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In this paper, gender negotiations in the production, musical forms, and consumption of Cantopop are taken as a cultural exemplar for a social and political imagination of ambivalence, which seems to be shaping popular life in Hong Kong. It has three focal points - musical forms and expressions of Cantopop (style, lyrics, iconography, affect), gender politics, and 'everyday-ness' - which converge to mark a notable cultural logic performing an enlarging sense of ambivalence about a city that has seen a shift from high moments of economic prosperity to the current postcolonial uncertainties. In other words, Cantopop signals a shift in our sensibilities, a redrawing of our affective map of everyday life after an important historical and politico-administrative shift. In a sense then, this paper explores Hong Kong's changing identity within the sight and sound of popular culture, by specifically tracing some of the ways in which gender politics is inscribed, coded, negotiated, performed, or simply flirtingly posed on the surface of popular culture.
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Inter-Asia Cultural Studies
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
John Nguyet ERNI
Online Publication Date: 01 March 2007
To cite this Article: ERNI, John Nguyet (2007) 'Gender and everyday evasions:
moving with Cantopop ', Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 8:1, 86 — 108
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Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 8, Number 1, 2007
ISSN 1464–9373 Print/ISSN 1469–8447 Online/07/010086–23 © 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14649370601119055
Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
John Nguyet ERNI
Taylor and Francis LtdRIAC_A_211839.sgm10.1080/14649370601119055Inter-Asia Cultural Studies1464-9373 (print)/1469-8447 (online)Original Article2007Taylor & Francis81000000April 2007JohnNguyet
In this paper, gender negotiations in the production, musical forms, and consumption of
Cantopop are taken as a cultural exemplar for a social and political imagination of ambivalence,
which seems to be shaping popular life in Hong Kong. It has three focal points – musical forms and
expressions of Cantopop (style, lyrics, iconography, affect), gender politics, and ‘everyday-ness’ –
which converge to mark a notable cultural logic performing an enlarging sense of ambivalence about
a city that has seen a shift from high moments of economic prosperity to the current postcolonial
uncertainties. In other words, Cantopop signals a shift in our sensibilities, a redrawing of our affec-
tive map of everyday life after an important historical and politico-administrative shift. In a sense
then, this paper explores Hong Kong’s changing identity within the sight and sound of popular
culture, by specifically tracing some of the ways in which gender politics is inscribed, coded, negoti-
ated, performed, or simply flirtingly posed on the surface of popular culture.
:Cantopop, gendered sensibilities, Hong Kong, everyday life, politics of
Introduction: on ambivalence
It has been a well-recognized and rehearsed claim made within cultural studies that popu-
lar practices tend to give rise to ambivalent struggles between the tactics of everyday life
and social power. As the complexity of ‘the popular’ continues to be explored and theo-
rized, we recognize that the conceptualization of cultural practices and affective forms into
semioses of high and low, dominant and resistant, fatal and banal, and so on, has not
always been a profitable way of thinking since it renders political judgments difficult to
make with real persuasive force. The question remains: what is the shape and logic of this
ambivalence aroused by popular culture? How is ambivalence expressed, distributed, and
even consumed, in mass forms, such as through sound, image, and urban forms? How is its
cultural politics understood in our changing everyday life? How is popular ambivalence
, with what corresponding
In Hong Kong, ambivalence has become a tangible political reality. A chronic and
prolonged sense of social unrest over the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative
region) postcolonial government and its mishandling of an unending series of crises – from
the property market crash, the fiscal deficit crisis, the misconduct of senior administrative
officials, to the public health crisis of SARS, just to name a few – has widely been said to
constitute a structural crisis of confidence among the populace.
But here I would like to
underscore a different way of thinking about our chronic instability. In some ways, the
crises have over-accelerated our sense of ‘change’ in a city that is famously proud of its
speed. This ironic overdrive – ‘we can’t stand sluggishness but things are moving too fast
even for us!’ – is part of a web of ambivalence in our everyday life. In local popular culture,
there is a material form of this ironic tempo – you can (still) hear it in Cantopop.
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
In this paper, I examine one particular aspect of popular practice in Hong Kong – that
of gender negotiations found in the production, the musical forms, and the consumption of
Cantopop – as an exemplar for the social and political imagination of ambivalence that
seems to be shaping our everyday life. I put together here three focal points – musical forms
and expressions of Cantopop (style, lyrics, iconography, affect), gender politics, and ‘every-
day-ness’ – in order to propose that a notable
cultural logic
that performs an enlarging sense
of ambivalence can be found in a city that has seen a shift from high moments of economic
prosperity to the current postcolonial uncertainties. Besides being a historical and politico-
administrative shift, it is simultaneously a shift in our sensibilities, our redrawing of the
affective map of everyday life.
In a sense then, this paper explores Hong Kong’s changing identity within the sight and
sound of popular culture, and along the way, traces some of the significant ways in which
gender politics is inscribed, coded, negotiated, performed, or simply flirtingly posed on the
surface of popular culture. Specifically, I am interested in three sets of issues about Canto-
pop, gender politics, and everyday life: first, the gendered practices in the Cantopop indus-
try; second, the gendering of affect as a variety of social imaginations expressed in
Cantopop songs; and third, how those two help to stage the ground upon which the gender-
ing of everyday life in Hong Kong is imagined. My goal is to develop a way of talking about
these relations by keeping pace with the city’s own definition of popular life, which by most
accounts is rather fluid, non-dogmatic, nomadic, un-obsessed with structures or depths; in
short, flexible and highly adaptable to divergent forces in cultural (post-)modernity. I will
suggest that in our current volatile times, this highly flexible politics of ‘in-difference’ –
arguably embedded in the gender politics of Cantopop – has managed to persist. The
conclusion will address this question about the politics of ‘in-difference.’ Furthermore,
although the reflection made in this paper focuses on Hong Kong and a music culture
mostly associated with that city, it must be stated that the forms of popular life, pop music
culture, and even gender politics may be found in other urban Asian centers and their pop
music cultures (such as in South Korea or Taiwan), nationally after a period of advanced
economic and social development as well as periods of reform and instability, and region-
ally after an intensified process of cultural commodity circulation.
This paper does not endeavor to provide a history of Cantopop per se; there are many well-
researched historical accounts of the rise and change of Cantopop in the landscape of Hong
Kong’s popular culture (written mostly in Chinese) (Chu, 1998; Hui, 2001; Lau, 2000; Wong,
2003). Nonetheless, this paper utilizes a set of normative historical research for their insights
into specific issues regarding gender as well as changes in the city, such as the important works
of Huang Zhihua (1990, 2000) and Tang Wai Man (1998). No such historical work, however,
directly focuses on tracing gender practices and politics in Cantopop culture. Direct sourcing
was therefore deemed significant for this project. In-depth interviews were conducted with
Mr Alex Chi-kwong Lee, a long-time disc jockey for Radio-Television Hong Kong. This paper
has benefited from Mr Lee’s contact with music producers and Cantopop stars, and his exten-
sive insider’s knowledge of the local popular music industry and scene from the 1980s onward.
Further, reproduction of song lyrics is also included in the paper, from such sources as ‘Lyrics
Warehouse’ and ‘Cool Man Music’ (see endnote 22), in order to authenticate various claims
made about the kinds of imaginations about gender as they are constructed textually.
At a broader conceptual level, I position this paper as a representation of an exercise that
extracts from various key points of development – around specific Cantopop personalities/
stars, concert-going practices, innovations in lyrics writing, etc – a useful map about what can
arguably constitute a popular imaginary for the city. The insights about, say, how and why
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John Nguyet Erni
masculinity or masculine affect gets produced and circulated through Cantopop, thus allow
us to address a broader, more diffused, cultural landscape with its own characteristics, be in
remnants of colonialism or a new shape of hard postcolonial blues. Expressions of femininity
in Cantopop, too, allow us to survey the qualitative changes in a culture’s everyday life, either
by indexing patriarchal values or by referencing fans’ taste. Key examples of songs, stars, and
events, therefore, are paramount in building, or more accurately
, our received histo-
ries of Cantopop. Such a rebuilding is necessary for imagining not just a normative history of
a music culture, but many other
capable of illuminating the conjuncture between music,
social difference, and city life. In ‘Cultural history and cultural studies,’ Michael Steinberg
provides us with a basis for reformulating our understanding of received history in general:
The dominant narrative in the history of historiography is that of the evolution of a normal
science, but that does not certify such practice as the best history. The history of cultural
studies… is, to be sure, a history of disciplinary disruption… Cultural history’s most
insidious potential is the production of closed narratives of cultural dominance and
authenticity… Cultural studies’ most disturbing potential is the denial of historicity and
temporality. (Steinberg 1996: 104–5)
I take that ‘denial of historicity and temporality’
in the context of
a ‘disciplinary disruption’
not as a negation of historical methods by cultural studies methods per se, but an opportu-
nity to rework what we can do with things such as facts, time, events, and ‘the empirical.’ At
the heart of this paper lies a desire to understand the social imaginary built around the
traces of music, gender, and the everyday in a highly specific research context, namely a city
in uncertain times. I leave it to the reader to move through the ‘minor’ histories as outlined
in the following, so as to imagine Hong Kong’s popular life anew.
