did she realise, I asked Dadawa at a press conference, that many westerners might find this exercise in dubious taste, in view of the Chinese authority's predilection for throwing into jail for many years Tibetan nuns who sang songs alluding, however obliquely and poetically, to the concept of an independent Tibet? Dadawa doesn't know about politics, replied the interpreter, she's interested in the search for spirituality etc, etc.

Could Dadawa have said more in private? Her flawless and impassive young face didn't suggest so, and spirituality rather than politics turns out also to be the chief preoccupation of China's new rockers. If artists such as Ciu Jian seemed to be pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest outward in the Eighties, they're more into personal development now. "Young people in China are confused," says Landy Chang, whose Taiwan-based Magic Stone label pioneered signing Chinese rock bands. "They want to create their own dream; it's a very oriental concept, to let their minds fly away free."

So groups like Tang Dynasty, a sort of Chinese Aerosmith - Aerowong perhaps - sing of the glories of past civilisations, while only the occasional voice, like punkish He Wong, the "Beijing Bastard", spits defiance with songs like "Garbage Field" ("consciences we eat, ideology we shit"). Resistance to outspoken artists does not come uniquely from the Communist side, however. "There are plenty of young cadres in the Chinese administration open to change," says Landy Chang. "The problem is as much with commercialism from Hong Kong."

So in the colony, where the print media daily modify their tone to fit the perceived wishes of the Chinese government, Channel V, for example, won't show He Wong's video. "I suppose we are pretty self-censoring," V's programme director, Darren Childs, says. MTV Asia president Peter Jamieson agrees: "The market won't take rebelliousness - we've cut out Beavis and Butthead." So it's the bland leading the bland into 1997 as far as the Hong Kong music scene is concerned.