Best Chinese Songs of the 1980s

Chinese classics were neither better nor worse than the music of today. It was a different kind of music, stuff that sounded very different from western pop, especially the Cantonese songs—so beautiful! We’ve reviewed the big hits of the 80s and came up with a personal list of our favourites. To keep things tidy, we’re including only one song per artist.

20. “Childhood” by Luo, Dayou (Taiwan)

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 童年, 罗大佑
Pinyin Romanization: “Tong Nian” by Luo, Dayou
Year of Release: 1982

The grandfather of Mandarin rock released his debut album Zhi Hu Zhe Ye 之乎者也 in 1982. “Childhood” was its masterpiece, as important a song as it is a treat to the ears: catchy, driving, and playful. MV

19. “Have Nothing” by Cui, Jian (PRC)

 

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 一无所有, 崔健
Pinyin Romanization: “Yi Wu Suo You” by Cui, Jian
Year of Release: 1986

This was Mainland China’s first rock star’s first big hit, an instant classic. MV

18. “Rare Lovers” by Shirley Kwan (Hong Kong)

 

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 难得有情人, 关淑怡
Pinyin Romanization: “Nan De You Qing Ren” by Guan, Shuyi
Year of Release: 1989

Shirley’s nearly forgotten these days. But she did perform two of the all-time biggest hits of Cantopop. This number was named Cantonese Song of the Year in Hong Kong. MV

17. “Romantic Rainy Night” by Alan Tam (Hong Kong)

 

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 雨夜的浪漫, 谭咏麟
Pinyin Romanization: “Yu Ye de Lang Man” by Tan, Yonglin
Year of Release: 1985

Tam was part of the band Wynners with Kenny Bee but disagreed with the band’s simply doing Chinese versions of English songs, so he left the band to become a soloist. MV

16. “Bonds of Friendship” by Teresa Cheung (Hong Kong)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 情义两心坚, 张德兰
Pinyin Romanization: “Qing Yi Liang Xin” by Zhang, Delan
Year of Release: 1983

Early on, Teresa was part of the group Four Golden Flowers. She became famous by singing theme songs of several TVB drama series. MV

15. “As Long As You’re Better Off Than Me” by Kenny Bee (Hong Kong)

 

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 只要你过得比我好, 钟镇涛
Pinyin Romanization: “Zhi Yao Ni Guo de Bi Wo Hao” by Zhong, Zhentao
Year of Release: 1989

Alan Tam’s Wynners’ band mate did pretty well as a soloist, especially with this classic. MV

14. “I May Be Ugly, But I’m Gentle” by Zhao, Chuan (Taiwan)

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 我很丑可是我很温柔, 赵传
Pinyin Romanization: “Wo Hen Chou Ke Shi Wo Hen Wen Rou” by Zhao, Chuan
Year of Release: 1989

Here’s another forgotten superstar. It seems that, after Mr. Zhao hit the airwaves with this Mandarin classic, which incidentally made him an overnight star, every Chinese song ever since had to include the term wenrou in the lyrics. MV

13. “You Really Don’t Understand My Heart” by Angus Tong (Taiwan)

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 其实你不懂我的心, 童安格
Pinyin Romanization: “Qi Shi Ni Bu Dong Wo de Xin” by Tong, Ange
Year of Release: 1989

Before the likes of Jay Zhou and David Tao, old Angus was the number one male singer from Taiwan. He was so good that we found it difficult to select his best song. We finally settled on this one. MV

12. “Love Is Gone” by Jacky Cheung (Hong Kong)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 情已逝, 张学友
Pinyin Romanization: “Qing Yi Shi” by Zhang, Xueyou
Year of Release: 1985

Believe it or not, this was the very first big hit song from the greatest male Chinese singer of all-time, and definitely one of his best. MV

11. “Tomorrow Will Be Better” by Various Artists (Greater China)

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 明天更美好
Pinyin Romanization: Ming Tian Geng Mei Hao
Year of Release: 1985

This is the classic to end all classics. “Beijing Welcomes You” was not the first time all the pop stars got together. Back in the mid-80s, Luo Dayou assembled all the (Mandarin) pop stars of the day to sing this song about the glory of China, celebrating 40 years of freedom from invasion. There are some who consider this the greatest Chinese song ever written. The music video is a must-see—absolutely beautiful! MV

10. “Life’s Desires” by Danny Chan (Hong Kong)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 一生何求, 陈百强
Pinyin Romanization: “Yi Sheng He Qiu” by Chen, Baiqiang
Year of Release: 1989

Just about anything dear Danny sang was gold. This song was so good that, even though sung in Cantonese, it was a big hit all over China back in the day. His untimely death was a huge blow to the Chinese music industry. MV

