Lyrics Translated by Charlotte Lai.
The Hong Kong music scene hasn’t quite taken off like its Korean or Japanese equivalent in recent years. With the irresistible dance-pop swagger of K-pop dominating the global music scene, the glory days of Cantopop seem long behind us, relegated to above-40 karaoke bars, late-night radio stations, and my dad’s record collection. Remember when Bruce Lee, kung fu films, and city pop were the hottest things on the market? Neither do I, but in its heyday between the ‘70s and ‘90s, Hong Kong – alongside Japan – were Asia’s pop culture leaders. Cantopop is an integral part of Hong Kong’s cultural identity – whilst still under British colonial rule in the mid-1970s, pop music sung in Cantonese resonated with an entire generation and gave rise to the stratospheric takeoff of pop stars such as Hui Koon-kit and Leslie Cheung. In the ‘90s the baton was passed onto the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ of Cantopop: Jacky Cheung, Andy Lau, Leon Lai and Aaron Kwok, each dominating award shows, radio, and body pillow sales alike. Harry Styles, eat your heart out.
But Cantopop seems to have been left behind, whilst K-pop has continued its stratospheric rise. Cantopop album sales have plummeted from HK$2.5 billion in 1989 to just HK$200 million in 2022. Once Cantopop giants, former firebrands like Andy Lau sell concert tickets by riding off a wave of ‘80s nostalgia. From a sputtering city that hasn’t produced a real pop star since the 2000s, the genre limps on with nods from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack and Pinterest edits of Chungking Express. We’ve somehow poached the Arctic Monkeys to headline Clockenflap.
But this isn’t about the sorry state of Cantopop. Nor is it an insufferable, ‘have-you-seen-my Spotify Wrapped?’ rumination on ‘real’ local indie. Instead, I want to introduce one of my favourites from the modern Hong Kong music scene – My Little Airport.
With all the melancholia of Portishead and the dreamy introspection of Cigarettes After Sex, the two-piece, comprised of Nicole Au and Lam Pang (also known as Ah P), are staples of Hong Kong’s small indie music scene. Sung mostly in Cantonese, their repertoire is bursting with wit, shining through in song titles like ‘Leo, Are You Still Jumping Out Of Windows In Expensive Clothes?’ and ‘I Don’t Know How to Download Good AV Like Iris Does’, a whimsical ditty about watching Japanese porn on the Internet. Bet you’ve never heard that sentence before.
They recorded their first album in 2004, entitled 在動物園散步才是經事 (The OK Thing to Do on Sunday Afternoon Is to Toddle in the Zoo), with nothing more than an electric violin, guitar, and vocals, and subsequently established Harbour Records alongside four other indie bands from Hong Kong.
In 2009 they started writing politically charged songs, such as ‘Divvying Up Stephen Lam’s $300,000 Salary’ and ‘Donald Tsang, please die’. Nothing if not a succinct response to Tsang’s suggestion that the 1989 Tianamen Square Massacre was insignificant compared to China’s current economic prosperity. Hong Kong music has always been shaped by our complicated (to say the least) political scene, and My Little Airport is no exception.
With 11 albums now under their belt, My Little Airport has stayed true to their dream-pop roots with their recent release of 跟你開玩笑 (Just Kidding). Drenched in a drowsy Rickenbacker guitar wash, their release departs from their earlier whimsy and focuses instead on abandonment and wistfulness. Understated and hazy, yes, but with just enough slick pop sensibility to keep your attention the whole way through.
Fans of Beach House’s Depression Cherry or Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle will find I’m Just Kidding With You to be a fine complement. My Little Airport maintains their characteristic stripped-back production – Lam’s electric guitar is ethereal, with a touch of fuzzy dissonance, whereas Au’s ghostly, half-spoken vocals fit seamlessly with the sedate production, perfectly capturing the soundtrack to a drowsy 3am car ride. Minor details to the production – an ever-so-slightly dissonant chord, the imperfect drone of a keyboard patch – result in a sound that departs significantly from the bombastic power-balladry of their Cantopop predecessors, resembling instead an intimate, one-take live performance. My Little Airport has traded theatricality for an LP that transports you to the midnight sleaze of Mongkok and the smell of greasepaint and fish balls at a wet market.
The album kicks off with ‘細胞’ (Cell), a juxtaposition between glittering, once-strummed guitar chords and Au’s plaintive vocals. It sets the scene for the rest of the album with its in-your-face melancholy, featuring lines like ‘I had everything / But met ghosts at the same time’ and ‘I love my every cell / I’m just sorry I never told you it would get better’ .
