Cantopop's Dilemma: No Hong Kong Wave

For Eason Chan, the adoration is normal. Fans celebrated the end of the Hong Kong pop sensation's record 25-show Summer 2013 stand at the Hong Kong Coliseum on Aug. 2 in typical fashion: screaming themselves into a frenzy. Even before the shows began in July, anticipation for Hong Kong's summer music event of the year built to such a pitch that Chan added additional performances on three separate occasions before ticket sales began. On April 15, when tickets were finally on offer, the 23 shows sold out in half a day and he added two more performances. This is a man in demand. For those in tune with Cantonese pop music, this is no surprise. Chan was named "King of Asian Pop" by Time Out Hong Kong in 2012 and ranked sixth in the 2013 Forbes China Celebrity Top 100 List, placing just behind the actress Fan Bingbing, Taiwanese singer Jay Zhou and action-star Jacky Chan. In other words, Eason Chan is a global celebrity. Last year, he became the first Chinese artist to perform at London's O2 arena. His performance sold out in 20 minutes - faster than Lady GaGa's - and crashed the venue's online ticketing system. Chan's success stands out in a way because it is rare for a Hong Kong singer. At a time when international acclaim is becoming common for Asian pop groups — in particular Korean pop (K-pop) bands ‑ most of Hong Kong's idols are not nearly as hot. K-Pop is certainly the latest thing, spawning imitators worldwide and seeing YouTube icon PSY playing the White House; leading Korean record label SM Entertainment is even planning to launch a K-pop museum in Los Angeles. What gives K-pop its sizzle? Simon and Martina Stawski, the duo behind the popular K-pop focused YouTube channel and Web site Eat Your Kimchi, say the reasons are manifold. "One of the things that makes K-pop so accessible is that K-pop is very much like Western pop in how it sounds. K-pop doesn't have its own sound," the Canadian couple, who moved to South Korea and began their YouTube channel in 2008, told the Asia Society last month. "It simply takes on what's popular at the time and re-appropriates it into its own sound. "So K-pop sounds like the music you might like, basically. At the same time, it's got really good-looking people dancing really well in really colorful sets and outfits and singing really nicely. It's a visual overload. And, quite frankly, K-pop is different. It's in another language! We've heard a few people say that what sucks about the pop music where they're from is that the lyrics are trite and boring. The same can be said about K-pop lyrics... but you won't understand them anyways if you don't speak Korean! Score! You can listen to K-pop music without being bothered by crappy lyrics!" On that basis, it would seem that Cantopop has every bit as much potential to be a globalized success. Its stars are cute and non-Cantonese won't understand the silly lyrics. So what's the difference? K-pop's success, of course, is linked to the broader Hallyu, or Korean Wave, the term coined to describe the surge of Korean entertainment, especially soap operas initially, that began in Asia in the late 1990s.While Hallyu initially hit the beach in Southeast Asia when Korean drama series gained in popularity, then with the rise of K-pop it is sweeping Europe, the United States, and most recently, Latin America. Government Support As a result, Korea itself is a hot brand and Seoul has done its fair share to help. Riding on the Korean Wave, the government has used the opportunity to turn it into an industry and to project "soft-power" in much the same Hollywood has for generations. "Concerns are rising that the Korean Wave will fade away in just four or five years. We will implement a variety of projects to continue Hallyu and further promote Korean culture in general," then-Culture Minister Choe Kwang-shik said at a press conference last year. "Korea has long been a role model for economic success by developing hardware industries such as electronics, shipbuilding and automobiles. However, the country will be empowered by Hallyu as a new industrial force and become a role model of soft power in the future," the Korea Herald enthused. The Export-Import Bank of Korea has also greatly helped push K-pop to an international audience. "As an export credit agency, Korea Eximbank will work to promote the export of Korean Wave contents by offering customized financing such as loans with popularity-based fees for movies and animated films, and concert financing for international K-pop tours," said Yong Hwan Kim, Chairman of Korea Eximbank, at a conference in October 2012. At the conference, the bank announced plans to provide W1 trillion (US$917 million) to finance entertainment and food firms to help spread the Korean Wave over a period of three years beginning in January 2013. Such assistance seems a good investment. In 2012 alone, the annual export of K-pop increased by 20 percent to W260 billion, the Korea Times reported. No HK Wave What is it about K-pop that garnered an international audience? Could the difference between K-pop and Cantopop simply boil down to timing? Where is the Hong Kong Wave? Cantopop's reign of success began earlier than K-pop. Its "golden years", according to a report by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, were in the 1980s and were very much aided by China's opening up policies at the time, finding a market north of the territory. "Cantopop songs were introduced into the Mainland by Hong Kong visitors who took electronic music products and cassette tapes to the Mainland, and it soon caught on in China," the report said. "Around the same time, Hong Kong television programs started to find new audiences on the Mainland and in Southeast Asia. Since [the] television shows were more entertaining than the local programs made in neighboring countries and regions, they were very popular with Chinese living abroad. These exported television productions opened up new markets for Cantonese pop music." But unlike K-pop, which embraced globalization and used it as a means to propel forward, Cantopop has suffered. According to the report, globalization and the rise of the Internet took its toll on the local music scene. Hong Kong artists found themselves faced with ample competition while their appeal remained confined mostly to Chinese speakers as competition in that segment boomed. "The entertainment industries of neighboring regions have made great advances since the 1980s, and singers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan are now free to conduct exchanges. A new Chinese market has emerged where Cantopop is only one sector of the greater Chinese music scene," the report said. Alongside the government's efforts, social media plays a large role K-pop's current surge. Unlike Cantopop's golden days where the music was largely shared by individuals bringing the music to Mainland China, K-pop has the luxury of using the Internet to do the hard work for them. "Social-media-savvy K-pop stars are now tweeting, YouTubing and Facebooking their way up music charts across and beyond Asia," Bernice Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based agency which specializes in international marketing of K-pop acts, told PSY and his Gangnam Style (approaching 2 billion views on YouTube) are the prime example but there are dozens of other big K-pop stars rising on YouTube. It's really quite simple: social media such as Twitter and Instagram use hash tags to curate popular terms. As the Korean Wave reigns, it is natural that K-pop artists will be trending. Through that, both fans and the stars themselves can share content and keep themselves relevant. Extra savvy stars (or their managers) will link all their social media sites from their official website and Facebook page. Of course, many modern-day Cantopop stars are also on social media. Chan has over 662,000 likes on his Facebook fan page, but doesn't have links to any other social media sites. Meanwhile, G.E.M Tang - a young Shanghai-born pop singer who grew up in Hong Kong and who collaborated with American singer Jason Mraz in 2012 - has just over 407,000 likes on her official Facebook fan page. Her social media external links are YouTube and Sina Weibo, a Chinese-language microblogging website similar to Twitter. Similarly, Joey Yung - commonly considered to be one of the four premier female Cantopop stars - also only lists the Chinese microblog on her official Facebook page. If that's anything to go by, the answer seems obvious. While K-pop excels at branding and gearing social media towards an international audience in a way that transcends language, Cantopop stars seem to be centered on the Chinese world. The language barrier alone is enough to push away potentially interested netizens.