Riding on the success of last year’s box-office hit Anita , a biopic of the late Canto-pop diva Anita Mui Yim Fong, TV shows such as Call Me By Fire and The Dinner-hosting Sisters have been featuring Hong Kong singers and celebrities from the bygone era to capture that sense of nostalgia.
The latest, Infinity and Beyond, is no exception. Produced by TVB and China’s Mango TV, the singing contest pits male and female guests from different generations against one another, performing classic Canto-pop hits.
So far headliners include veteran singers Sally Yeh, George Lam Chi-cheung and Coco Lee Wen as well as Gen Z idols Gigi Yim Ming-hay and Shan Yichun. Other contestants include Li Jian and Bibi Zhou Bichang. The programme scores 7.5 out of 10 on Douban, China’s answer to IMDB.
Artists compete for a spot on a compilation album, to be released upon the show’s completion. The live audience’s votes decide each episode’s top performances and winning team.
The resurgence of old Canto-pop hits is comparable to a similar trend in Britain and the US, according to Professor Anthony Fung Ying-him, who researches popular culture in the city and China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong is slightly behind when it comes to this trend of nostalgia,” he says. “In other regions, people have long recognised this [phenomenon], as with the Beatles, Queen and Prince – these icons have been rediscovered and celebrated by the youth.”
While showcasing younger talents forms a vital part of Infinity and Beyond, other similar mainland Chinese productions focus primarily on Canto-pop’s golden era, Fung adds.
“Canto-pop had its largest influence on the mainland during the 1990s, therefore, the audience is more familiar with singers from that era,” he explains, adding acceptance of newcomers may vary in different market segments, “and the voices demanding new-school Canto-pop singers may be the minority.”
The winner of the first episode, however, was 28-year-old Mike Tsang Pei-tak, a singer who has been on the local music scene for just three years but gave a refreshing, funky take on the 1984 hit First Love by Samantha Lam Chi-mei.
He became the show’s breakout star alongside 17-year-old Gigi Yim Ming-hay, who got her start in TVB’s own singing contest Stars Academy in 2021.
“[Such] competition-based programmes have existed for a long time,” Fung says, citing Super Girl , one of China’s first televised competitions held between 2004 and 2006. Bibi Zhou was the first runner-up of the show’s second season.
The emergence of new networks has also allowed a variety of genres to flourish, Fung says. “Different platforms perceive ‘mainstream music’ differently … TVB’s productions focus on the significance of ’90s or even ’80s music, whereas ViuTV is the opposite and engages with the diversity in the present state of Canto-pop.”
Mike Tsang had his start in ViuTV’s reality TV music show King Maker.
While the 150-minute-long episodes of Infinity and Beyond aired in China give artists and industry legends more time to give detailed introductions about the classics, including shout-outs to the producers and songwriters, the 90-minute Hong Kong versions skip much of that content.
The programme has been trending on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, and receiving largely positive reviews, but some have also criticised the rundown for being unadventurous, including popular commentator “Er Di” (literally “Ear King”), who boasts more than 14 million followers.
“The music in the first episode was too conservative, with many performances being below my expectations,” he wrote in a post that has now accumulated nearly 30,000 likes. “It feels as if it was targeted towards the mainstream audience between the ’60s and ’80s.”
In a widely circulating review on WeChat, writer Zeng Yuli shared the observation that “a limitation brought about by the ‘traditional’ choices of music and singers is that the show’s theme of ‘passing on Canto-pop’s legacy [to the new generation]’ was not vigorously executed.”
On the other hand, fans have focused on the stars’ individual performances. “This is the flavour! A perfect presentation,” a user wrote about Hacken Lee’s violinist-accompanied cover of Silly Girl by Priscilla Chan Wai Han.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.