To begin with, there was a definitive shift in Hong Kong popular music in the mid-1970s
away from Mandarin pop ballads to an emergence of a very local Cantonese pop fever. To
be sure, this was partly the result of a new ‘organized aesthetics’ of the ‘Cantonese sound’
brought on by (a) better recording technologies, (b) local radio stations’ efforts to promote
local music, and (c) a more organized music industry working hand in hand with a prosper-
ing television industry.
Much more importantly, this shift signaled Cantonese pop music’s
ability to capitalize on the unique cultural sensibility of a booming city at the time. The
enormous popularity of Samuel Hui as a songwriter, lyricist, and performer catapulted the
new Cantonese pop music to new heights of popularity, serving as a cultural medium that
expressed a new ‘Hong Kongness.’
The contribution of Sam Hui (and his contemporaries,
including his brother Michael Hui) to the birth of the new Cantopop music scene in the mid-
1970s, and arguably to a whole new awareness of local cultural identity, was threefold.
First, Hui’s incorporation of the everyday reality of working-class life into his music
(and television series) in the context of rapid economic growth in the territory converged
with the emergence of a new consumer market whose taste centered on the bittersweet
aspects of life during boom time.
Perhaps one of Hui’s most well-liked songs was ‘Half a
Pound, Eight Taels’ from his brother Michael Hui’s film ‘The Private Eyes’:
We’re a team of workers
Running all over the streets until we get ulcers
We scrounge for small change the whole month, how can we get enough (it’s bloody petty)
For sure, it’s a real dead end
This horrible boss gets mad all the time (crazy like a chicken) whether it’s fair or not, he’s
always barking
Every time you ask for a raise, he pulls a horrible long face (it’s just an act)
So you end up starving
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
(Tit for tat) Work like a dog
(Tit for tat) How would you like to fire a wet weapon
(Tit for tat) If you’ve got the guts, grab a gun and do an armed robbery
This guy’s worked for half a pound
Now he wants his eight taels back
It’s so hard to make a living
A fair go, where can you find such a thing (can’t stand it anymore)
We’re a team of workers
For our whole lives we’ve been slaves to money
It’s a tough break, talk about it and you threaten the ghosts (they die in front of you)
Don’t say it’s not a big deal
(Tit for tat) Happiness may exist but it’s not for you
(Tit for tat) More tragic than a sausage plunged in boiling water
(Tit for tat) Even something as small as chickenfeed and we still want to peck at it
This guy’s worked for half a pound
Now he wants his eight taels back
These days it’s tough to make a living
A fair go, where can you find such a thing (can’t stand it anymore)
Hui’s comic but realistic caricature of the working-class hero struggling against manage-
ment and the rapid rise of the cost of living in the city – another famous tune by Hui
was ‘Price Hike Fever’ – resonated with ordinary cultural sensibilities of the time.
These particular songs reached far and deep into the community through extensive
radio play and television replay. Up against Hui’s successful commercialization of a new
Cantopop sound, Mandarin ballads sung by famous female talents at the time, most
notably Teresa Teng, Rao Shou-rong, and You Yea, faced major competition. So did the
talented Chelsia Chen, a female singer-songwriter whose popularity was eclipsed by
Sam Hui. Further, although Mandarin ballads, and later Japanese pop, remained fairly
popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the enormously successful tran-
snational career of Teresa Teng, popular taste in Hong Kong took a definitive turn
toward local Cantonese music capable of reflecting the acute pragmatism and crude
social realism of local working-class people (and I might add, the sensibility of working-
class men).
Second, because Sam Hui’s musical background stemmed from band performances
(‘The Lotus’) that combined Western-style instrumentation with local lyrics, and because
he was able to cross over from soft rock to the pop genre, he became a model for many
aspiring young men who aspired to make it in the commercial music scene. Indeed, band
culture then and now remains largely a male phenomenon, oozing testosterone as well as
feelings of angst. The reasons are obvious: the social mobility of male youth and the
merchandising of musical instruments to them are coupled with the idealization of work-
ing class masculine identity and sensibility. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, much of this
gendered formation of fraternal band culture was of course heavily influenced by the
Beatles, who had come to perform in Hong Kong in 1964. Several male bands became
popular, such as The Lotus and Teddy Robins and the Playboys.
The most popular band
in the late 1970s was of course The Wynners, who, like the Beatles, adopted a band name
containing a deliberately misspelled vowel.
Ironically, the cultural idealization of the
working-class male hero
did not replace
the continuing popularity of the figure of the
‘factory girl’ in popular novels, films, and television. The masculinist tendency in early-
day Cantopop songs ignored the contribution of working class women to the development
of the local economy, even as the industry was actively building an audience base and a
fan culture involving young factory girls.
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John Nguyet Erni
The third effect of the generation of male talents such as Sam Hui and the Wynners on
Cantopop history is the structural exclusion of women from being songwriters, lyric-
writers, or producers of music. To the extent that these male stars carried on the historical
lineage of popular music-making and movie-making (some dating back to Shanghai in the
1930s and the 1940s), they had built their success within a field and a network that rarely
took women musicians seriously (excluding of course a handful of female singers).
Cantonese music and film historian Huang Zhihua hints at a convergence of a male domi-
nated field in post-war Hong Kong, involving male song writers (such as Chow Chung of
the 1950s and So Yung of the 1960s and early 1970s), and to an extent, male radio personali-
ties (such as Lee Ngo and his protégé Cheung Sing in the 1950s) (see Huang 1990: 39–41;
Huang 2000: 2–27). And as I pointed out earlier, the success of Sam Hui and the Wynners
signaled a displacement of popular female singers. Structurally, the flourishing of male
Cantopop solo and band performances meant the decline of a whole generation of female
Mandarin ballad performers whose lineage, ironically, also extended back to the Chinese
operatic music community in post-war times. Indeed, much of this new industry in Hong
Kong rested on the shoulders of a few male songwriters and lyric-writers, the most promi-
nent figure being Joseph Koo Kai-fai. In Stephen Chan’s study of Cantopop lyric-writers as
cultural workers, he points out the unsystematic and sometimes grueling nature of the work
of the lyric-writers. Chan suggests that this is because they often had to produce a large
quantity of songs rapidly and under great pressure, and because these lyric-writers often
had had no formal training in musicology or lyric composition (Stephen Chan 1997). As a
result, songwriters and lyric-writers began to develop a paternalistic framework through
which skills were transmitted informally from one generation of men to another in a
master-apprentice type of relational network. Such a network effectively excluded women
from participating in it, except as performers (and hence, the objects of the male gaze).
Chan’s study, which surveys the prominent male lyric-writers in Hong Kong such as Lam
Chik and Anthony Lun Wing-leung, has refrained from pointing out this male-dominated
To better understand the history and the system of power that underlies Cantopop
culture and its industry practices, we must ask: why, in Hong Kong popular culture, was
the post-war ideal of economic and social reconstruction and the development of a new
modernity overwhelmingly centered on the contribution and image of working-class men
and male tycoons? How did this masculinist sense of working-class heroism work to deny
working-class women’s contribution to culture and the economy, yet at the same time
manage to promote a new consumer culture relying on those very working-class women
whose ideals, dreams, frustrations, and hopes were not reflected either in the songs or in
industry practices? Why are real women’s contributions to this male music community, as
resources of support in the roles of wives and background singers, consistently ignored?
Did all of this in part explain why female film stars who popularized the persona of the
‘factory girl,’ such as Chan Po-chu and Siu Fong-fong, did not cross over into the Cantopop
scene even though they acted
and sang
their way into movie stardom? More than four
decades since the emergence of Cantopop, the female equivalents of Joseph Koo or Lam
Chik or James Wong, Richard Lam, or Yiufai Chow, or more recently Wyman Wong, are
few and far between.
To my knowledge, only a small handful of female lyric-writers exist
in the Cantopop industry’s history, the most prominent being Siu Mei, Lee Man, Cheung
Mei-yin, and Koo Sin-man.
So, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cantopop industry was a field dominated by men
and the male imagination, even as it relied on the support of women and a significant
female fan culture. As a whole, the cultural industries of popular radio, disc jockeys, films,
and television perpetuated the domination of men as producers and managers of the
popular culture scene. From the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, the super-stardom of male
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
performers such as Alan Tam and Leslie Cheung
brought the commodification of a new
masculinity (supported by a fraternal network of producers, songwriters, and lyric-writers)
and the promotion of idol-worshipping by young women to new heights.
Television has provided an important outlet for the rapid growth of Cantopop culture,
especially through one of its golden variety programs,
Enjoy Yourself Tonight
. Besides
Yourself Tonight
, the increasing success of Cantonese soap operas and period dramas on tele-
vision has pumped new blood into the Cantopop culture through the popularity of televi-
sion series theme songs. These television series represented an important turning point in
Hong Kong Cantopop culture, partly because their theme songs helped make visible a small
group of strong female performers, such as Sandra who sang the theme song for HKTVB’s
first significant period drama
Foolish Marriages
, Kwan Kuk-ying for
Mad Tides
, Cheung Tak-
lan for
Luk Siu-fung
, Frances Yip for
The Shores of Shanghai
, and Lisa Wong for
The King of
. One interesting observation about this era is that while many of the soap operas
and period dramas increasingly focused on the lives of strong women and shrewd business-
women as one of their central themes, such as in the series
The Powerful
Mad Tides
, and
Heavenly Swords
, the theme songs for these series, however, were all given to male talents
such as Roman Tam and Adam Cheng Siu-chow.
