Late last year Hunan Satellite TV launched the reality show Night in the Greater Bay. The series was a spin-off from Call Me By Fire. It came about when the five Hong Kong contestants, which included Jordan Chan, Julian Cheung and Michael Tse, all friends prior to the show, became breakout stars, endearing themselves to audiences with their poorly pronounced Mandarin and laidback attitudes.
The Hong Kong connection lives on this month. In a move timed with the 25th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China (on July 1), Hunan Satellite TV launched a new variety show this month called Infinity and Beyond in collaboration with Hong Kong’s free-to-air broadcaster TVB. It features singers and bands from the mainland and Hong Kong, dividing them into two teams to compete for audience votes. The goal of the show, says the Hunan-based network, is to remember the massive success and huge influence across mainland China of Hong Kong’s Cantopop music stars of the 1990s and promote the genre into a new era.
In recalling the 1990s – the golden age of Cantopop when Cantonese songs were hugely popular in the mainland and the “Four Heavenly Kings” (Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok) were so popular most people could sing along to most of their hits – the show’s producers invited the 60 year-old Sally Yeh, another of the biggest Cantopop stars of the period, and her husband George Lam, 74, to sing. To appeal to audiences across all the generations, producers added new names like Gigi Yim and Mike Tsang, two of Hong Kong’s current stars. Mainland singers with little obvious connection to Cantopop, like singer Li Jian and An Qi, were added to the roster too (producers explained that their music was heavily “influenced by Cantopop” by way of explanation).
The show has quickly won over audiences and critics alike. The first episode received more than 10 million views in the first six hours it was available. On Douban, the series has been rated 7.7 out of 10, with many fans praising it as a feast for the ears.
Unlike Singer, another popular music talent format from Hunan TV, Infinity and Beyond is well-paced and interesting to watch, enthuse its adherents.
“Infinity and Beyond is really touching. I wish I were born and raised in the 1990s,” one fan of the show wrote on weibo.
Not everyone was so delighted, mind you, especially some in Hong Kong. For a start, Cantopop has been given a new Mandarin designation in the show as ‘gang yue’ (港乐), which for people in Hong Kong is associated with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.
“If I want to listen to classic Cantopop I can just watch YouTube,” many netizens complained.
“And if the producers really wanted to promote Cantonese songs and attract new listeners, shouldn’t they choose songs that are closer to what people are listening to now instead of songs that feel like the whole Cantonese music scene is dead?” another questioned.
Others sniped that the inclusion of mainland singers who couldn’t pronounce Cantonese words correctly was an insult to the genre.
While some of the musical guests on the show hailed from southern Chinese cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou (a city known as ‘Canton’ in imperial times), where Cantonese remains widely spoken, other guests were lambasted for their Cantonese pronunciation.
“As a Cantonese speaker, I feel like vomiting blood. Without even the most basic respect for a dialect, how dare you come on the show saying you want to promote it? At least go home and practice the pronunciation. It is so obvious who worked hard to perfect their diction and who didn’t even bother,” one critic thundered.
One exception to such criticism was Hunan-native Zhou Bichang, who surprised audiences with how perfect her Cantonese was (the reason: she’d spent a great deal of her childhood in Shenzhen).
Others accused the producers of exploiting the nostalgia to sell ads and cash in. For instance, the first episode ended with a group tribute to the iconic 1993 Cantopop song ‘Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies’. In the middle of the performance, producers inserted footage of the lead singer Wong Ka-kui, who died at the age of 31. The camera then swung round on audience members dabbing their eyes.
“In this ‘fast food’ era, is just giving old Cantopop songs a new arrangement really going to make people fall in love with them again?” a more cynical netizen wrote.
Still, breakout stars like Gigi Yim have captured the attention of China’s netizens. Some are comparing her with GEM, another Hong Kong singer who became a household name after coming second on Singer in 2014. Yim, who is only 17, got her start when she won the TVB singing competition Star Academy last year.
Infinity and Beyond has generated so much buzz that artists that rejected an invitation to appear have been having second thoughts. Big-name Hong Kong performer Eason Chan, who turned down the offer when approached late last year, is now believed to be making his way to Changsha to appear on the show. One of the reasons he didn’t accept initially, China’s media reckons, is that producers offered him Rmb1 million per episode, which is far below his going rate…
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