I Am What I Am: Performing Cantopop

Stage performance is a key component to the success of Cantopop. ‘Super concerts’ featuring popular songs, choreography, story-telling, and magnificent costumes create image transformations intended to surprise and excite audiences. On stage, the aesthetics of cross-dressing and camp were, and continue to be, part of the iconography of Cantopop.

The ‘Godfather of Cantopop’ Roman Tam’s image was augmented by his physical beauty and a level of glamour that had never been seen before. The opulent peacock feather cloak worn during his farewell concert, Roman Tam’s Glorious Stage in 1996, was a fitting finale for a performer whose flamboyant on stage presence captivated audiences. In pushing the boundaries of accepted male behaviour and characteristics, Tam was a pioneer who paved the way for later stars like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui.

With his enormous success as a Cantopop idol, as well as an actor, Leslie Cheung often challenged his matinee idol image. From the late 1990s onwards, he conflated his image as an object of desire for both men and women with more avant-garde expressions. These are best exemplified in his provocative performance in the Live in Concert 97’, and his collaboration with designer Jean Paul Gaultier for his costume designs in the Passion Tour concert of 2000.

Anita Mui’s long collaboration with designer Eddie Lau shaped her image as ‘ever changing’, with personas that ranged from tomboy to dandy, and from showgirl to bride. Her gender fluidity is further celebrated in the work of one of her protégées, Denise Ho, whose costume for the HOCC Live in Unity 2006 concert pays homage to Mui’s gorgeous bridal costume while reinterpreting it through the masculine rock characteristics embraced by Ho.

High heels worn by Leslie Cheung in Live in Concert 97’

Courtesy of Nansun Shi

Sketch of Leslie Cheung’s costumes for Passion Tour concert

Creation by Jean Paul Gaultier for Leslie Cheung, special thanks to illustrator Fabien Esnard-Lascombe

Costume for Denise Ho’s HOCC Live in Unity 2006 Concert, designed by Eddie Lau

Donated by Mr. Eddie LAU
Hong Kong Heritage Museum Collection, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

He’s a Woman, She’s a Man: Role Play

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Hong Kong film industry was the third largest in the world. While mainstream commercial cinema dominated the market, the overall success of the industry created the conditions for younger filmmakers to introduce new aesthetics, techniques, and narrative structures to more closely reflect the contemporary lived experience. The films excerpted here explore the everyday ambiguity in male and female roles, revealing changing social and cultural mores.

In Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988), the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) disguises herself as a male performer to sing at a restaurant where she meets Chen (Leslie Cheung). Kwan mirrors the tension-filled flirtatious first encounter between the two with his fluid camerawork. Johnnie To's Eighth Happiness (1988) questions accepted norms of male behaviour via the character of Long (Chow Yun-fat) whose concern with his appearance and beauty regimen dominate this light-hearted comedy. In Peter Chan’s He’s A Woman, She’s a Man (1994) Wing (Anita Yuen) pretends to be a young man to get close to her idols, but in a strange reversal of roles she becomes the object of fascination because of her indeterminate gender. Wong Kar-wai’s lush homage to French New Wave cinema, Chungking Express (1994) shows heartbroken Cop 663 (Tony Leung) direct his emotional outpouring towards inanimate objects, as if he were a lovelorn teenage girl. 

Film Still of Stanley Kwan’s Rogue

© 2010 Fortune Star Media Limited.
All rights reserved.

Film still of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express

Film still from “Chungking Express” by Courtesy of Block 2 Pictures Inc.
All rights reserved.

Graphically Yours: Art, Design, and Commerce

Advances in digital technologies and mass communication have transformed the way in which we experience, interpret, and consume visual culture. But during the 1980s and 1990s, vinyl records, CDs, film posters, and magazines were powerful media through which ideas could be communicated.