The rise of the career of Roman Tam, through singing television series theme songs and
campy tunes,
and of Adam Cheng, through singing and acting in popular period drama
television series, coupled with the spectacular success of Alan Tam and Leslie Cheung,
helped to develop a number of important cultural practices within the Cantopop industry.
These include (1) tie-in merchandising of posters, T-shirts, toys, and a plethora of products
targeting school boys and girls; (2) the systematic development of fan clubs and organiza-
tions, and more broadly the development of teenage idolatry as a stable feature of Hong
Kong popular culture as a whole; (3) the rise of an industry focusing on the systematic and
multi-pronged coordination of Cantopop performances, such as those promoted by the
prolific Yiu Wing Entertainment Company, which organized appearances of Cantopop
stars through concert and television routes, music award shows, and public relations
activities oriented to community and charity events; and finally (4) the beginning of the
phenomenon of ‘super-concerting’ in which performing 30 or more consecutive concerts in
rapid succession became the frenzied trend of mass Cantopop consumption. Choi Po-king
documents that at the height of this phenomenon in 1989, as many as 129 consecutive days
of concerts took place at the Hong Kong Coliseum (Choi 1990: 543–6). She adds, ‘Assuming
that each ticket cost HK$125 on the average, the ticket sales for the aggregate attendance of
1,350,271 for the year 1989 amounts to HK$168 million, about half of the total record sales
for local songs’ (Choi 1990: 543).
Through these developments, a whole commercial field of Cantopop music was solidly
established by the mid-1980s, generating multi-million dollar stardoms – for mostly male
performers and songwriters – but an industry supported by an ever-increasing and diversi-
fying consumer culture, which tended to be coded as ‘feminine’ in the popular tabloid press
(e.g. in
gossip magazines) and in bubblegum teenage magazines.
Throughout the 1980s, of course, there was also the important career of Anita Mui Yim-
Dubbed the all time ‘diva’ and ‘queen’ of Cantopop, Mui provided a counter star-
dom to a male-dominated pop culture scene (see Witzleben 1999). Through her brash voice,
assertive but seductive poses, and a strong display of female sexuality, Mui challenged the
male-dominated industry with her forceful style of female flirtations. Mui also challenged
the more conservative and ‘softer’ femininity signified by other popular female performers
of the time (such as Paula Tsui Siu-fung, Jenny Yan-lei, and Lisa Wang Ming-chuen).
can forget Mui’s controversial song ‘Bad Girl’ in 1982 (adapted from Sheena Easton), which
contained lyrics that encouraged young women to challenge the patriarchal control of
women’s bodies and sexuality? Or her rendition of Madonna’s ‘Blonde Ambition’ in her
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John Nguyet Erni
concert performances, flaunting her pointy metallic brassiere? Jin Yuejue of the
Toronto Star
in an article aptly called ‘Just call her the Eastern Madonna’ wrote:
Mui is often compared with Madonna, not only because their careers started at almost the
same time but also because they are chameleons – constantly projecting a new image. A
straight translation of her nickname is ‘100 changing Mui.’ Her gender-bending persona
ranges from elegant aristocrat to wild tomboy, from gangster to schoolgirl, and from hard-
boiled businesswoman to charming sexpot. She never repeats herself on the stage and much
of a concert’s budget is spent on costumes. Mui’s chameleon quality is also reflected in her 39
albums. She sings in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese and her repertoire includes love
songs, dance tunes, and Chinese opera (Yuejue 2002).
‘Bad girl pop’ has never been a significant sub-genre of Cantopop,
and stars like Anita
Mui were often constructed in the popular press as a tough female persona that could be
seen but not emulated.
Her song ‘Bad Girl’ was censored by the government radio RTHK
(Radio-Television Hong Kong). Similarly, occasional references to wild female sexuality by
a few other female Cantopop performers were frequently subjected to trivialization by the
industry and censorship by the radio. The most prominent examples that come to mind
include: Prudence Liew’s famed song ‘Midnight Love’ (1986) about a prostitute’s defiance
of repulsive male sexual appetite, and Sammi Cheng’s ‘Ten Commandments’ (1994) whose
remixed version contained the sound of a woman screaming in pleasure during love-
making. Predictably, Cheng’s song was also censored by RTHK.
With the so-called ‘semi-retirement’ of Alan Tam, Anita Mui, and Leslie Cheung
to a certain extent, with the untimely death in 1993 of teenage pop star Danny Chan Pak-
the era of grandiose super-concerts and legendary super-stardom began to wane
toward the end of the 1980s. Replacing this was a broad proliferation of new stars and star-
lets, such as Joey Yung, Andy Hui, and teen stars such as Twins and Boy’z.
The gender
landscape of Cantopop culture appeared to lend itself to equal opportunity hits. Yet let me
briefly note five important developments in the Cantopop scene from the late 1980s to the
present, and outline some of the specificity of the gender situation in the industry.
First, there has been a return to the trend of all-male bands, from Grasshopper and
Raidas to bands seeking their own distinctive sounds (e.g. Beyond’s rock sound versus Tat
Ming Pair’s synthesizer sound). Members of these male bands often know how to play their
instruments, thereby contributing a certain ‘authenticity’ to their music that, in turn,
assisted in their expression of a specific sound known as ‘urban male angst’.
Coates reminds us of the gendered distinctions between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’:
[R]ock is metonymic with ‘authenticity’ while ‘pop’ is metonymic with ‘artifice.’ Sliding even
further down the metonymic slope, ‘authentic’ becomes ‘masculine’ while ‘artificial’
becomes ‘feminine’… The common-sense meaning of rock becomes ‘male,’ while ‘pop’ is
naturalized as ‘female.’ Real men aren’t pop, and women, real or otherwise, don’t rock
(Coates 1997: 52).
The revival of male bands with a distinctive rock sound can therefore be seen as a negotia-
tion of a ‘remasculinization’ of a ‘feminized’ musical genre. Second, there was of course the
‘crowning’ of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ in 1992 – Jackie Cheung Hok-yau, Andy Lau Tak-
wah, Leon Lai Ming, and Aaron Kwok Fu-shing – who together commanded the biggest
global following of fans in Cantopop history.
The slick construction of their careers
through varying forms of competition, sex appeal, and brotherly collaboration was an inge-
nious marketing strategy.
Third, during this period, the karaoke industry in Hong Kong developed into a stable
component of the Cantopop market and indeed of the broader fabric of entertainment
culture as a whole. At the marketing level, karaoke revolutionized the mechanism by which
new stars receive exposure and construct their appeal; karaoke has overtaken radio as the
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
old prime means of promoting new releases. The vocal space of karaoke is also a cultural
space claimed and occupied by the listening public; for the first time and in the most direct
way possible, fans literally take the stage and engage with the music through creative forms
of mimicry, identification, satire, and indifference.
The fourth development has to do with
the steady integration of a Western-style tabloid frenzy in the consumption of gossip news
about Cantopop stars. According to Alex Lee, a popular disc jockey for RTHK-2, Cantopop
stars ceased being merely idols and divas after the rise of the gossip industry in Hong Kong,
which, like the one in North America, has been highly successful in transforming stars’ life
stories into social discourses (Lee 2005). The general public consumes these stories in the
form of scandals and debates or even measures them in moral terms. For instance, in the
late 1990s, social discourse about extra-marital affairs became spotlighted as a public
opinion issue in Hong Kong in the light of the stories about marital disputes and infidelities
surrounding the relationship between Cantopop stars George Lam and Sally Yeh and
between Kenny Bee and his then wife.
Interestingly, the public debates that were generated by this celebrity news over ques-
tions of infidelity, sexual freedom, sexual agency and marital rights, etc, lent focus on
gender differences in society, which, I would suggest, included the suggestion of a new
womanhood in Hong Kong.
The legal problems of young idol Nicholas Tse also highlight
public awareness about an open secret about gender: that male adventures, risk-taking, and
recklessness are part of class privilege.
The fifth, and in my mind most significant, development of Cantopop culture during
the late 1980s and early 1990s has to do with the events of Tiananmen Square. Political
consciousness, the by-product of a certain complex identification between the people of
Hong Kong and the bloodshed that shook Beijing and the rest of the world, began to take
shape in the commercial arena. In a very visible way, Cantopop articulated itself around
questions of democracy and the politics of modern Chinese identity. Patriotic songs and
songs containing political satire quickly surfaced in various commercial corridors and at
mass rallies in the city in 1989 and beyond. My interest is in how this politicized turn in
Cantopop represented a set of practices of affective identification through music, and in
what way these practices produced a gendered form of ideological negotiation over the
delicate political future of Hong Kong. I will return to this question of ‘political Cantopop’
In the above, I have only sketched some of the important developments in the evolution
of the Cantopop industry in Hong Kong. Its history, as we have seen, contains a gendered
formation. In important ways, the structure of the Cantopop industrial complex has
excluded women from becoming producers, songwriters, or lyric-writers who could be
accorded equal respect or income-commanding status with their male counterparts.