9. “Who Is Your Best Lover?” by George Lam (Hong Kong)

 

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 最爱是谁, 林子祥
Pinyin Romanization: “Zui Ai Shi Shei?” by Lin, Zixiang
Year of Release: 1986

This was written by Hong Kong’s great Lowell Lo for the movie in which George starred, “Passion”. It deservedly won Song of the Year in Hong Kong. MV

8. “I Only Care about You” by Teresa Deng (Taiwan)

 

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 我只在乎你, 邓丽君
Pinyin Romanization: “Wo Zhi Zai Hu Ni” by Deng, Lijun
Year of Release: 1987

This timeless classic has been covered by 70 different artists. But none can sing it better than Teresa, the greatest Chinese pop star of all-time. MV

7. “Am I the One You Love Most?” by Michelle Pan (Taiwan)

 

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 我是不是你最疼爱的人, 潘越云
Pinyin Romanization: “Wo Shi Bu Shi Ni Zui Teng Ai De Ren” by Pan, Yueyun
Year of Release: 1989

If only everyone could sing like her. A feast for the ears. MV

6. “High Heels in September” by Qi, Yu (Taiwan)

 

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 九月的高跟鞋, 齐豫
Pinyin Romanization: “Jiu Yue de Gao Gen Xie” by Qi, Yu
Year of Release: 1988

Dazzling Greater China with her “Olive Tree” in the late 70s, Qi Yu became one of the first stars of Mandarin pop. This was her best song in the 80s. MV

5. “Miss You” by Leslie Cheung (Hong Kong)

 

Language: Both Cantonese and Mandarin versions exist
Chinese: 想你, 张国荣
Pinyin Romanization: “Xiang Ni” by Zhang, Guorong
Year of Release: 1988

We didn’t care much for “Monica”. Fans of the late-great Leslie would probably accost us for listing this as his best song. But, there’s just something exhilarating about it, its saxophone solo, and the fact that Leslie wrote the music himself. MV

4. “Past Wind” by Qi, Qin (Taiwan)

Language: Mandarin
Chinese: 往事随风, 齐秦
Pinyin Romanization: “Wang Shi Sui Feng” by Qi, Qin
Year of Release: 1985

Qi Yu’s little brother released his classic Wolf album in ’85, one of the best albums of Chinese rock – ever! We liked this song the best. MV

3. “Like You” by Beyond (Hong Kong)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 喜欢你, Beyond
Pinyin Romanization: “Xi Huan Ni” by Beyond
Year of Release: 1988

They’re the Chinese Beatles. Need we say more? MV

2. “Silly Girl” by Priscilla Chan (Hong Kong)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 傻女, 陈慧娴
Pinyin Romanization: “Sha Nu” by Chen, Huixian
Year of Release: 1988

Who could not like Priscilla? This is Cantonese music at its very best. Her “Night Flight” was great too. MV

1. “Good Luck” by Sally Yeh (Canada)

Language: Cantonese
Chinese: 祝福, 叶蒨文
Pinyin Romanization: “Zhu Fu” Ye, Qianwen
Year of Release: 1987

She’s known as the Chinese Céline Dion. This song was just so damn good! MV

You can find our Best Chinese Songs of the 1990s HERE.
And our Best Chinese Songs of the 2000s is HERE.

Chinese Pop Music in the Early 1980s

While the 1970s saw the experimentations and beginnings of Chinese pop music, it was the 1980s when things really got going. The music began to develop and mature, along with new singers who became popular not just in Hong Kong but all over the Chinese-speaking world.

The first notable singer to emerge in the 80s was George Lam with his hit “Need You Every Minute”. Francis Yip scored an everlasting favourite with “Shanghai Beach” as did Liza Wang with “Beijing Dream”. Frustrated with Wynners’ proclivity to perform Cantonese covers of English hits, vocalist Alan Tam left the band to perform original Chinese songs. His popularity skyrocketed, rivalling Danny Chan’s. The band’s other vocalist Kenny Bee eventually became a soloist as well.

As far as Mandarin pop was concerned, it had lagged behind Canto-pop in developing a modern rock sound. It was to enter the arena in 1982, thanks to Taiwan’s Luo Dayou, considered the first Mandarin modern rock star. He released his ground breaking album – 之乎者也 – that expanded the realm, not only of Mando-pop, but all Chinese music, establishing a new, fresh model for Chinese composition. Cai Qin ensured, however, that beautiful Mandarin vocal pop would continue alongside its new rock and roll leanings. Her “Spirit of Your Eyes” moved the populace in 1981. Two years later, Julie Su arose to stardom with her hit “The Same Moonlight”.

