Songs of Hong Kong: What International Pop Music Says About Us

Hong Kong has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds, of popular international songs, but usually in just a handful of contexts, and almost never favourably.

Typically, for the lyricist, Hong Kong is an impossibly distant shore – an alien oubliette, where lovelorn protagonists exile themselves. “If I were a traveller, I’d go to Hong Kong,” pined country singer “Cowboy” Jack Clement on his 2013 album For Once and For All. His purpose? To “try to forget that my baby is gone.”  In similar fashion, an amatory Tim Buckley — the folksinger father of Jeff Buckley — sang mournfully of “Sittin’ in a Hong Kong bar / Sweet dreams of you darling” on the song “Hong Kong Bar” from his 1972 record Greetings from L.A.

Just as often, Hong Kong stands for venality and decadence. “Hong Kong money, let that dollar roll / Hong Kong money, stole my soul” snarled UK pub rockers Dr. Feelgood on the 1980 roadhouse thumper called – what else? – “Hong Kong Money.”

Opium is liberally mentioned in connection with Hong Kong, of course. British-Georgian singer-songwriter Katie Melua swore on 2003’s “My Aphrodisiac is You” that she wouldn’t need “opium from old Hong Kong” to get herself in the mood. Conversely, US hip-hop outfit Jedi Mind Tricks betrayed their eagerness to receive “an opium shipment from Hong Kong” on the 2015 track “Hell’s Messenger,” 

Then again, Hong Kong can merely exist as a conveniently exotic, if banal, rhyme for “wrong” or “belong.” Xavier Boyer of Tahiti 80, the French indie-pop group, intoned “One day, I almost saw the lights of Hong Kong / But that’s not where I belong” on “Whistle” from the 2008 album Activity Centre. A risible, throwaway line if there ever was one. Or as former Runaways rocker Lita Ford growled on “Relentless,” a track taken from her Living Like a Runaway 2012 solo album, “I never listen, proved them all wrong / Hard rocked their asses from here to Hong Kong.”

Here are six other artists who attempted the same, with varying degrees of success.

Laura Nyro: “Children of the Junks”

There’s no sugarcoating it. In the second line of this otherwise beautiful track, from her 1976 album Smile, late American singer-songwriter Laura Nyro uses a term that Chinese people find highly offensive. But it’s unlikely she had pejorative intent, as the rest of her lyrics suggest:

Children of the Junks
Go by
Mama’s comin’ soon
And the junks are turning in the
Spring sky
Dragon rings
Tax-free things
People pick and pay
Till the day fades away
Cooling in the wind
‘Comrades all’
Red papers ring
Flowers in the sun
On the children of the world
Night comes
Sleep for me
Ain’t nothing, just a moonstruck junk
On the sea
All the junks are sleeping
Spinning flowers on the shade
All the junks are sleeping
Alley cats and renegades

With the opening slur redacted, I can think of few more successful evocations of Hong Kong in the work of Western pop musicians. Not even Blur or Gorillaz, whose respective songs “Ghost Ship” and “Hong Kong” are usually held up as exemplars. 

It’s hard to believe that Nyro could have written these lines without personal experience of the city. Her love of Hong Kong is evident in them. If only someone had  looked at her original draft, pointed to the offensive part, and grabbed her by the shoulders exclaiming, “Laura, no, you just can’t say that!”

Parenthetical note to the musical trainspotters among you: “Children of the Junks” features delicate fret work from Hugh McCracken, the top New York session player, who also did guitar duties for the likes of Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Paul Simon.

The Zutons: “Railroad”

You may not have heard of the Zutons – an indie rock band hailing from the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool – but you almost certainly know their song “Valerie,” which was released in 2006 and covered a year later by Amy Winehouse on Mark Ronson’s album Version, becoming a massive hit.

The Zutons dropped their debut long player Who Killed the Zutons? in 2004. Among its dozen tracks is the curious “Railroad,” in which vocalist Dave McCabe imagines himself as a sort of indentured labourer, sent East to perform backbreaking manual work.