Instead, it has constructed an elaborate network of male professionals who, from above and
behind the scene, tend to favor a fraternal work culture. Besides, through the construction
of a fan culture whose popular codification is as a feminine discourse – even though a
significant number of male youth participate in the scene – the industry moves from a
fraternal to a symbolically
position in shaping popular taste and trends. While
celebrities such as Teresa Teng, Anita Mui, and Twins were/are enormously popular, they
often had to deal with an industry that resembles a patriarchal family structure.
Broadly then, from an industry perspective, gendered practice represents a restricted
gender flow – in organizational hierarchies as well as in unchecked ideological beliefs and
unspoken principles. This situation resembles a pervasive social indifference toward
gendered power in the broad social arena of Hong Kong, where patriarchal privilege often
goes unquestioned. There is no logic of ambivalence to speak about, for gender and power
flow in more or less scripted lines. In the Cantopop industry, such lines take the form of
band culture, paternalistic apprenticeship (as in the early careers of lyric-writers),
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censorship (as in some female artists’ strong assertion of female desire), and so on. The term
indifference is used here synonymously with the ideological effect of hegemony.
But there are other performances of indifference that can be gleaned from the affective
landscape fashioned by Cantopop. If on the one hand Cantopop is a cultural factory whose
goal is to manufacture, distribute, and shape the affective life of its audience, and on the
other hand if it is an industry that resembles a patriarchal family structure, then it is impor-
tant to trace some of the dominant lines of affect and gendered identifications made
available in the music itself.
One remarkable difference between the cultural studies of popular music in the West and in
Hong Kong is that an analysis of song lyrics is considered an outmoded form of analysis in
the West because of a perceived reductivist attention to textuality. In the study of rock
music, for instance, attention to lyrics is often deemed naive and somewhat unsophisti-
cated, since the questions of fan pleasure and their affective responses to and investment in
the music are so wrapped up in the social and technological totality of the rock experience
(e.g. see Grossberg 1997). In contrast, in the study of Cantopop music, lyric analysis has
been rather central, even as Cantopop has achieved its own aesthetic and technological
sophistication. In other words, the elaborate musical culture and scene has not diminished
the popular appeal of song lyrics and the vast ideological and affective landscape that those
lyrics provide. The strong development of karaoke culture in Hong Kong and throughout
the Asian region is only one of the many explanations for the centrality of song lyrics in the
consumption of popular music in the Asian music scene. Ask any devoted fan or just any
casual listener of Cantopop in Hong Kong, and they will have no difficulty reciting to you
their rich repertoire of song lyrics and sharing with you how those lines of lover’s discourse
are used, casually or otherwise, to mediate their social and romantic life. Rather than
dismissing lyrics or pushing them into the background, fans of Cantopop music have
embraced the words of songs and allowed them to animate their imagination, to accompany
their daily domestic or work routines, to resonate with the trials and tribulations of urban
living, or even to produce an imaginary ideological unity in the face of social or political
If familiarity with lyrics is one of the central aspects of Cantopop consumption, then we
need to attend to the way lyrics operate to forge a certain affective experience for the fan,
and the way such a socio-affective dimension of Cantopop functions to negotiate the
changes in lifestyle and ambivalence in the city. Put another way, lyrics in Cantopop are a
kind of nodal point within what Larry Grossberg has termed a ‘mattering map’ that orga-
nizes the relationship between the musical text, musical taste, the mood produced in the
listener, and the broad socio-political environment with which the lyrics resonate (Gross-
berg 1997). This way of talking about Cantopop music may also have implications in how
different forms of emotions get constructed along gender lines.
Within the mattering map of Cantopop, its musical form, including modulation, time
signature patterns, and other non-musical attributes of the songs, is in fact highly specific.
Wai-man Tang’s study of what determines the popularity of Cantopop songs sheds some
light on the formation of specific affective responses generated by the song’s musical form.
Her analysis of the structure, modality, and tempo of popular Cantopop songs in the 1980s
and 1990s reveals a definitive preference for the extensive use of modulated keys, which is
to say, a preference for a high alternation between major and minor keys to create dramatic
sequences of harmonized sounds. Coupled with the use of a moderate tempo (i.e. a typical
4/4 time signature and a tempo range of 72–95), a rather mechanical reproduction of a
Cantopop ‘musical diagram’ can be found (Tang 1998: 55–57). Tang concludes as if writing
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an operation manual: ‘The ‘schemata’ of Cantopop were simple melody, well-acquainted
time signatures, and a moderate tempo. The melodic line should not be too sophisticated.
The notes should fall within an octave. Moreover, the phrase length should also be simple to
match ordinary speech’ (Tang 1998: 57).
In the following, I will attempt to trace several lines of emotions, desires, and anxieties
that are organized within the ‘mattering map’ of Cantopop lyrics under the broad set of
musical attributes discussed by Tang above. Once again, I am arguing that it is not the lyrics
per se but the way words in the song articulate a
cultural space
where we are invited to imag-
ine, however temporarily, a certain passion, and then use this affective attachment to the
song (and the images surrounding it) to develop a kind of
cultural agency
. The attention to
cultural agency has implications for the way we navigate urban living in Hong Kong.
Specifically, I think of three kinds of cultural agencies that are enabled by Cantopop lyrics:
the transient romantic, the comical self-reflexive, and the quasi-political.
Briefly, the ‘transient romantic’ is of course the dominant kind of affective subjective
position produced by the majority of Cantopop music: one study finds as many as eight
major sub-genres of romantic songs in Cantopop (Hong Kong Policy Viewers 1994).
Let us
turn to cultural critic Roland Barthes, who has this to remind us of about love in the modern
[T]he lover’s discourse is today
of an extreme solitude
. This discourse is spoken, perhaps by
thousands of subjects (who knows?), but warranted by no one … Once a discourse is thus
driven by its own momentum into the backwater of the ‘unreal,’ exiled from all gregarity, it
has no recourse but to become the site, however exiguous, of an
(Barthes 1978.;
emphasis his).
Implicit in Barthes’s passage is the familiar notion that the more love is spoken about, the
less is known or felt about it. If Barthes is right in proposing that the drive to speak – and in
this case, sing – unceasingly about love produces the space of solitude where, paradoxically,
affirmation is available, then I’d like to link this to the affective imagination germane to
Cantopop songs. While the extraordinary and numbing repetition of formulaic sentimental
love songs in Cantopop music is not generating deep romanticism in the culture, or a
meaningful cultural identity or modes of identification for youth in romantic affairs, it
nonetheless offers a sort of passing passion that can open up a transient space of affirma-
tion. The transience of this space can be seen as the by-product of a repetitive lover’s
Variously figured as the melancholic, the cheerful, the waiting, the regretful, the
ravished, the requited, the unrequited, the self-absorbed, the jealous, the dependent, the
bashful, the ambivalent, and so on and so forth, the lover in the songs need not be gendered
one way or another.
The only ‘criterion’ for being in the transient space of romantic
discourse is the will to repeat, to linger, to be struck or surprised by lyrics of ‘new’ romantic
possibilities, or words of repeated disappointments. Gender-neutral song titles and lyrics
abound in Cantopop: Leon Lai’s ‘If You Were with Me at Home’ Alan Tam’s ‘Lonely Invita-
tion,’ Anita Mui’s ‘Desireless Love,’ etc. Because there are so few female songwriters and
lyric-writers, male professionals learn how to paint a gender landscape in which the gender
of the lover is
less important
than his/her keeping with and belonging on the surface of the
various affective possibilities made available in the words, the music, and the images
associated with the song.
The second type of cultural agency promoted in Cantopop music is the comical self-
reflexive. By this I refer to a specific and rather pervasive genre of Cantopop music (and
film) that became quite popular in recent years: the genre known as
. Let’s trans-
late it as the sight and sound of comical, nonsensical meaninglessness.
is the
definitive sound of the mischievous male. I do not know the origin of this genre, but I have
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listened to the music of the Soft and Hard Masters and watched the films of Chow Sing-
chee. The lyrics in this genre of Cantopop are often gibberish, always lightly dramatized,
and self-consciously mischievous. The comic dimension of these songs comes precisely
from the lack of coherence, meaning, and depth in the lyrics. I think the popular appeal of
this genre lies in its ultimate localism, a unique type of cultural product that can express the
spectacularly local ordinariness of Hong Kong people, especially male youth. Besides the
singular purpose of entertaining for pure entertainment’s sake, this genre of Cantopop
rewards us with an indifferent superfluousness, a surface that not only negates depth, but
mocks at the very necessity of depth. One may see the rise of such a genre as providing a
mocking distance to the sappy love songs that dominate the scene but somehow manage to
mask their own depthlessness. One may also see it as a form of political satire, a self-reflex-
ive commentary on the surface that is ‘Hong Kong-ness’ itself. For instance, in ‘A Thousand
Heaps of Nonsense,’ the Soft and Hard Masters’ song contains lyrics about directionless
searching (for what? by whom?), exhaustion in the cold inhumane world (why exhausted?
why inhumane?), and fear in the internal battle (what battle?).
