Imagine that Rhode Island produced music that everyone in the U.S. listened to. That would be kind of surprising. Well, the triumph of Cantopop is quite a bit more astonishing. From a region of some 7 million people--smaller in population than North Carolina, smaller in size than Rhode Island--comes pop music, in Hong Kong's Cantonese language, that dominates the Chinese-speaking world. Cantopop stars are mobbed in Beijing and Taipei, in London and Las Vegas. Last Christmas, veteran mesmerizer Leslie Cheung gave a sold-out concert at Caesars Palace, where tickets went for $80 and $238. The same night, half a mile down the Strip, Jackie Chan--yes, he's also a singer--led an all-star music revue that packed the 17,000-seat Garden at the MGM Grand at a top price of $150.
In most places, pop music may be an anthem of anarchy. But Cantopop is an island of musical serenity in the Kingdom of Nice. Here's how Edison Chen, one of the young rebels challenging the autocracy of amiability, describes it: "No sex. No drugs. Maybe a little rock 'n' roll." The ballads rise with a decorous lilt; even most of Cantopop's uptempo numbers could be sung (with English lyrics) in a Presbyterian church in Iowa. Most of the singers have good manners too. Perky, dreamy, neatly dressed, well behaved, they are the rock stars any mom would want her kid to marry.
They come with a big trousseau; their fickle fans insist on frequent makeovers. "Madonna changes her image once every few years," says singer Kelly Chen. "We do it every three months." In his recent Passion tour, Cheung wore eight Jean-Paul Gaultier outfits, in ascending order of outrageousness, from a white tux with angel wings to a naughty shirt.
Cheung may be familiar to art-house audiences as the star of Chen Kaige's 1993 drama Farewell My Concubine. In Hong Kong virtually every star does double duty as singer and actor, from suave baritone Jacky Cheung to Beijing beauty Faye Wong. Last year's box-office sensation was the romantic comedy Needing You, whose two stars, Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, are at the top of Cantopop royalty. Lau, 40, has been acting (often in tough-guy roles) or singing (here he's Mellow Man) for 20 years. Cheng, 29, is the new princess of Cantopop--last year she sold more than a million albums--whose fame has translated into a burgeoning movie career.
Hong Kong stars work hard. Some make a dozen films a year; others record four or more CDs a year while maintaining a grueling schedule of concerts, TV gigs, commercial endorsements and personal appearances. "Last year I released five or six albums," says proto-hunk Nicholas Tse, 20. "For most artists that's almost a law. Sometimes your companies just need fast cash and you gotta make this album on time. By the time it's released, you don't even remember what you sang." Canto-stars sing lyrics in Cantonese, Mandarin or English. Now they're turning Japanese, in a push to woo that huge market. Kelly Chen recently went into the studio to record five songs in Japanese; the whole session took one hour.