I’ll sail to Hong Kong harbour
The winds were warmer there
The sweat would roll down my back
While digging at the earth
While talking of you darling
I’d show your photograph
And point it over westwards
Way over past the tracks

True, Western construction workers were in Hong Kong in significant numbers in the 1990s to help build the airport on Lantau. But historically, the movement was always the other way around, with thousands of Chinese labourers sent to the US via Hong Kong in the 19th century to work on the railways, usually in brutal conditions. Perhaps McCabe should have been thinking about those men when he crooned:

I’m working on the railroad
I dig away the time
I’m singing to the work song
With memories in mind

Gold Panda: “My Father In Hong Kong 1961”

Electronica artist and producer Gold Panda — the professional name of London-born Derwin Schlecker — has a more than ephemeral interest in Asia. He was an undergraduate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, lived for a time in Japan, and, after all, named himself after China’s totem bear.

In a 2013 interview to promote his second album Half of Where You Live, which was released that year, he spoke of everything from Philippine typhoons to the films of Takashi Miike – and it is that sort of urbanity that saves the album from lapsing into the ethnic tropes that often bedevil self-consciously “global” work.

Instead, Half of Where You Live is a mostly successful audio safari that whisks the listener from Brazil to Japan, via Hong Kong. Although its title is ambiguous, the opener “Junk City II” is surely inspired by the territory, and comes across as a sort of amped-up, electronic holla back to 1987’s Sketches – the criminally neglected, Hong Kong concept album by Ric Halstead and Dave Packer that featured stalwarts of local music such as Eugene Pao, Donald Ashley and Rudy Balbuena.

A standout, though, is the atmospheric ditty “My Father in Hong Kong 1961,” which blends — perhaps implausibly — the sounds of gamelan with dark washes of synth to blow the cobwebs off Schlecker senior’s dimly recalled business trip or half-forgotten Kai Tak stopover.

The Velvet Underground: “Countess From Hong Kong”

There is an actual Hong Kong countess, of course. Alexandra Manley, formerly of Discovery Bay, became Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra of Denmark when she married Prince Joachim of Denmark in 1995 – and then merely Her Excellency Alexandra, Countess of Frederiksborg, when the couple divorced in 2004.

But the 1967 Charles Chaplain film of the same name — about the life of a Russian émigré in Hong Kong — was presumably the inspiration for this rough demo by the progenitor of all indie bands, the Velvet Underground. It could therefore be argued that the song – released on Peel Slowly and See, a 1995 anthology of oddities and offcuts recorded between 1965 and 1970 – is one of the few pieces of music to mark the fact, however obliquely, that Hong Kong was once the home of a large number of White Russian refugees.

The lyrics make no such reference, unfortunately. Instead, they speak of a woman attired in “Silks and satins, what a purple suede,” who was visited by “all of the Princes, they came from India / They fell down on their knees.” Lou Reed warbles: “Countess from Hong Kong she moves so lightly / Like the summer rain,” conveniently forgetting that summer precipitation in Hong Kong is anything but light.

Perhaps the track can be better understood as an early take on the idea of a Hong Kong woman (indeed Hong Kong itself) as a honeytrap and creature of seductive hauteur – a vein still being mined decades later, in such work as Iggy Pop’s 1977 track “China Girl” (co-written, of course, with David Bowie); Dominic Anciano’s famous 1984 video for Spandau Ballet’s “Highly Strung”; and as late as “Hong Kong (Lady of Love),” a 2016 collab between rapper Lushlife, hip-hop crew CSLSX and lo-fi singer-songwriter Ariel Pink.

Japan: “Cantonese Boy”

Depending on where you stand, the 1980s British art-rock group Japan is either guilty of hideous Orientalism or the proponent of a far-sighted, if highly mannered, crossover sound that blended the likes of temple bells and the Chinese suona with Richard Barbieri’s ethereal keyboards and the singularity of Mick Karn’s avantgarde bass playing.