While one may sense that
the song is some kind of social commentary, one is never certain or clear about the political
or rhetorical position of the commentator, nor his intention. At another level, one may see
this ‘b—s—’ practice as a self-reflexive commentary on local masculinity in Hong Kong, on
its lack of depth and finesse. In these various ways, comical meaninglessness is a non-
discernible but viable space of affect imbued with an attitude of disinterested cynicism. I
think this attitude is indicative of a certain sarcastic masculine identity in Hong Kong,
especially that of male youth.
If male identification with an idealized localism serves as a loose and mischievous
commentary on the city’s apparent depthlessness and directionlessness, there is another
type of male identification in Cantopop music that takes things much more seriously. The
third type of cultural agency enabled by Cantopop music – the quasi-political – refers to
the strong and often emotional patriotic and political songs that transformed Cantopop in
the late 1980s.
Without a doubt, patriotic and political songs are an exclusive male territory. At the
center of the genre is the strong and proud male voice, signifying Chineseness in all of its
historical melancholia and ideological glory. However, singing from Hong Kong, to what
definition of ‘Chineseness’ do these songs appeal? Surely, the floating signifiers of ‘China,’
‘Chinese,’ ‘homeland,’ ‘country,’ and ‘nationhood’ exist in the songs to unite a broad histor-
ical patriarchy that would embrace Hong Kong’s ethnic and geographical ties with China.
But many of the patriotic tunes in Hong Kong Cantopop display a rather ambivalent set of
affective positions within this patriarchal imagination. Put simply, Hong Kong’s historically
ambiguous relationship with China in the geopolitical sense raises questions about the
patriotic fervor expressed in the songs, and perhaps renders patriotic passion as another
type of glossy surface.
Patriotic songs were around in the early 1980s, when Taiwanese college folk music trav-
eled to Hong Kong, setting in motion a wave of Cantopop songs that were strongly thema-
tized around questions of homeland, roots, and nostalgia for a sense of nationalistic
belonging (Cheung 1997: 51; see also Chow 2006 and Mittler 1997). Titles like ‘The Children
of the Dragon,’ ‘I am Chinese,’ and ‘The Brave Chinese’ were familiar hits. In these songs,
whether the performer was Adam Cheng Siu-chau, Yip Chun-tong, or Cheung Ming-man,
the male body of the performer, his voice, and his traditional Chinese attire embody the
political ideals and ambivalence of Hong Kong Chinese. The lyrics of these songs always
contain emotional thoughts of a wounded nation through narratives of war and natural
disasters, or nostalgic thoughts for reunification through the primary symbol of the river as
the bloodline connecting Hong Kong to the homeland (Cheung 1997: 52–3). Wars, the
violence of historical conquest, and natural disasters would serve as metaphors in the songs
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for wounds in the imaginary masculine national body. Rivers, on the other hand, would
signify male potency (see Cheung 1997).
Other songs would depict the grand beauty of the homeland; images of rainbows,
green grass, chirping birds, and warm breezes would appear in songs such as ‘Country
Road’ and ‘Rain in the Old Country.’ Often, against this beautiful land we find a key (male)
figure who is the universal subject of the songs: the figure of the weary sojourner who is
trying to find his way home. The sojourner is a melancholic and somewhat contradictory
figure, because his longing for home and his desire for independence represent two power-
ful but opposing forces. Torn between two shores, the affective drama of the patriotic
sojourner helps to project the contradictory space that is Hong Kong.
In 1984, the Sino-British agreement to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1997 repre-
sented the height of crisis in Hong Kong’s sense of modernity. Terence Choi Kwok-keun’s
1987 hit, ‘Unchanged for Fifty Years,’ adopted a romantic narrative between a man and a
woman in order to allegorize the relationship between China and Hong Kong. The song
constructed a delicate cultural space that accommodated the highly contradictory feelings
surrounding the preparation for the handover. As Cheung Mei-kwun has pointed out in her
paper ‘The Journey Home: Images of Homeland and Country in Hong Kong Cantopop
Music in the 1980s,’ the news of the political change and the subsequent wave of emigration
in the mid to late 1980s have animated some of the Cantopop songs that dealt with separa-
tion and feelings of alienation in foreign lands (Cheung 1997). I would add that those songs
were in fact a representation of another kind of male wound in the historic psyche. Listen to
George Lam’s ‘Every Single Night’ and you will hear deep sullen despair that almost
rendered ‘returning home’ an abject reality for many in Hong Kong. Indeed, abject reality
was what we had to confront in June 1989.
In 1989 and 1990, the whole host of political songs that were mobilized by the tragedy
in Tiananmen Square significantly refashioned the local cultural scene (see Erni 1998: 61–
62). Political apathy, as Michael Degolyer and Janet Lee Scott have argued, is a mythic and
therefore inaccurate characterization of Hong Kong society (1996). They pointed to the
many political organizations that have historically existed in the territory. In the aftermath
of June 4, 1989, the Cantopop industry quickly organized itself into a quasi-political
machine, producing three broad types of musical response to the events of Tiananmen
Square and the imminent event of the handover in 1997. First, there were songs explicitly
written for political rallies, most notably of course being ‘All for Freedom.’
Second, there
were songs containing political allegories either expressing the yearning for justice on
behalf of the student movement (such as Sam Hui’s ‘The Same Boat’) or staging an attitude
of cynical abandonment (such as Luo Dayou’s ‘Queen’s Road Central’) (see also Chow
2006). Third, there were songs that took a light approach to satirize the political situation.
For instance, during Christmas of 1989, one of Hong Kong’s famous lyric-writers and enter-
tainers, James Wong, set ironic and farcical democratic lyrics to well-known Christmas
tunes (Lee 1992: 139). Phrases such as ‘Deng Xiaoping is coming to town’ and ‘Li Peng
asked me what I want for Christmas, and I said I want a passport’ offered signs of a return
to the typical ethos of a local Hong Kong sentiment that can be captured, for instance, in the
local saying: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry.’
In surveying the various imaginary notions of ‘homeland,’ ‘nation,’ and ‘city’ expressed
in Cantopop music, Cheung Mei-kwun summarizes this genre of political Cantopop in this
Through disjointed affects, Cantopop music manufactures the contradictory forms of identi-
fication that accompanied Hong Kong’s ‘journey home.’ In this way, ‘Hong Kong’ as a
discourse was reborn. From the imagination of a mythic, distanced, wounded, and heroic
‘China,’ to the equally imaginative re-creation of Hong Kong in the aftermath of June 1989
through various forms of affect (including sadness, rage, ambivalence, playful cynicism, and
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helplessness), ‘Hong Kong people’ as a historical category was reconstructed. What is signif-
icant about all of this is that the historic sea change took place at the level of everyday life.
Perhaps we have not forgotten how the love of the motherland was scattered in the private
subjective sphere, in the shopping malls, in the gatherings in karaoke lounges, at the airport
bidding good-bye to friends and family, or in voyages we took to other lands. All of this
points to the fractured nature of Cantopop affect, which in turn fractures our assessment of
the music’s impact on our individual and collective life, on our behavior and our differences.
(Cheung 1997: 71; my translation from Chinese)
Cheung adds that one of the consequences of this scattered emotional space is the produc-
tion of a culture of deferment (Cheung 1997: 71). Deferred, distracted, and in many ways
disempowered, the political life depicted in Cantopop went from being passionately in
search of identity in the moment of crisis to being disillusioned and disinterested under the
realization of political helplessness, and back again. Politics is only a surface on which plas-
tic feelings can be inscribed, erased, and reinscribed. To this end, Andy Lau, one of the Four
Heavenly Kings, provides us with a useful exemplar of how political feelings are repack-
ageable in opportunistic ways. There are two notable songs in his previous albums. In 1995,
he ‘resurrected’ ‘Last Night on the Star Ferry’ in order to rekindle an emotional sense of
local belonging (through the pathos aroused in the image of the Star Ferry ride). And in
1997 on the eve of the historic handover, he released ‘Chinese’ and used it to heavy-drum
his way into the affective spaces that crossed over new and old patriotic feelings.
again, the commodification of and flirtation with political feelings, whether those feelings
are constructed as serious or playful, remains firmly located in the male imagination.
In any event, interpreting such traffic in the affective spaces of political Cantopop music
is, to paraphrase Grossberg, like passing by billboards: the purpose of the billboard is not to
help you arrive at a certain destination; rather, the billboard only offers suggestions of lines,
routes, and stopovers. The metaphor of traveling and the touristic experience it offers
provide us with a vivid cultural logic with which to understand Hong Kong popular music
culture in challenging times. ‘Chinese,’ that ambiguous signifier referred to in Andy Lau’s
song, remains non-gendered, even as it performs the masculinity not only of the singer but
of a whole postcolonial society at large. ‘Woman,’ either as a real person or as a signifier,
remains occluded in the pre- and postcolonial imaginations alike. When, we may ask, will
the ‘woman’ travel, and in what ideological and affective spaces? What will she bring with
her? What will she leave behind?
