c-pop: get to know the most popular musicians you've never heard of

As Chinese pop music slowly begins to invade Western culture, Hong Kong-born, London-raised musician Emma Moss (aka Emmy The Great) finally feels able to come out of the C-Pop closet. Discover the scene with i-D’s short film on China’s answer to Taylor...

by Emma-Lee Moss
10 December 2015, 2:45pm

In 1995, at the age of 11, I went to a hairdresser and asked for a celebrity haircut. It wasn't the 'Rachel', which was at its peak popularity among girls my age, but the 'Aaron', an ear-length, mushroom-shaped bowl cut split in the centre of the forehead, as worn by one of the most famous Chinese pop stars in the world, Aaron Kwok.

I say 'the world'. Technically, this was true. As one of the 'Four Heavenly Kings' of Hong Kong pop, alongside Jackie Cheung, Andy Lau and Leon Lai, there were few other Chinese pop stars as famous as Aaron Kwok. However, if his fame had global reach, it was only within the boundaries of Chinese-speaking communities. That year, when I moved with my family from Hong Kong to England, nobody recognised the origin of my haircut. In England, what I did to my hair was simply called 'curtains'. I grew it out.

Despite recent growth in global interest towards Asian pop music, Chinese pop stars today still experience the same issues as Aaron Kwok when trying to market their music abroad. This week, i-D are releasing a documentary about G.E.M., a Hong Kong pop star often described as the 'Chinese Taylor Swift'. G.E.M., who has released four number 1 albums in Hong Kong, recently sold out the UK's Wembley Arena, but to a crowd made up almost exclusively of Asian ex-pats. In the documentary, G.E.M. describes music as the 'one language that everybody speaks', and expresses a hope that her own music might break through to the global stage.

G.E.M. follows in the footsteps of other C-pop megastars, like Eason Chan and the late Anita Mui, who have been able to control large crowds in the West while being almost entirely ignored by the Western media. In 2012, Chan was the first Chinese artist to play the UK's 12,000-capacity O2 Arena, which he sold out in twenty minutes. In a rare example of a C-pop artist being featured in a UK publication, he was quoted in the Telegraph saying, "I never thought I had so many fans in Europe." The t-shirts at his merchandise stand underlined the point, printed with the tour's rallying cry: 'Who the hell is Eason Chan?'

A few years ago, at a Chinese New Year concert in London's Trafalgar Square, I performed an Eason Chan song, Because of Love (因为爱情), and experienced a tiny version of coming out. In the years since my 'Aaron' cut, while living in the UK and the US, I have never shaken the part of me that resonates with Chinese-language music. Late at night, I find myself trawling YouTube for videos that I remember from my Hong Kong school days, like this Leon Lai hit. In karaoke, I will confound my friends by hacking the system and locating Dream Lover (a Cranberries cover by my particular favourite C-pop star, Faye Wong, from the soundtrack to Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express.

To me, C-pop brings up a mix of homesickness and pride, on which this Buzzfeed listicle is surprisingly spot on.

Record sales in mainland China are blighted by a deeply ingrained culture of piracy, so C-pop artists take pains to foster their public image for extra income, working as brand ambassadors, and in the globally successful Chinese film industry. As a result, loyalty to C-pop stars is usually slavish in nature. My own devotion for Faye Wong has roots from music, film and television specials from my childhood. To have nobody to share it with feels like keeping a part of myself locked up. Once, when I watched a Lily Allen interview filmed at the Anita Mui statue in Hong Kong, I cried, thinking that the two worlds I knew so well had finally collided.

Despite breathtaking numbers of C-pop fans, it's K-pop that dominates global interest right now, with artists like G-Dragon and CL looking certain to achieve universal cultural relevance.Meanwhile, Japan's Kyary Pamyu Pamyu continues to release videos that provide the sort of adrenalised visual spectacle that Western audiences associate with the Asian pop aesthetic.

C-pop, which encompasses music not only from Mainland China and Hong Kong, but also Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and any other country with Chinese-speaking residents, has yet to create a sound or a video that draws the attention of Western tastemaker publications and radio playlists. When I asked James Kwan, label manager of Hong Kong's Love Da Records, why he thought this was, he bemoaned a culture of risk-aversion in the Chinese pop industry. "Just too many mediocre produced songs from the last generation," he said. Many blame the Chinese market itself. While the Korean music industry pours money and research into exporting its music, C-pop considers China's musical tastes first. The most beloved Chinese pop star of the last decade, Jay Chou, is a singer-songwriter in the alt-rock style, which is nothing like the audacious, hyperactive synth-pop that makes waves abroad. As well as this, Chinese people discover music on Chinese TV shows, or platforms like QQ, Baidu, Wechat and Weibo, which are virtually unknown outside of China. While it is possible to access restricted sites such as Google and Youtube via VPN services, mainland-based artists technically need outside help to upload their work onto sites like YouTube, where people outside of Chinese networks might discover it.

But as G.E.M. proves, today's C-pop stars are starting to take control. It is generally understood that the first Chinese artist to break the West will return home a hero, and G.E.M. is certainly well placed to do so, having already racked up over 205 million views on her dedicated YouTube channel. Meanwhile, Western interest in Chinese music is bubbling, not least after Grimes' decision to feature Taiwanese lo-fi rap artist Aristophanes on her sophomore album. If I had to make a prediction right now, I'd say that the first mainstream C-pop artist to cross over will be Chris Lee, a wildly popular talent show winner who recently announced her collaboration with East London pop collective PC Music. It's a canny move which is sure to fast-track her entry into crucial music channels around the world, potentially turning her into the first world-famous C-pop star. The effect this will have on the Chinese pop industry, and my karaoke game, is yet to be seen.

Emma-Lee Moss is a musician and writer. She performs under the name Emmy the Great and you can follow her on Twitter at @emmy_the_great


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