My childhood best friend, the Cantopop superstar


From left: Mom and me, Ellen, Jamie, circa 1994?

You’d think the title of this post is an exaggeration, but I’m not lying. Her name is Ellen Joyce Loo. See? She even has a Wikipedia page.

When I was nine, we were three — Jamie, Ellen and me. We shared one of those best friend necklace sets you could buy at Ardene’s; ours were puzzle pieces that fit together. If I’m not muddling memories, mine said “Best”; Jamie’s “friends”; Ellen’s “forever.” Not too long afterwards, Ellen moved to Hong Kong.

Of course you eventually forget these things; you forget about people. A few years back, my mom mentioned that Ellen was now a musician in Hong Kong, in a band called at17. Oh, that’s novel, I thought. Didn’t think much of it, because I don’t remember Ellen being particularly musical — Jamie was that stereotypical Asian kid whose parents enrolled her in Kiwanis competitions and made her practice four hours a day. Ellen and I were just tomboys with bowl cuts that fucked around playing Lego and Power Rangers, or whatever. I remember she had a raspy voice.

Then at dinner a few weeks ago, at some hole in the wall in Scarborough, I noticed her on the television screen. It was at17 in concert, but a karaoke version with her vocals blanked out. They were playing in a huge 10,000-person stadium on a round stage. Like friggin’ U2 — and even U2 don’t have their own karaoke disc.


That’s Ellen on the right, with her bandmate Eman Lam, via xooob.com

So apparently they are a big deal. I downloaded some stuff, and they don’t suck. They even write their own music, which, if you know anything about Hong Kong Cantopop, is an extreme rarity. The band’s Wikipedia page describes their music as folktronica; the term sent my sister and me spasmodic laughter, but it does seem oddly fitting. Lots of acoustic guitars; folky, harmony-heavy vocals; sometimes veer into bossa nova and jazz sometimes; layered with pop beats. Alas, they also throw in breathy Mandarin ballads, which is, like, basically a requirement to be a Chinese singer.

Here’s one of their songs. My grasp on emotive Cantonese words is weak, and when it’s set to music my comprehension is straight-up atrocious, so I don’t really know what they’re saying:

[audio:http://blog.caniceleung.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/at17-Never-Been-Kissed-acoustic.mp3]
at17 – Never Been Kissed (Acoustic)

Oddly enough, Mark McKinnon, the Chinese correspondent for the Globe and Mail, wrote a feature on Beijing’s burgeoning music scene not too long ago. It’s funny — for the longest time Hong Kong and Chinese music was known for being completely homogenous, and now bands are playing SXSW.

Like most everything else in China, the music scene moves at hyper-speed. When I was in Hong Kong for the summer of 2005, I found only one indie music store — it was a little basement hole in Tsim Tsa Tsui, around the corner from the Star Ferry, that sold mostly metal, punk and rock CDs for ridiculous import prices. I knew of one metalcore band, King Lychee, which is made up of ex-pats and locals and has now been around so long they’re considered a grandaddy of Asia’s metal/hardcore scene. There were no straight-up hardcore bands.

When I visited Shanghai in December, my boyfriend and I looked into catching a show while we were there — most of the bands are in Beijing, but oh, there are a lot more of them now than there were in 2005. They have lots of hilarious Engrish names, such as “Unregenerate Blood.” (My doctor sister says in medical terms, this would mean they have a congenital blood disorder in which they lack plasma to produce blood, or something.)

Anyway, so it just goes to show how out of touch I really am with my second home, and how quickly the arts scene there has matured. Ten years ago, no Hong Kong musicians wrote or performed their own songs. They were gussied-up vocalists with photogenic looks and the physicality of lithe little fawns. Ellen seems like the kind of girl I’d still be friends with: her band is named after a Janis Ian song; she published a book of photography (shot with a Revue 35CC); her favourite actors are Cate Blanchett and Maggie Cheung (張曼玉); she covered “Hallelujah” in the style of Jeff Buckley:

Suggested reading/viewing:

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