Everyday life
Popular Culture, a space and a cultural practice often associated with the masses, the
vernacular, the mundane, the consumerist, or even the carnivalesque, claims a sociality
authentic to the flow of what Choi Po-king has termed the ‘distinctive secularity’ (Choi
1990: 537) of everyday life. This authentic secular sociality stands in contrast with a more
dominant, even masculinist tendency of social institutions. This view of popular culture, or
the culture of the popular classes, has important implications for the way we think about
cultural identity and matters of mobility and flow. In the conventional sociological or
anthropological imaginations, an analysis of city life typically entails various kinds of read-
ing practices that, to use a crude metaphor, treat the city space more as a book you read than
as a place you walk in or in which you move about. However, cultural theorists of urban
flow in the West (such as Doreen Massey, Henri Lefebvre, Nigel Thrift), and in Asia (such as
Taiwanese scholar Chih-hung Wang) (Wang 2000), to name just a few, have pointed out that
popular life, or the fast urban life of everyday movement within the city, remains solidly
resistant to academic analysis. Like them, I ask: how can we discern the contours of popular
life without freezing it in the analytical moment, and ignoring its organic traces? In the case
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of Hong Kong, how can we talk about its characteristically distracted and uncommitted
passions – what I am calling the cultural sensibility of ‘in-different flirtations’ – without
disturbing its own sense of easy flow that has guided it to develop its own form of moder-
nity? The critical point here lies in the effects of the popular imaginary in the social sphere.
This brings us back to Cantopop. I think of Cantopop as an immensely instructive
exemplar of a popular imaginary, as defined above. No doubt, Cantopop as a local medium
has participated in the (ironic) expression of Hong Kong’s various historical changes, from a
period of benign colonialism, to the rise of hyper-commercialism, and onto the many
current shapes of postcolonialism in Hong Kong. In its ‘inauthentic’ musical modes, its
‘irresponsible’ hybrid cultural quotations (from Japanese popular music to Madonna to
rap), its ‘fake’ sentimentality of love found and love lost, its preference for the crude, the
vernacular, and the social pastiche, its playful negotiation between a glamorization of a
decadent and Westernized Chineseness and a bewildering sense of new national identity,
and above all, its endless self-referentiality,
Cantopop has ironically enabled a series of cultural
surfaces upon which Hong Kong’s uniquely contradictory historical experience finds its own expres-
Unhinged from any dogmatic model of sociality, music consumers in Hong Kong have
responded to a pop music form predicated on endless repetition and recombinance. In my
view, what this does is to render a possibility of rejecting the idea of depth, in life or in love
lived out in a city that is big in its pressure to accumulate wealth and fast in its transient
moments of glory and crisis.
In Cantopop, there are rarely deep questions of cultural identity, social collectivity, or
historical inevitability. Infused into an urban landscape which is itself prone to appear in a
vast sea of representational economy (namely the famous postcard renditions of Hong
Kong’s harbor or skyline), Cantopop sounds and images provide us with a way to re-nego-
tiate identity that rests only on the degree of ‘being thereness.’ In other words, there is a
certain kind of
in the vernacular aesthetic of Cantopop, an aesthetic that promotes
an attitude of in-difference toward the struggle for love, roots, home, cultural inheritance, or
boundaries. In-difference, as opposed to the negativity associated with the common word
indifference, marks the relationship in the play between identity and difference. In-
difference, then, neither builds upon a hard sense of identity, nor does it erase all difference
(see Grossberg 1997: 128–129). One can say that the (ironic) aesthetics of in-difference matters
only because it does not limit itself to the politics of identity or of difference.
All of this amounts to saying that Hong Kong popular music offers a commodified
experience of ambivalence around a popular life that belongs intensively on the surface,
which is to say, in-differently. During the height of the massive emigration in the mid-
1980s, over the events of Tiananmen Square, through the shock of the property market
crash, and now into times of postcolonial uncertainty, the people of Hong Kong can be said
to be constantly in search of a sense of so-whatness and wish to use it as a cultural front that
would more or less help us ease our way into the possible future. Here, popular music
serves to animate and resonate with the ebb and flow of city life, as much as the music is the
resultant expression we know how to create (or to respond to) given our experience of
change in the city.
What does all of this dialectic have to do with gender politics in Hong Kong? In the
discussion above, I place two things in contrast: the restricted ideological practices found in
the music industry that delimit ‘gender flows’ and the highly fluid – uncommitted – affec-
tive practices found in the often gender-neutral or gender-playful imaginations coded in
different kinds of lyrics. As a result, a kind of cultural logic has emerged around these two
contrastive spheres of Cantopop, which
any dogmatic argumentation about gender
fairness in the realm of formal politics, in order to invest in a more flexible, ambivalent
consumption of affect. The restricted gender hierarchies found in the industry can be said to
be ‘softened’ by a more flexible space of flow of affect. Meanwhile, the in-different
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flirtations of affect – the transient, the ‘quasi’ – can be said to be ‘hardened’ by real structural
division of (gender) labor. I do not wish to make grand theoretical or political claims about
Cantopop; to do so would be to grossly misread the significance of its cultural circulation.
Yet the ambivalent gender practices that can be delineated from the commercial-industrial
and textual spheres can illuminate an in-difference that mirrors how ordinary consumers
‘make do’ with the unscripted half-formed affect in our everyday life. Thus, an alternative
kind of political imagination about gender has emerged, and it does so through the media-
tion of a local musical form as well as a set of cultural experiences found in this city.
In thinking about the triangulation of Cantopop music, everyday life, and gender that
form a supple popular imaginary belonging to the city, I am reminded of Raymond Will-
iams’s formulation in
Marxism and Literature
about the ‘structure of feelings’ embedded in
literary works that emerged from changing, volatile times: ‘Again and again what we have
to observe is in effect a
, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated, rather
than the evident emergence that could be more confidently named’ (Williams 1985: 126;
emphasis in the original). A similar sense of ambivalence is also noted by Ackbar Abbas,
who suggests that while Hong Kong may be postcolonial in the historical and administra-
tive sense, ‘postcoloniality’ in a
sense is nothing but the materialization of a
surplus of confusion and perturbation introduced by a continuous sense of instability
(Abbas 1997). To encounter this discursive postcoloniality, in a sense, is to press for a new
cultural logic of living out our everyday life that has no solid shape. The ‘surplus,’ Abbas
hints, may be a distortion, but it nonetheless assumes the shape and the politics of
Neither Williams nor Abbas were particularly concerned about gender politics. Neither
wrote about popular music. Yet their insights are instructive in directing our attention to an
elusive but real discursive
that, I want to suggest, has a material reference in the
gendered practices and textuality of Cantopop. To be sure, Cantopop enters into our indif-
ferent modes of living within a male-privileging society. Whether successful or not, women
artists in the Cantopop industry garner a popularity modulated by the ‘surplus’ left over
from the difference between gender hierarchy on the one hand and gender-playful textual
references on the other. The sense of ambivalence rendered by this discursive ‘surplus,’ in
turn, encounters the in-difference toward any kind of deep social divisions among the
consumers of popular culture. Solo male Cantopop artists, on the other hand, perform a
metaphoric masculinity through intertextual references (with war, home, nature, etc) or
gender-neutral yearnings. At the same time, their brothers in the male bands recuperate a
more ‘hardened’ version of masculinity backed by a historical legacy of band culture in
Hong Kong.
Ambivalence is, too, the fate of the masculine discourse found in Cantopop.
In an important sense, the social practices that take place in the relaxed atmosphere of the
karaoke box is an appropriate illustration of the elastic encounter between songs, social ritu-
als of singing, and a youthful spirit, in a worldly environment constituted neither of hard
social divisions nor a total forgetfulness about social difference.
At last, under this condition of ambivalence, the ‘negatives’ of normative gender roles –
such as in expressions of gender-bending and androgyny – are bound to surface in this
playful scene of in-different flirtations. Non-normative gender may take the explicit form of
cross-dressing by Anita Mui or Sammi Cheng. It may also take a variety of fetish forms,
such as a pair of red high-heels donned by Leslie Cheung (in his 2004 Passion Tour), or a big
colorful feather boa swirled around the body of Roman Tam, or Aaron Kwok’s super low-
cut tight pants, and so on and so forth. These artists’ gender evasions, as it were, are
gossiped about; yet they are rarely discredited as uninteresting. Arguably, the refractive
prism of gender, or more cogently ‘queerness,’ can cast many lines of ambivalence that
criss-cross between the audio-visual iconographies of Cantopop and the sphere of everyday
life. This queer abundance in turn provides a pool of cultural resources for making do in our
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop
fluid, popular life. Even with all of the banalities of Cantopop, we nonetheless find in it a
cultural base for learning something about transient affect, contradictions, and surfaces.
This resource may be elusive, but it does assume a certain shape of ‘other politics.’
