It's official: The centre of the Chinese pop world has shifted to China

G.E.M. made her mark outside Hong Kong after emerging runner-up on China reality TV competition I Am A Singer 2 last year. -- PHOTO: NOW MANGO
G.E.M. made her mark outside Hong Kong after emerging runner-up on China reality TV competition I Am A Singer 2 last year. -- PHOTO: NOW MANGO

G.E.M. is the only singer of note from Hong Kong to break out in the world of Chinese pop in recent years. Before her, one might have to reach back to Hong Kong-based Khalil Fong, who made a significant impact on the scene. And he made his debut back in 2005 with Soul Boy.

(Born in Shanghai, G.E.M. moved to Hong Kong at the age of four and is now based there.)

In particular, her path to regional success via a China television show, I Am A Singer, reflects how the centre of the pop world has shifted over the years.

The paltry number of widely popular Hong Kong artists is a striking turnaround for the territory, which was once the epicentre of Chinese pop.

Cantopop hit its golden age in the 1980s and 1990s and its stars were seen beyond its shores as trendsetters and the epitome of cool. Leslie Cheung was melancholy on Wind Blows On (1983) and suave on Stand Up (1986), while Anita Mui was the bold shape-shifter on the cover of records such as Temptress (1986).

The likes of Cheung and Mui did have Mandarin releases, but their focus was very much on their home market. They were Cantopop artists, first and foremost, who would dip their toes into Mandopop every now and then.

The influence the territory exerted was so strong that it was in Hong Kong that Beijing-born Faye Wong launched her music career in 1989, even if it was not exactly by design. Still, she built a substantial body of work in Cantonese before releasing her first Mandarin album, Mystery, in 1994.

Hong Kong was so dominant that its Four Heavenly Kings - Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Aaron Kwok and (Beijing-born) Leon Lai - held sway in the world of entertainment, from music to movies, from the 1990s well into the 2000s.

Gradually, Taiwan began catching up in the sophistication of its pop machinery and it became the new hotbed of Chinese music. The likes of A-mei, who debuted with Sisters in 1996, and Jay Chou, who released his debut Jay in 2000, enjoyed, and still enjoy, massive success in the Chinesespeaking world.

Taiwan attracted Singapore artists such as Stefanie Sun and Tanya Chua to launch their Mandarin music careers there. In contrast, just a little earlier, Kit Chan was straddling both Taiwan and Hong Kong with her Mandarin and Cantonese releases in the 1990s during the transitional period.

Meanwhile, as the China market began to open up, it grew in importance, given its large size. A singer could really be a regional star only if he or she was big in China as well.

In this regard, Mandarin-speaking artists from Taiwan had a language advantage over their counterparts from Hong Kong. It is not a coincidence that Fong releases his albums in Mandarin and G.E.M. sings in both Mandarin and Cantonese on her discs.

China is increasingly part of the equation in how success is defined, not just with its huge market, but also due to the widespread influence of its popular TV talent shows such as Voice Of China and I Am A Singer. The country is starting to be a tastemaker and not just a passive consumer of trends and stars created elsewhere. It is also producing talent who are making inroads abroad, including Golden Melody Award winner for Best New Artist Li Ronghao.

And that is the route taken by G.E.M. In doing so, she has broken out to a wider audience than she could have if she had remained focused on only Hong Kong.

There are Hong Kong artists who continue to put out mainly Cantonese fare and, among those who stick to that template, the most successful include Joey Yung and Denise Ho. And yes, their popularity does extend beyond the territory.

Tellingly though, Yung's concert at the Max Pavilion in Singapore Expo in 2009 was a one-night engagement, as was her gig at the similarly sized Compass Ballroom at Resorts World Convention Centre in 2013.

That is nothing to sniff at for sure. But it also underlines G.E.M.'s sparkling achievement of a three-night run at the Max Pavilion.

Boon Chan

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