As a medium that can capture a moment in time, photography has the potential to generate intimacy between viewer and subject. The marriage of graphic design and photography in vinyl record and CD packaging, and in magazine cover designs go beyond marketing to encode changes in social and cultural attitudes, and in aspirations. They are also objects that possess visual and aesthetic qualities worthy of collecting.

The success of the Cantopop and film industries encouraged record and film companies, publishers and advertising agencies to employ well-known art directors, photographers, graphic designers and stylists to create original, visually-striking, often experimental works. While record covers served a practical purpose they also offered a rich surface upon which ideas could be communicated. Works by Alan Chan, Wing Shya and others extended the role of marketing beyond simple image-building, to blur the line between art and commerce.

The publishers of monthly City Magazine have also used the power of photography to great effect enabling a talented roster of art directors such as William Chang and Tina Liu, and photographers Leong Ka-tai and Andrew Tang to explore topics of both social and cultural value in their cover designs. Many of these have addressed changing ideas about gender roles and representations. A more recent publication, 100Most, uses humour and satire to instead question dominant representations of male and female roles.

Cover of City Magazine, Issue 173

Courtesy of City Howwhy Limited

Leslie Cheung for City Magazine
Photograph: Franco Lai

Courtesy of Ching Siu-wai

Album cover for Anita Mui, Bad Girl
Cover concept and design: Alan Chan

M+ Collection

Pop Goes Culture

From the 1950s onward, the ease with which information and ideas could be circulated facilitated the global dissemination of popular culture. For artists and designers, popular culture represents a vocabulary of recognisable references that go beyond geographic and cultural borders. A selection of works from the M+ collection explore the interplay between popular culture and the fields of art, design and moving image to show clearly how the languages of popular and visual culture are often interchangeable. 

The Japanese illustrator, designer and pop artist Tanaami Keiichi is best known for his psychedelic animations using collage-like techniques that critique the geopolitical situation, and the influence of American culture on Japan. Tanaami’s dense collage works juxtapose documentary or news articles with images of well-known comic figures to create absurd scenarios. Unexpected juxtapositions are also exploited in the collages of Hong Kong artist Wing Shya using images from films by the director Wong Kar-wai and a selection of magazine designs by influential Singaporean designer Theseus Chan that challenge the artificial distinctions between art and commerce.    

Cinema’s cultural significance is explored in Ho Sin-tung’s Hong Kong Inter-vivos Film Festival, and in Ming Wong’s Four Malay Stories, in which the artist plays sixteen roles from four of Malaysian filmmaker, P. Ramlee’s films. Wong focuses on scenes exploring the subtle relationships between men and women, some of which are now subject to censorship in contemporary Malaysia. Wilson Shieh takes Hong Kong’s skyline as his subject in his architectural series, offering an unexpectedly sensual, whimsical and gendered view of the city in which high-rise buildings are transformed through women’s clothing.

Wilson Shieh
Hong Kong, born 1970

Cheung Kong Center against Bank of China

ink, watercolour and gouache on white silk
M+ Collection
Gift of Yiqingzhai Foundation Limited, 2014

anothermountainman/Stanley Wong
Hong Kong, born 1960

Poster, Chungking Express

colour poster
M+ Collection
Donation of anothermountainman (Stanley Wong Ping Pui), 2016

Tanaami Keiichi
Japanese, born 1936

Untitled (Collagebook5_02)

ink, marker, collage on paper
M+ Collection

Commission Work

Twists and Turns
Chow Yiu Fai

Sound Installation

Project Assistant: Charmain Chan
Filming Assistant: Peter Lui

and Turns
Production support: Chow Hiu-tung


Sound is an invisible thread,
that weaves through space,
unlike light,
that travels straight,
and it penetrates our ears to provoke, to arouse,
a tingling sensation.
And the ear is such an ambiguous orgam.
In our increasingly visually-driven world,
I have gathered some sounds from Hong Kong popular culture.
May I invite you to stand here under the four floating clouds,
And listen ……