1. The work described in this study was partially supported by a Small-Scale Research Grant, from the City
University of Hong Kong (Project no.: CityU 9030993). The author also thanks the Centre for Communi-
cation Research at the City University of Hong Kong for its support. Furthermore, I wish to extend my
heartfelt thanks to Alex Chi-kwong Lee (a popular disc jockey at Radio-Television Hong Kong 2) whose
insights, wealth of knowledge about pop music, and friendship have contributed significantly to this
paper. Gratitude also goes to William Tam, who has provided valuable research and translation assistance.
2. See Erni’s overview of the socio-political and academic reorientations toward ‘Hong Kong’ and its
‘cultural studies’ since the historic administrative handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997 (Erni 2001).
3. Cantopop is defined in the following manners. Textually, it is commercial pop music sung in Cantonese
although the musical origin of a given song may be transnational (e.g. a cover version or mutation from
Japanese pop music, British or US pop). Generically, it is mostly ballads, soft rock, and occasionally rock.
Commercially, it is a vast multifarious industry not unlike those found in the US or UK pop scene,
complete with a complex record company apparatus for production and promotion tied in to various
distributional outlets, such as radio, magazines, cable television, and more intensely in Hong Kong and
Asia, the karaoke industry. In Hong Kong, the pinnacle of commercial success is sometimes defined by
the Cantopop star reaching the status of giving concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum, the ultimate seat of
one’s popularity. In terms of the Cantopop star system, one also finds an apparatus similar to that in the
US and UK, in which new starlets run through the promotional and image-shaping process through vari-
ous media outlets, in order to find distinctive styles musically and iconographically speaking (in Canto-
pop, a star is usually characterized by a Western decadent and metropolitan youthfulness). In terms of
fans, Cantopop fan clubs abound, often marked by long-standing loyalty, competitiveness across fan
clubs (for expressions of loyalty), and various degrees of interpersonal contact with their favorite stars.
Finally, in terms of geographical reach, Cantopop has been largely confined to Hong Kong and southern
Cantonese-speaking China, as well as the vast diasporic Hong Kong Chinese communities around the
world. Comparatively, Mandopop, or Mandarin-sung popular music (originated mostly from Taiwan,
the China Mainland, and Singapore) has a much broader market share in the pop music market. Further
details about Cantopop songs, lyrics, styles, stars, and events will be provided in the paper.
4. I thank an anonymous reviewer for this reminder. An attempt for an inter-Asian analysis of Cantopop is
beyond the scope of this paper, even though such an analysis is urgently needed. Chua’s reflection of an
‘East Asian popular culture’ provides a useful conceptual map for a further analysis that this paper
points toward (Chua 2004).
5. A high degree of convergence can be seen to have secured the success and popularity of Cantopop music
at the time, most notably the establishment of the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong Ltd
(CASH) in 1977 ( and Radio Television Hong Kong’s launching of the first Top Ten of
the Year Award in 1979. Overall, CASH and the Top Ten Awards helped song writers and producers to
gain a stable and growing income. Sales of Cantopop music grew; the number of platinum awards
increased by almost 50% over 1980–81, despite the rise in platinum status from sales of 30,000 units in
1979 to 50,000 in 1980 (see Huang 1990).
6. See Erni (forthcoming) for a brief biographical sketch of Sam Hui.
7. This bittersweetness in fact predates Sam Hui’s songs, as evident in a series of popular songs sung by
comedy actor Cheng Kwan-min about the thrills and risks of gambling in order to gain a better life. The
most famous song of this genre would be Cheng’s ‘The gambling man’s woes.’
8. Translation of song titles, lyrics, and artists’ names from Chinese to English in this paper was obtained
from either the record companies, or album covers, or websites, wherever possible. Occasionally, lacking
these sources, some translations are my own and therefore not official.
9. These bands mostly sang in English. Although their emergence coincided with the rise of a nascent form
of Cantopop music, strictly speaking they cannot be considered as part of the Cantopop phenomenon. I
thank an anonymous reviewer for this reminder.
10. The Wynners’ former name was ‘The Looser’ (Chong 1989).
11. Both Joseph Koo and James Wong have been the mainstay of Cantopop song writing in Hong Kong
since the 1970s. Their songs and lyrics range from ballads arousing strong heroic feelings and
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John Nguyet Erni
Chinese ethnic identification, to crass commercial numbers dealing with mundane neuroses of every-
day life. This explains their cross-generational popularity. In their concerts as a duo over the past
few years, they have managed to attract both older and young audiences. Sadly, James Wong died
on November 24, 2004 of lung cancer (see Chow 2004; Chung 2004). Lam Chik, on the other hand,
has been well known for writing successful love songs; his non-romantic songs are few. His lyrics
tend to portray mature but cunning lovers, who are sensitive and demanding at the same time. See
Huang (1990: 41–50).
12. CASH, or the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong Ltd, an organization set up in 1977, has
continued to encourage local song writers and lyrics writers to create original scores. See
13. See Erni (forthcoming) for a brief biographical sketch of Leslie Cheung.
14. Producers who promoted Alan Tam, who was a member of the Wynners, worked on projecting through his
TV roles the clumsiness of young manhood, whereas their promotion of Leslie Cheung’s early career in music
and TV capitalized on his handsome and boyish looks. Tam and Cheung for a long while had their own strong
fan bases; in the 1980s they were important representatives of the urban, well-dressed Chinese male.
15. The death of Roman Tam in late 2002 has stirred a wave of nostalgia for 1970s and 1980s Cantopop songs.
Journalist Alex Lo writes on the day after Tam’s death from liver cancer in October 2002: ‘In three
decades of Canto-pop, Tam, 52, who died of cancer last night, stood out as one of the few singers to
become a cultural icon and whose songs have become golden oldies – a walk down memory lane for
those who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s…. For almost a decade from the mid-70s, Tam’s voice
could be heard in streets across Hong Kong come 7 o’clock every night as tens of thousands of families in
public estates and densely populated districts – with doors and windows open because air-conditioners
were expensive – tuned to TVB nightly soap operas or martial arts dramas’ (Lo 2002).
16. See Erni (forthcoming) for a brief biographical sketch of Anita Mui.
17. Overall, the personae of these female artists can be summed up as representations of glamorous feminin-
ity expressed through strongly feminine costumes accentuating their bosoms and hips. All three, for
example, have over different times worn Chinese cheongsams as their signature costume. Their songs are
soft ballads or festive folk songs used to celebrate Chinese festivals.
18. A strong exception would be Faye Wong’s music, which re-codes ‘bad-girlishness’ into a generally defiant
stance, even defiance against self-commodification. See Fung and Curtin (2000) for an illuminating analysis.
19. Anita Mui’s tragic death from cervical cancer in December 2003 has stirred sadness and the need for a
cultural assessment of her impact on Cantopop cultural consumption across Asia and beyond. Much
reporting after her death stated Mui’s tough character in dealing with her illness. Some recalled her role
as a leader speaking out for women’s rights.
20. ‘Semi-retirement’ has become a kind of ritualistic practice for many super-stars in Cantopop. It is a prac-
tice that means, partly, that the performers step down from receiving any more annual local music
awards (so as to make room for recognition of new artists), and partly retreat to the movie industry,
while still teasingly suggesting a comeback in the future. All three stars – Tam, Mui, and Cheung – staged
their comeback in big concerts. Cheung’s last comeback concert in 2000 called the Passion Tour was a big
success. Sadly, he committed suicide on April 1 2003; the publicized reason was prolonged depression.
Cheung’s cross-dressing acts and his homoerotic music videos (in conjunction with Danny Chan and
Roman Tam’s gay male iconographies) raise an important set of issues for any discussion of gender poli-
tics in Cantopop.
21. See Erni (forthcoming) for a brief biographical sketch of Danny Chan.
22. The stardom of such new artists as Joey Yung and Andy Hui and many others like them rests largely on
blending their music with product placement; for instance, their songs may be used to appear in adver-
tisements for mobile phones, while phone companies offer these songs as ringing tones for mobile
phones, etc. As for the young teen groups, such as Twins and Boy’z, my speculation is that their rise to
stardom is part of the industry’s response to a large teenage audience seeking ultra-positive personae of
their own age as a point of social encouragement in difficult and uncertain times.
23. For a cultural assessment of Tat Ming Pair, see Lok (1995).
24. Jeff Yang
et al
Eastern Standard Time
noted that Jackie Cheung’s enormous record sales have put him
among the top ten popular artists globally (Yang
et al
. 1997: 254), Andy Lau has sold over 60 platinum
albums (Yang
et al
. 1997: 256), Leon Lai’s ‘Leon family’ fan club has over 5,000 members in Hong Kong
alone (Yang
et al
. 1997: 257), and Aaron Kwok was Warner’s top-selling Cantopop artist in 1997 (Yang
et al
. 1997: 257). These statistics should give a sense of the Heavenly Kings’ popularity.
25. For general discussions of karaoke as an international cultural and economic practice, see Taylor (1997)
and Mitsui and Hosokawa (1998).
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26. See Pearson (1996) for a useful but brief discussion of the social question of infidelity in Hong Kong in
recent years.
