Antony Huen considers the relationship between Cantopop and the western literary canon.
Two years ago, the independent singer-songwriter Serruria Ka-Yan Leung, known professionally as Serrini, released her fifth full-length album, Songs of Experience; and if the Irish rock giants U2 used William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience as a titular and conceptual framework for their sister album projects in 2014–2017, Leung has taken her adaptation of Blakean art to a fuller and more radical extent. The Chinese title, “邪童謠” (which can be translated as “devilish nursery rhymes”), the cover art, and the accompanying music videos immediately reveal gothic influences, which, we know, were behind Blake’s Songs and his other works. The bilingual track list reads as a reinvention of Blake’s poems. The songs “豔后 / Evil Queen,” “笛女 / Piperess’s Revenge,” “小紅 / Lil’ Red,” “海妖 / Sirens,” and “亡國妖姬 / La Femme du Mal” (an ingenious play on Les Fleurs du mal), for example, constitute a series of portraits of femme fatales, drawing diversely on Western history, folklore, mythology, and poetry, and exuding the repetitive quality of nursery rhymes, as in the refrain “Boys and girls follow me now,” sung in English by the “piperess.” All the literary references and allusions can be attributed to Leung’s early and doctoral training in literary and cultural research, and the young multi-hyphenate is one of her kind in the local and regional music industries. Leung, however, is not the only Hong Kong lyricist appropriating literary texts. Her persistence in transforming her knowledge of Western literature into pop creations reminds us of the frequent uses of literature in the Cantopop tradition.
“Cantopop” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a type of “popular music originating in Hong Kong, which combines Western-style pop music with Cantonese lyrics.” The definition is far from exhaustive, with the uses of English and other languages in Cantopop songs and the influence of both traditional and pop music from the Western canon and beyond; but if we understand Cantopop as an indicator of the exchange between Eastern and Western cultures, which has shaped the city of Hong Kong since the colonial age, we can easily see many Cantopop songs taking their bearings from Western literature. Here, I write as a literary and cultural historian with a growing interest in the poetics of song lyrics. In The Oxonian Review, I identified a “lockdown poetics” in pop and poetic verses, and here I am reflecting on the influence of Western literature on recent Cantopop songs, which runs in ironic parallel with the frequently reported lack of a reading culture in Hong Kong, the controversy around the hazy notion of “foreign forces” since the social movements in 2014 and 2019–2020, and the mounting concerns about the cultural products permitted under the sweeping National Security Law, enacted in June 2020.
Against all sociocultural and political odds, Cantopop songs from Hong Kong continue to adapt Western literature, bringing their sources of inspiration to the foreground and achieving mainstream and commercial success. Leung’s experimental version of Songs of Experience might not be as popular as her earlier and recent efforts; but she is also known for the soft rock song “Let Us Go Then You And I” (2017), named after the first line of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Leung’s Cantonese song with an English title has become an anthem for millennials faced with a bleak future. Over the years, Wyman Wong, one of the most famous Cantopop lyricists, and who has recently contributed to a duet featuring Leung, has named many songs sung in Cantonese after Western or other literary texts and owed his inspiration to them. Earlier examples include the songs named after and based upon The Little Prince (小王子) (1996), A Lover’s Discourse (戀人絮語) (1997), and Death in Venice (魂斷威尼斯) (2003).
More recently, Wong’s song “羅生門,” named after the Japanese classic Rashōmon, was a huge hit in 2015. Since the film adaptation was released in 1950, the Chinese title has lent itself as a Cantonese idiom for an unresolved dispute; and Wong alludes to the novel, film, and idiom for a duet that expresses two contrasting views about a past romantic relationship. According to KKBOX, a popular streaming platform, Wong has also contributed to the first and second most streamed Cantopop songs in 2021 so far, and both use in their titles the Chinese name of a Hollywood film. The song “E生生連還不幸事件,” translated as “Mr. E’s Series of Unfortunate Events,” plays on the title of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (itself an adaptation of Daniel Handler’s children’s series) to speak of the unrequited love of a man with the initial of the singer Edan Lui himself; and the speaker in the song “俏郎君,” titled after the Chinese name of the 1973 romantic drama film The Way We Were and performed by Hins Cheung, can be identified with the protagonist Hubbell Gardiner, lamenting the fundamental differences between a loving couple. We may go as far to call Cheung’s song a response to the titular song recorded by Barbra Streisand, who played Katie Morosky in the film. In his lyrics, Wong, again, overlaps the boundaries between cultures, languages, and artistic genres.
The Western literary and film canon, among other cultural traditions, has been at Wong’s disposal for his lyrics, paving the way for Leung’s indebtedness to romanticist and modernist poetry in her songwriting. There have been linguistic studies about the code-switching and code-mixing in Cantopop songs, and the book Hong Kong Cantopop: A Concise History (2017) is a trailblazing historical account of the Cantopop tradition since the 1950s; however, in the wake of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his song poetics, there has not been a full scholarly consideration of the literary value of Cantopop songs or the literary influence on them. The lyricist-academic Chow Yiu-Fai, for instance, has reported on his uses of English words, as in an article published in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies in 2009, but he has not discussed his uses of Western literature, which began at the outset of his career as a lyricist. The earliest example is the 1989 song “愛在瘟疫蔓延時,” called by the Chinese name for El amor en los tiempos del cólera. Chow’s practice of adaptation, if not addictive like Wong’s, continues till now. The latest example is “溝渠暢泳 (Gutters)” (2020), released to critical acclaim. The song builds an extended metaphor around the famous line from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” and has been promoted as a tribute to it.
I want to end my short reflection with the contemporary Christian music released by the veteran singer-actress Sammi Cheng. The Cantopop diva, since her baptism in 2017, has revitalised her career with a group of bestselling albums. A number of the album tracks are named after Christian texts, including Lettie Cowman’s Streams in the Desert (荒漠甘泉) and Neale Donald Walsch’s series Conversations with God (與神對話), and after biblical verses, as in her album released this past August. The lead single “萬物有時 (A Time for Everything)” expresses the idea of “a time for everything” (from Ecclesiastes 3), and the follow-up single “新造的人 (New Creation)” is an electronic rock interpretation of a verse from Corinthians 5:17: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (若有人在基督裡，他就是新造的人). Cheng’s songs form a religiously themed subset within the literature-informed Cantopop tradition. Apart from religious faith, the consistent adaptations of literature in Cantopop songs are governed by at least personal, creative, cultural, and marketing agendas; and a full recognition of the literary influences on Cantopop, a unique example of cultural glocalisation, is overdue and more so with the steady emergence and quantity of literary Cantopop songs.
Antony Huen is a Research Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Metropolitan University. His latest publications include essays in Hong Kong Review of Books and the New Defences of Poetry project, and poems in harana poetry and The Dark Horse Magazine. For a record of his work, please visit: https://antonyhuen.mystrikingly.com. @antonyhuen