The band eventually earned a degree of credibility in Asia – vocalist David Sylvian became a long-time collaborator of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s, and Ippu-do guitarist Masami Tsuchiya joined the group for its final tour. Japan did its cause no favours with such offerings as the 1981 studio album Tin Drum, however. It was nothing to do with the 1959 Gunther Grass novel of the same name, but instead a foppish flirtation with Maoism – reprising a theme the band first touched on three years earlier in the bleary glam rock of “Communist China.”

On the cover of Tin Drum, vocalist David Sylvian sits beneath a poster of the Chairman, surrounded by a wok, dim sum baskets, and an array of ethnic impedimenta that the stylist must have quickly grabbed in London’s Chinatown en route to the shoot. A bafflingly large serving of steamed rice sits at Sylvian’s right elbow.

The album tracks veer from kitsch (the overblown “Canton” sounds like the interstitial music of a Guangdong TV station in hell) to sublime (as a haunting confessional, “Ghosts” surely has a claim to be Gen X’s own “My Way”). 

Somewhere in between is “Cantonese Boy.” Sang Sylvian:

Cantonese boy
Bang your tin drum
Cantonese boy
Civilian soldier
Cantonese boy
Bang your tin drum
Cantonese boy
Red army calls you home

It’s bogus profundity, but that didn’t matter to callow Hong Kong scenemakers of the time. It became a generation’s fight song – as indisputably as Skibs’ “Hong Kong Kids” was the anthem of a much later cohort. The track, and the album, were also peak Japan. The band broke up shortly after.

Ambulance Ltd: “Arbuckle’s Swan Song”

Midway through the noughties, this anglophile East Harlem combo became a fleeting band du jour for lovers of dream pop and shoegaze, thanks to a combination of wistful melody, intelligent songwriting and pronounced hipster sensibilities (who else would think to do a live version of Pink Floyd’s 1971 track “Fearless”?). Leader Marcus Congleton even worked for a time with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale (see “Countess of Hong Kong,” above). None of that material surfaced, but the collab only burnished the aura surrounding Ambulance Ltd.

It wasn’t to last. By 2007, Congleton was the only original member, playing shows with a hired backing band and mired in a lawsuit against his old record company, which had gone bankrupt – but not before releasing the New English EP.

Fittingly, the band’s swansong contains “Arbuckle’s Swansong,” an elegiac and bittersweet valediction to better times.

Get up now baby
Shake the door
And give a big kiss to the sky
There’s coke on the table
Where is my heart?
Do I look all that bad all the time?
We crossed the mighty sea
And did the shimmy to forever
The cops showed up, they took us there
And sold us down the river
And Arbuckle’s swan song plays on the flight
All the way from L.A. to Hong Kong

Who is Arbuckle? Is Congleton name checking the tragic American silent movie actor Roscoe Arbuckle? Who knows? But that is what is so delicious about the song: so much is left unexplained. After what haggard debauch has the protagonist awoken? Why must he rouse his sleeping partner? And why is this pair of coked-up ne’er-do-wells flying to Hong Kong? 

There is no longer a suggestion here that Hong Kong is the town of seedy bars that it was to Clement or Buckley, luring brokenhearted miscreants with promises of stupefaction. Hong Kong’s role is not even explained – reflecting, at last, a certain maturity on the part of the Western songwriter. 

The city has ceased to be a place of forgetting, where qipao-clad vamps recline with their opium pipes. 

It is no more – as Siouxsie and the Banshees described it in their questionable 1978 hit “Hong Kong Garden” – the home of “chicken chow mein and chop suey” where you “leave your yens [sic] on the counter please” after selling your daughter. (“Yens”? At least Dr. Feelgood knew they weren’t legal tender in Hong Kong.) 

Instead, Hong Kong is simply allowed to be itself, the next stop after LA, a city like any other on the global circuit. 

On the map of Western pop, we had finally arrived.

Photos in the slider are stills from the video created by Ronni Shendar for ” My Father In Hong Kong 1961″ by Gold Panda

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