Filipino musicians’ post-war fame in Hong Kong

Filipino musicians were among the more sought-after in Asia. They dominated Class A venues in Hong Kong and performed for kings and royalties. Headhunters would travel to Manila, spot talents in restaurants and lounges along the iconic Roxas Boulevard, and hire them for performances abroad in places like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

They sang and played music for royalties, including the King of Thailand, Shah of Iran and King of Morocco between 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1910s and 1920s, they monopolized ocean liners, diffusing American popular music and jazz at international port of calls which included Shanghai and Hong Kong. At one time, they were described in The New York Times as “interpreters of jazz on Pacific Ocean of liners.” From the 1940s up to until the rise of Cantopop, Filipino musicians had been gaining steam in Singapore and Hong Kong, although treatment towards them waned over the years leading to the era of Cantopop (Cantonese pop), in the midst of tough competition and discrimination.

Filipino bands were very much sought-after that in Hong Kong, they dominated class A and B venues, while the local Cantonese singers were at the class C venues. They were paid well and were regarded highly. Two of these Filipino bands were that of Romy Posadas’ and Angel Peña’s. While performing at the Hilton Hotel in Hong Kong in the 1960s, Posadas had his piano in his room for rehearsals. For Peña, whose band was a mainstay on The Eagle’s Nets, a supper club on the 25th floor of the Hilton, he and his five-member band enjoyed free accommodation in the hotel. His band members were afforded free meals at the hotel cafeteria, while Peña had the option of eating for free at its classy restaurant.

Filipino bands were regarded as well for their use of translational songs. Their repertoire included Asian pop songs, two of which were “Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo de Xin,” made popular by Taiwanese Teresa Teng, and “Pang Yao,” by Hong Kong singer Alan Tam. The 2BY2 Band of Tina Argao and Miguelito Villa also often received special requests to play the theme song of the Bollywood movie “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” (Something is Happening), to which both oblige in a comedic skit that would involve both Argao and Villa exchange roes of heroine and hero.

The Filipino bands that thrived in Hong Kong before the rise of Cantopop in the 1970s were not only composed of members that hailed from Shanghai. Some of them were groups formed by children of veteran Filipino band members, who relocated to Hong Kong following the Communist takeover of Shanghai in the 1950s, in at least three arrangements: mixed descendants, siblings, or combo (together with other nationalities). And this popularity of Filipino bands, along with their Chinese counterparts, was described to have had a significant bearing on the Cantonese youth and the school population in Hong Kong. But this was the generation of local Hong Kong people who in the 1960s manifested greater preference for English and Mandarin songs and those and those with a combination of both. The rise to fame of Filipino bands in hotel lounges and bars could be from the Filipino’s vocal versatility — they were able to micmic and perform popular genres around that time, including mambo and rock and roll.

Three of the Filipino bands known as “combos” that were highlighted to have provided the first wave of influence on Hong Kong youth were The Reynettes, The Fabulous Echoes and D’Topnotes. Their performances stimulated interest in even their dance moves reminiscent of moves by the original singers that around the same time they were popular, they also offered dance sessions. The second wave of influence before the transition to Cantopop in the 1970s was the Beatles’ tour of 1964 which shaped the local youth guitar scene.

reynettes 3Of the three Filipino combo bands though, it was The Reynettes (1960) that earned more formal publicity. Composed of Filipino siblings, The Reynettes popularized the song Kowloon Hong Kong. This song’s popularity stemmed as well from its lyrics that resonated well with Hong Kong and the experiences accompanying being in this global city. The Hong Kong Tourism Board even used the song in promoting the city. The song opens an “orientalist” prelude of good and percussion then swiftly moves upbeat with a guitar. Its lyrics was also true to the prevailing use of Pidgin English (“a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language” [Apple]) at that time. After chanting “Kowloon Kowloon Hong / We like Hong Kong / That’s the place for you”, the first stanza opens with:

Walking down the street full of joy
Come here Come here rickshaw boy
Take me down the street Chop Chop Chop
A Habba Habba Joe Ding How Ding How 

Although the heydays of Filipino musicians were between the 1950s and before the rise of Cantopop, Filipino musicians have found themselves in Hong Kong to as far back as the 1900s. Their contribution to the music scene of Hong Kong and Macau, and to Shanghai, where a greater concentration of Filipino musicians started in the Greater China Region, is traced back to colonial roots shared in common.

The rise of Cantopop did not, however, stop the influx of Filipino musicians, as their counterparts from other ethnicities. In fact in 2007, the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority recorded 113 of the close to 60,000 Filipinos that migrated to Hong Kong as being classified as “entertainers”. Although understandably the rise of Cantopop in the 1970s made it more difficult to penetrate the market, given the growing number of Cantonese people longing for music that represented more of their own. Filipinos also continue to be active in the Hong Kong Musicians Union, a social club that was established in 1935. The same Union works in tandem with the Leisure and Cultural Services Hong Kong the Philippine Consulate General in Hong Kong in the staging of events, including those for migrant Filipinos.

When before it was the Filipinos’ distinctive ability to “copy” foreign performances, most of them belonging to the Western culture and a good number performed by Black Americans, the same gradually eventually became an issue against them. This sparked more discrimination towards Filipinos, especially as discrimination stemmed not just from the genre performed per se but by their being Filipinos — brown-skinned, among others. Yet this is a reality that besets almost all nationalities outside Cantonese.

Perhaps one of the Filipino performers who managed to enjoy longtime presence in the minds of Cantonese people was Teresa Carpio, a Filipino who belongs to a family of distinguished musicians in Hong Kong. Written as “Queen of Asian Song”, Carpio’s success could also be attributed to how she passed for someone Cantonese. Her successful career spanned Philippines, Hong Kong and the USA. She spoke Cantonese and appeared less Filipino as other Filipino musicians. Carpio was a hybrid that echoed more to the Cantonese people at the height of growing consciousness for independence.

(The article combines research summaries done as an intern at the Academy of Hong Kong Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong. E-mail markraygan@yahoo.com for the references.) 

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