This less-than-cheery opener leads into the wandering beauty of ‘循環的夜’ (Repeating Nights), its upbeat (I promise!) drums and moody violin arrangement is held together by a muted bassline. Au’s vocals are mixed just a few inches closer, whisper-singing the wistful ‘You’re sea-blown and insincere / I kind of want to approach you / It could just be curiosity’. Lam’s marching-band snare drum interlude, overlaid by a melancholy synth solo, gives the tune dynamic contrast.
Circulating Nights is followed by two of my personal favourites – ‘LUNCH’ and ‘德州之戀’ (Texas Romance). ‘LUNCH’ is sung as a duet between Lam and Au, with lyrics that read like pages from a diary. The song is a sweet, heartfelt ditty, with Au’s guitar weaving a silvery thread through the performance and its hazy, reverb-drenched production reminiscent of two lovers backlit by the city glare. ‘The Romance of Germany’ is almost James Bond-esque with its haunting, suspended, tremolo-heavy guitar chords. Telling the story of a long-distance lover who has emigrated to Germany, the track itches with promise and glitters with longing.
The album finishes with ‘我不適合聚會’ (No Gathering for Me) and ‘不要把冬天衫放回衣櫃’ (Don’t Put the Winter Clothes in the Closet). The first is laden with lounge-music melancholy, climaxing with a rare guitar solo from Au. The strings arrangement is the highlight of the track. The interplay between Lam’s guitar reverb and the haunting violin provides a soundtrack to a gathering, draped in velvet, that Au sings at the fringes of. Winter Clothes ends off the album with uptempo indie rock, its catchy melody and upbeat drums resembling the glitzy Cantopop appeal. After spending most of the album with an introspective melancholy that makes the music linger, the last track is a welcome reprieve.
Au’s wordplay carries a sophistication that – despite my best efforts – does not translate into English, but I’ll be damned if I don’t give it my best shot anyways. ‘LUNCH’ references the oft-quoted phrase by T. S. Eliot, ‘April is the cruelest month’ (which conveniently rhymes in Cantonese). This is followed with the wistful ‘every joke carries some truth / I am trapped in between layers of clouds / surrounded by mist’. With lyrics that read like pages from a diary, Au’s vocal delivery is characteristically understated, whose subtleties are understandable by non-Cantonese speakers.
With that being said, My Little Airport’s foray into melancholia can feel a little oversaturated. From the acid wash of Lam’s guitar to Au’s dreamy vocals, the fingerprints of indie-pop doziness are all over the album, turning the seasoned two-piece into – almost – a parody of indie sad-boy edginess. There’s a reason why the most popular indie acts – the likes of Cigarettes After Sex, Beach House and, alt-J – are often lampooned for being pretentious, floppy-hair shoegazers that make music to watch paint dry to. In the context of the global indie scene, My Little Airport only just escapes the fuzz-heavy monotony, offering up a ten-track LP that shines in its lyrical originality and minimalist innovation.
Writing a review of the Hong Kong music scene may expose me as being a bit of a hypocrite – I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t delved much into the Hong Kong music scene. I sit quietly when my friends sing along to Cantopop classics during karaoke. My mom offered to take me to the Eason Chan concert, to which I responded ‘who?’ This article owes a lot of thanks to Google Translate and Wikipedia. Music has never been something that I had in common with my parents, who often respond with ‘why don’t you do something more useful?’ when I tell them about a new song I’ve written, or about a performance I’ve done with a band.
I, like many other Hong Kongers, have often felt like ‘a people without a country’, caught between a colonial heritage and the Chinese handover. Hong Kong’s dwindling cultural clout has left me grasping for artists who I can relate to in the present day. While my parents were brought up with the likes of Leslie Cheung and Faye Wong, I was raised on a ready-for-radio mix of Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift.
Like the city itself, I struggle with my cultural identity, often caught at a crossroads between my Cantonese roots and a British education – almost-but-not-quite Hong Kong, yet decidedly far from being British. My Little Airport bridges the gap between my self-professed love for all things indie and my cultural heritage. They are true to their roots, earnest, and tender enough to appeal to audiences everywhere – My Little Airport punches above their weight.
Witty, innovative, and, unabashedly Hong Kong in character, My Little Airport has only just begun to take off. Hong Kong indie, like the city, has plenty of gas left in the tank.