1: Anthony Wong
Pop music pioneer Anthony Wong has helped define Hong Kong music – and he’s helping the next generation. That’s why he’s our number one, writes Hamish McKenzie
Anthony Wong is on his way out of the Fringe Club after a demanding photoshoot that has lasted the better part of two hours, but he stops to make one last point. The photographer got him thinking. The spotlight above his head, the photographer had told him, was like a halo. That reminded Wong of a song from his new record, King of the Road, that touches on ageing. The song, called The Halo Above Your Head, refers to a balding patch on top of a man’s dome. In the lyrics, Wong implores people to look at the bald spot not as a sign of deterioration, but of intellectual grace. “You can look at it like a halo, an accumulation of your experiences, and an accumulation of your wisdom,” says the singer, who has earned the respect of fans and critics alike for more than 20 years.
Yes, you read that right – Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, icon of Hong Kong’s pop music scene, has written a song about balding. It’s in keeping with the feel of his new album – Wong’s surprising first-time foray into country and western – which explores issues the artist never had to deal with in his earlier years: ageing, illness, death. “I don’t think it’s a record for old people,” he says with a laugh. “No – I think it is a record for someone who has finally come to terms with adulthood.”
For a man who has made electronics and showmanship a hallmark of his career, the shift to country and western might seem an unconventional choice – especially when juxtaposed with his last album, Like Water, a wonderfully ostentatious pop opera that came in a vinyl-sized box package and featured images of a sci-fi Wong completely covered in glittering jewels. “Maybe it’s a reaction to what I did on my last record,” Wong muses. “Because on my last record, everything was so over the top and so complicated and so operatic.” This time, he has taken the opportunity to draw on some of his traditional folk favourites – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell – and channel the captivating work of more recent alt-country and nu-folk champions such as Calexico, Elliott Smith, and late-era Johnny Cash. Says Wong: “This is one of the most simple records I have done in years”.
To close observers of Wong’s career, and the legions of fans who have stuck with him since his days with the groundbreaking 1980s synth-pop act Tat Ming Pair, surprising changes of direction and crossover ventures have become the norm. While various other performers of his era have placidly bowed to commercial interests and make lucrative livings churning out karaoke-friendly insta-hits, Wong has played the game on his own terms, crafting an image and a catalogue that offers an alternative voice – literally, with his almost androgynous, Bowie-esque tones, and figuratively, in presenting a persona that sits most comfortably in the realms of fantasy, far removed from the safety of the Cantopop mainstream.
“While everybody’s being a conformist, he sticks to his beliefs,” says Henry Chung, the blues harmonica maestro and Time Out jazz columnist who contributed to the first single, Canton-Hong Kong Highway, on Wong’s new album. “His brand of music is distinctively Anthony Wong. All these years, he has been consistent with what he believes and has never tried to compromise with the mainstream audience.”
There’s another little thing that sets Wong apart from his Cantopop counterparts. “Anthony can sing,” Chung remarks wryly. “That makes a big difference. A lot of his fans right now are leftover fans from the 80s with the Tat Ming Pair. He’s created a loyal following and I think these fans are crazy about him. His music really has a lot of character.”
That freedom of expression allows him to pen songs that veer away from the traditional pop themes of new love, troubled love, and lost love. And so, on King of the Road, we witness Wong not only celebrating the beauty of ageing, but also examining the increased cross-border intermingling since the handover (Canton-Hong Kong Highway), globalisation (One World – a tale about a heartbroken man who escapes his problems in his home city only to find every other city is the same), and speaking out for oft-neglected senior citizens (Panic Alarm). For the latter, Wong asked kids from the impoverished city of Tin Shui Wai to contribute vocals to the track as a way to draw attention to the plight of the elderly. “In Hong Kong, people just care about youth and glamour, and being trendy, but they don’t care about the senior citizens,” he says.
The result is an album that is firmly rooted in a country aesthetic and storytelling tradition – but Wong couldn’t help but include some of those electronics. Sure, it’s country – but Wong-style country. “I think this is a country and western album in a very rock sense,” he offers. He also confesses to getting distracted during production, which perhaps explains why he goes slightly off-message with an English-language cover of Teardrop by Massive Attack – his favourite band.
It all speaks to Wong’s unceasing creativity and crossover instincts. Those were qualities on beautiful display in his 2006 collaboration with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra for a series of concerts at the Coliseum, called Bauhinia Rhapsody. Over four nights, Wong sang his own material and covered material earlier performed by peers such as Faye Wong and Cass Pang, as well as Western pop favourites such as Bittersweet Symphony, Goldfinger, and Sunny, demonstrating not only an impressively wide range but also a tasteful evasion of U2.