27. The attention given to song lyrics in the Chinese context is more than a matter of leisurely consumption.
Explicit lyrics found in Western rock and pop songs have occasionally been ‘censored’ by authorities. An
example of how a liking for lyrics can turn into a policing of it occurs in the case of the Rolling Stones’
2003 tour of China. The band was ordered to delete four songs from concerts in China because of raunchy
lyrics such as ‘let’s spend the night together,’ ‘How come you taste so good?’, ‘She tried to take me
upstairs for a ride,’ and ‘I’ll satisfy your every need, every need.’
28. The research of the Hong Kong Policy Viewers (1994) classified the lyrics of a total of 138 Cantopop songs
over the period 1984–1993 into five categories. The predominant category – romantic songs – has eight
sub-categories, delineating a variety of emotional possibilities in both successful and failed love. The
other categories are ‘familial bonds and friendship,’ ‘life experiences,’ ‘peace and social well-being,’ and
‘medleys and nonsense.’
29. Useful sources where a vast repertoire of Cantopop song lyrics is collected include ‘Lyrics Warehouse’
( and ‘Cool Man Music’ (
30. For an additional discussion on the Soft and Hard Masters, see Chan Ka-ling (1997).
31. Chow Sing-chee’s movies, most notably ‘Shaolin Soccer,’ are perhaps a corresponding cultural form to
the ‘mou-lei-tau’ genre, as they are also often centered on the cynical, comical male figure.
32. See Erni (1998) for a discussion of ‘All For Freedom.’
33. The lyrics for Andy Lau’s ‘Chinese’ (1997) are as follows:
Wind and Rain for five thousand years
Buried with many dreams
Yellow face and black eyes
The same smile
Rivers and mountains for eight thousand miles
Is like a song
No matter where you are from
And where you will go
The same tears, the same Pains
For the previous trauma
We still keep them in our hearts
The same blood, the same seed
Still have more dreams in future
We will cultivate them together
Hand in hand
There is no you or I
We step forward
Let the world know that we are Chinese
34. Although not marketed as a band per se, the emergence of Soler in 2005, which comprises two twin
brothers, may be seen as a mutation of the style of ‘hard’ band sound because Soler sings both rock and
ballad materials.
35. Any observer of the karaoke scene would notice how the preference for songs is not entirely devoid of
gender consideration, such as the usual preference of matching the singing fan’s gender with that of the
star. But by the same token, social ‘policing’ of that matching is not visible, since having a relaxed atmo-
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Special terms
Eat, drink, and be merry
Author’s biography
John Nguyet Erni is Professor at the Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His
books include Unstable Frontiers: Technomedicine and the Cultural Politics of ‘Curing’ AIDS (Minnesota, 1994),
Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology (with Ackbar Abbas, Blackwell, 2005), and Asian Media Stud-
ies: The Politics of Subjectivities (with Siew Keng Chua, Blackwell, 2005). He has also edited a special issue of
Cultural Studies entitled ‘Becoming (Postcolonial) Hong Kong’ (2001), and a special issue of Communication
Review entitled ‘Philosophy of Communication: Historical and Intellectual Legacy’ (2005). His current work
focuses on Chinese consumption of transnational culture, youth popular consumption in Hong Kong and
Asia, cultural tourism in China, and human rights law and politics.
Contact address: Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, 8 Castle Peak Road, Tuen Mun, New
Territories, Hong Kong.
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106 John Nguyet Erni
Names of the performers
Aaron Kwok Fu-shing
Adam Cheng Siu-chow
Alan Tam
Andy Hui
Andy Lau Tak-wah
Anita Mui Yim-fong
Anthony Lun Wing-leung
Chan Po-chu
Chelsia Chen
Cheung Mei-yin
Cheung Ming-man
Cheung Tak-lan
Cheung Sing
Chow Chung
Chow Sing-chee
Chow Yinfai
Danny Chan Pak-keung
Four Heavenly Kings
Frances Yip
George Lam
Jackie Cheung Hok-yau
James Wong
Jenny Yan-lei
Joey Yung
Joseph Koo Kai-fai
Kenny Bee
Koo Sin-man
Kwan Kuk-ying
Lam Chik
Lee Man
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Gender and everyday evasions: moving with Cantopop 107
Lee Ngo
Leon Lai Ming
Leslie Cheung
Lisa Wang Ming-chuen
Michael Hui
Nicholas Tse
Paula Tsui Siu-fung
Prudence Liew’s
Rao Shou-rong
Roman Tam
Sally Yeh
Sammi Cheng’s
Samuel Hui
Siu Fong-fong
Siu Mei
So Yung
Soft and Hard Masters
Tat Ming Pair’s
Teddy Robins and the Playboys
Terence Choi Kwok-keun’s
The Lotus
The Wynners
Teresa Teng
Yip Chun-tong
You Yea
Names of the songs
A Thousand Heaps of Nonsense
Bad Girl
Country Road
Desireless Love
Every Single Night
Half a Pound, Eight Taels
If You Were with Me at Home
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108 John Nguyet Erni
I am Chinese
Last Night on the Star Ferry
Lonely Invitation
Midnight Love
Price Hike Fever
Queen’s Road Central
Rain in the Old Country
Ten Commandments
The Brave Chinese
The Children of the Dragon
The Same Boat
Names of TV shows
Enjoy Yourself Tonight
Foolish Marriages
Heavenly Swords
Mad Tides
Luk Siu-fung
The Shores of Shanghai
The King of Gambling
The Powerful
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• Building on previous research regarding popular music and the culture industries, this article examines the intersection between gender politics in Chinese societies and the musical success of Faye Wong, the reigning diva of the Hong Kong-based pop music industry. Influential among adolescents and young women, she has not only become a figure for textual identification but also a polysemic icon for cultural aspirations and feminist projects throughout Greater China. Unlike earlier female singing stars, Faye's music and public persona explicitly defy standard market practices and conventional representations of femininity. Yet, paradoxically, these unconventional qualities have contributed to her sustained success over the past 10 years. Thus, Faye's star persona operates both as a marketable commodity and as a site of significant cultural work in the realm of gender politics. Using Bourdieu's distinction between economic and cultural capital, our analysis shows how music companies enriched Faye's cultural capital as part of their promotional efforts and how she in turn exploited that very capital in unconventional ways. •
History and Cultural StudiesLocating Richard HoggartRichard Hoggart and the Emergence of Social HistoryHistorians and Richard Hoggart‘Nostalgia’, ‘Romanticism’, and ‘Sentimentality’:Recuperating Hoggart
Women in both Hong Kong and China have inherited the legacy of traditional values that severely discriminated against women compared to men. In terms of legal protections, women in mainland China enjoy an advantage. In real terms, Hong Kong women do better, as is shown in relation to education and work. Relocation of factories to Guangdong has created unemployment among older, less educated women in Hong Kong and has created opportunities for younger women in China—at some risk to their safety, as overseas Chinese businessmen ignore industrial safety regulations. There has been little renegotiation in family responsi bilities, although many Hong Kong women work. Increasingly, fami lies are employing a Filipina domestic helper, but this has only reinforced the concept of the traditional female domestic role. Relo cation of Hong Kong businesses over the border has placed additional strains on marriage, as Hong Kong men establish second families in China.
While Hong Kong people are often characterized as politically apathetic, closer study indicates that such descriptions need to be reconsidered in light of Hong Kong's particular, and peculiar, history and future. The restraints of proximity to a soon-to-be-sovereign China and its position as a listening post, capitalist enclave, and refuge imposed psychological (internalized) and security-based (external) limits on formal democratic political development. Although there have been, and remain, vigorous structures of Chinese political influence and activity, with Chinese Communist Party and Nationalist China partisans estimated at some 60,000 in the early 1980s, political participation in colonial politics remained limited except for the village-based politics of Heung Yee Kuk. In a process beginning in the early 1970s, however, territorywide political structures were erected that encouraged the grassroots activities that laid a foundation for rapid political development in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the 1980s, popular cultural products have criss‐crossed the national borders of East Asian countries, enabling a discursive construction of an ‘East Asian Popular Culture’ as an object of analysis. The present essay is a preliminary attempt to provide some conceptual and analytic shape to this object, delineated by its three constitutive elements of production, distribution and consumption. Each East Asian location participates in different and unequal levels in each of these component processes. Production can either be located entirely in a single geographic location or, alternatively, each of the necessary constituent sub‐processes can be executed from different locations; preference for either arrangement tends to reflect the relative dominance of the production location in exporting its finished products. Consumption and thus consumers are geographically located within cultural spaces in which they are embedded. Meanings and viewing pleasures are generated within the local cultures of specific audience. Conceptually, among the several possible consumption positions, the one in which an audience watches an imported programme is most intriguing. In this viewing position, differences between the cultures of the location of consumption and that of the production location become most apparent. The audience member has to bring his or her own cultural context to bear on the content of the imported product and read it accordingly. In this sense, the cultural product may be said to have crossed a ‘cultural’ boundary, beyond the simple fact of its having been exported/imported into a different location as an economic activity. Such an audience position requires the consumer to transcend his or her grounded nationality to forge abstract identification with the foreign characters on screen, a foreignness that is, in turn, potentially reabsorbed into an idea of (East) ‘Asia’; a potential ‘East Asian identity’, emerging from consumption of popular cultural products, is thus imaginable.