China-Pop Rocks

Pop music along the Pacific's other side is going through a renaissance of late, largely due to a frenetically paced cultural exchange between the rising Asian economies. Satellite television offering Asian-ized MTV-type channels helps; so do cheap pirates of imported CDs. And while the biggest transnational stars continue to emanate from cosmopolitan Hong Kong, increasingly the talent is moving in from elsewhere. Canto-pop isn't as it used to be.Case in point: the showcase of the new generation of H.K. musical talent in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, currently playing (a couple of years late) to American audiences. Besides a seethingly cool original sound track (which carries titles such as "Catching the Metaphysical Express" and "Entering Hard-Boiled Wonderland" -- a reference to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami), Chungking makes good use of the box-office appeal of its transplanted younger stars, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Faye Wong, who are from Hong Kong in spirit only.Kaneshiro is Taiwanese, with a Japanese father, and speaks three languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese. Like Faye Wong (and another Chungking star, Tony Leung), he's already got a few albums under his belt supporting his acting career. Wong, whose Cantonese cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams" roars across the sound track during a key scene (in MTV-drenched slo-mo, no less), is Canto-pop's hottest female star, but she's originally from Beijing and speaks with a funny, curly-tongued accent.Wong's postpunk image is a departure from the mostly wholesome appeal of former Canto-pop stars. Striking studied poses of aloofness and sporting weird haircuts (lately she's forsaken her Seberg hairdo from Chungking for dreadlock-type clusters), Wong has single-handedly brought Gen X-style disinterest to Chinese pop, this to the culture that probably invented disinterestedness. Whereas previous Canto-pop stars sang covers of Michael Jackson, Wong does the Cranberries and Tori Amos.On her albums, Wong delivers her underproduced numbers, sometimes accompanied by only acoustic guitar, with a breathless, barely audible whisper and a floating-world spaciness that the northern Chinese refer to as piao. For the karaoke crowd, who prefer to belt out their songs with as much gusto as possible, it isn't exactly user-friendly stuff. At her worst, her music sounds coy, crossing the point where cool turns to lifeless; but when the posture and piao works, as it does on Mimi Zhiyin (Licentious Music), her album of covers of Mandarin standards made famous by the late legend Teresa Teng, she's irresistibly seductive.Wong is big, and her multicostumed stadium concerts are already legend, but she's not as big as Jacky Cheung, who currently holds the title of geshen, or "music god." A Hong Kong native, Cheung is Canto-pop's final solution, with songs perfect in their saccharine sublimity, tender soulfulness, and karaoke-friendliness. Wildly popular among the Chinese diaspora, he can play, as he did last December, to sold out concert halls from San Jose to Atlantic City.In Hong Kong, a Jacky concert moves from spectacle, with armies of dancers making their way across elaborate set pieces, to intimate moments in which Jacky walks across the stage collecting flowers, notes, and gifts from a stadium of admiring fans to climactic, fireworks-laden closing numbers featuring full string orchestras. Because his charisma ignores national boundaries -- reaching out to Chinese communities from Singapore to Milpitas, CA -- he became, with his 1993 album, Kiss and Goodbye, Polygram Records' first Asian artist to make its annual top-10 list. A recent Businessweek report claimed Jacky was selling "like gangbusters" in Amsterdam. Amsterdam?The future of Chinese pop may not lie with Cheung, however, or even Wong, but with mainland Chinese artists like Dou Wei, who bring an entirely different sensibility to the still mostly conformist universe of Canto-pop. Dou Wei, who is from Beijing and sings in Mandarin, doesn't really qualify as Canto-pop anyway. The former front man of Hei Bao (Black Panther), a heavy-metal outfit, he's the top candidate from Beijing's underground rock scene to cross over into pop acceptance in Hong Kong and Taiwan and beyond. His brand of acid-drenched rock is essentially unclassifiable, coming from a milieu, Beijing, that has no history of commercial popular music.The influences on his brilliant debut solo album, Black Dream, are all over the map: polka, reggae, psychedelic Pink Floyd, folk, metal, and Buddhist chanting. It's world music, made not from art-school pretensions but from an all-consuming desire to get the hell out of home.The success of Dou's tamer follow-up, Sunny Days, in the Hong Kong and Taiwan pop mainstream is a sign of the changing music scene in the Pacific and of its diversity and vitality. Lines like "Give me a single thread of hope/Which tantalizes me even in my dreams" walk the line between Beijing's underground rock (where concerts are promoted by word of mouth and held free of charge in whatever venue happens to be available) and nice, smooth Canto-pop. But the future, which includes Hong Kong's 1997 merge with China, will be one of less-fortified borders. Dou Wei, for example, already has plans to move to Vancouver.It would be hard to conclude a discussion of current Chinese music without mentioning one Japanese band, given that Japanese songwriters have long supplied Chinese, Cantonese, and Mandarin singers with material (check out Jacky Cheung's cover of a Southern All-Stars track and Takeshi Kaneshiro's Chinese version of a Kome Kome Club song). It should also be noted that in places like Taiwan, Japanese pop, TV theme songs, and anime sound tracks are as popular, if not more so, than the homegrown material. Songwriting duo Chage and Aska's TV-theme-song single, "Say Yes," was a chart-topping hit well beyond their native Japan, where their popularity is off the scale. A Chage and Aska single, "Something There," even made it onto the sound track of The Streetfighter (a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie), sounding decidedly incongruous next to the likes of Ice Cube and Deion Sanders.Chage and Aska probably manufacture (that might be the right word for it) the most addictive pop music in the world. Maybe it's the Yoko Ono connection, but the spirit of the Beatles looms large in the collective Japanese consciousness, and Chage and Aska have some kind of Liverpudlian shadow hanging over them. On their new album, Code Name.1 Brother Sun, there's a sample, amid a Sgt. Pepper's-esque segue that goes: "Thank you for meeting us today! We are the Beatles!" Like the music of Sgt. Pepper's, Chage and Aska's tunes are hook-laden and meticulously crafted. With production value second to none, a typical Chage and Aska album offers, without fail, MIDI insanity couched in perfect, jewel-like pop structures, hallucinatory mind candy.Which is what most of this music boils down to. Meticulous and sophisticated studio production and pop-hook shamelessness make the new Pacific sound perfect for the Walkman, the musical device of choice among urban-congested Asians. While Californians worship at the temple of the car stereo, the Walkman permits a deeper and more total submersion in escapism, shutting out reality and allowing shiny sounds, lilting voices, heartfelt schmaltz, and pure, glittering pop to seep in. Right now, no one's doing this better than our counterparts on the cooler side of the Pacific.

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