Leung Kin-fung, the HKPO’s violin concert master, remembers well the sold-out concerts. “All the songs we performed were actually from his repertoire, so he knew all the songs pretty well,” Leung says. “Instead, the arranger arranged totally different pieces to make it sound completely new.” Leung says Wong was initially – and understandably – nervous in the presence of the large orchestra, but the violinist was impressed with his work ethic and commitment to the project. “He kept asking for rehearsals and longer hours. In front of an orchestra he’s very humble. I like him a lot.”
As Wong recalls, it was a challenging endeavour. “The Hong Kong Philharmonic experience was really nerve-racking,” he recalls with a laugh. “I had been looking forward to that all my life, but when it happened, it was really scary. You could only have so much time for rehearsal, because you can’t ask 80 people to rehearse with you day and night for three or four weeks.”
Still, it was perhaps a career highlight for Wong as a solo musician, with the concerts forming the basis for a three-disc box set and a DVD. Along with his music-theatre collaborations with experimental theatre group Zuni Icosahedron, Bauhinia Rhapsody perfectly encapsulates Wong’s diversity and cross-genre efficacy.
But those aren’t the only reasons Time Out has chosen Anthony Wong as our number one musician. Indeed, one of the singer’s most important contributions to Hong Kong music happened off stage. In 1999, he founded the production company People Mountain People Sea, initially as a pet project to record an album for one of his friends and long-time collaborators, Jason Choi. In the last decade, the company has grown from a part-time side endeavour into a fully-blown enterprise that has the potential to significantly re-shape the Cantopop industry. Wong has used the platform to promote the talents of some unlikely young stars, such as the quirky indie-pop duo Pixel Toy, and Eman Lam and Ellen Joyce Loo, known as the ‘folktronica’ duo at17 (number four in our top 20).
At17 proved to be an inspired choice. When Wong plucked the girls from shopping mall- and café-gig obscurity, some doubted they would be accepted by an image-obsessed industry. The girls, then teenagers, certainly didn’t fit the unhealthily-skinny and cutesy starlet stereotype. But Wong was insistent on signing the talented singer-songwriters. Loo, now 22, remembers that Wong said at the time, “Why can’t a chubby girl sing?”
“I still feel really touched when I think about that situation,” she says.
Wong has a slightly different version of events and says it was the girls who were uncertain about their prospects for a music career. “I think they themselves were not very confident about being in the industry – maybe because of the way they looked. They didn’t look like conventional popstars,” he says. “I said, ‘You don’t have to look or sound like other people if your music is good.’”
Today, at17 can fill arenas with thousands of fans and have enjoyed great chart success, while Wong has encouraged them to retain their artistic independence and drive their own productions, from song-writing to stage shows.
For Tommy Chan, founder and owner of indie music distributor Love da Records, the advent of People Mountain People Sea is Wong’s finest achievement. “The way they approach [the music business] is different to the others. For me it’s more like European style,” says Chan. Music is Wong’s top priority, says Chan, and, unlike traditional Hong Kong labels, he’s unconcerned with turning the singers into movie stars as a way to help raise their profiles. “He’s more than a singer already – he’s helping the new artists as well.”
Despite the near-universal respect he enjoys from his peers, critics, and fans, Wong remains humble about his role in the entertainment scene. “I’m not sure how big a star I am. I know that I’ve been singing for so long, and I’ve built up something. I’ve got a little fame,” he says. “I know that some people will look up to me as an idol, or something like that, but I try not to let it go to my head too much.”
His latest work can be understood as a ‘road’ album – a motif that has for so long been a staple of country music. He’s even taken the title from a Wim Wenders flick, Kings of the Road (1976), one of his favourite films from a director known for his artistic fixation on the highway. The idea of the road figures strongly on the cover art and it’s the central theme for the opening and closing songs: Cantonese and Mandarin versions of Canton-Hong Kong Highway.
After 23 years on the scene, Wong is a long way down his own imaginative highway – but it seems he’s far from reaching the end. He keeps finding new branches, fresh detours, and intriguing back trails to explore. One minute he’s driving through the urban heart of Hong Kong; the next he’s whistling past verdant classical forests. With every new journey, he re-writes another little slice of our pop history. Let’s hope he keeps his foot off the brakes.
Anthony Wong’s King of the Road is on sale now.