While Alan Tam was becoming a major male force in Hong Kong, a female counterpart emerged in 1983. Anita Mui’s “Red Suspicions” and “Homecoming” became back to back award winners in the years 1983 and ’84 respectively. In 1984, just as Alan Tam was to be crowned the king of Canto-pop, someone came out of nowhere to steal the title right from under his nose with his rock ‘n roll smash, “Monica”. His name was Leslie Cheung.

George Lam

Chinese Name: 林子祥
Mandarin Name: Lín Zĭxiáng
Cantonese Name: Lam Zi Coeng
(b. 1947 in Hong Kong)

Biggest Hits:

分分钟需要你 “Need You Every Minute”
活色生香
爱到发烧
每一个晚上
最爱是谁  (from the film “Passion”)
阿Lam日记
千亿个夜晚
真的汉子
选择 (with Sally Yeh)
男儿当自强

Singer-songwriter and actor George Lam studied at an all-boys school in Kowloon, Hong Kong. He proceeded to Dover College in England and lived for a while in Oakland, U.S.A.  He became lead singer in a band called Jade before going solo with English and Cantonese albums. He secured some popularity with Cantonese versions of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” but his big breakthrough came in 1980 with the release of “Need You Every Minute”. His acting career gained acclaim when he starred as a Japanese journalist in the film Boat People in 1982. In 1986, Lowell Lo, who had become Hong Kong’s master of composing motion picture soundtracks, wrote the timeless classic 最爱是谁 for Sylvia Chang’s film “Passion”. George Lam starred in the movie and sang the theme song. It deservedly won Song of the Year in Hong Kong. In 1996, George married a Canadian—fellow pop star and actress Sally Yeh.

Alan Tam

Chinese Name: 谭咏麟
Mandarin Name: Tán Yŏnglín
Cantonese Name: Tam Wing Lun
(b. 1950 in Hong Kong)

Biggest Hits:

想将来 “To the Future”
雨丝‧情愁
迟来的春天
爱的根源
爱在深秋 “Love in Autumn”
雨夜的浪漫
爱情陷阱 “Love Trap”
无言感激
朋友
Don’t Say Goodbye
知心当玩偶
理想与和平
水中花
披着羊皮的狼
一生中最爱

Mr. Tam’s father was an Olympic football player. During high school he developed an interest in music and formed a band which won first prize in a singing contest. After some appearances on television, the group disbanded. Tam hooked up with Kenny Bee and formed a new band called Wynners in 1973. Five years later, Tam left the band. Although it had been very successful, he objected to the band’s merely singing British and American pop songs; he wanted to compose original Chinese songs, and this he began to do as a soloist. His first big hit was 1981′s “To the Future”.

From 1981 to 1988, Tam had at least one song in the year-end Top Ten and was given a plethora of awards. He would have won more had he not controversially decided in 1987 to refuse all singing and acting awards onwards. By 1995, Tam had sold 20 million albums. Tam is known for his clean lyrics and lifestyle. For lucky streaks at celebrity game shows, he earned the nickname Lucky. He started a trend among Hong Kong stars, to maintain eternal youthfulness, declaring every year that he is turning 25. Alan Tam has sung over 800 songs.

Luo Dayou

Chinese Name: 罗大佑
Mandarin Name: Luó Dàyòu
(b. 1954 in Taibei)

Biggest Hits:

童年 “Childhood”
恋曲1980 “Love Song 1980″
恋曲1990 “Love Song 1990″
你的样子
皇后大道东 “Queen’s Road East”
東方之珠 “Pearl of the Orient”
光阴的故事
滚滚红尘
野百合也有春天
追梦人
闪亮的日子
明天會更好 “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (Various Artists)

While Alan Tam was dazzling the Chinese world with modern Cantonese pop, one would wonder why Mandarin pop was lagging behind in its development during the modern rock era. But only a year after Tam’s rise to stardom as a soloist, a landmark album of Mandarin rock was released in Taiwan. Not only was it something completely different from a musical standpoint, but also in the lyrics of the songs. Mandarin pop had always been about love, romance, and the beauty of natural scenery. But now the Chinese were hearing songs touching on issues (often injected with dark humour) of human values, social responsibility, and political commentary. And all this was coming from physician-turned-musician named Luo Dayou.

Luo was born into an upper-class family and complied with his parents’ wishes that he complete medical school. But his love for music eventually turned him away from serving as a doctor, and, in 1982, he released his debut album Zhi Hu Zhe Ye (之乎者也). Hits from the album sparked heated discussions in Taiwan, as they raised issues of the emptiness of city life and philosophical rambling. His subsequent album Masters of the Future included songs about future society being run by children who had grown up without any morals and commentary about the Japanese occupation of Taiwan.

In 1985, Luo became a national hero. Inspired by the African famine-relief songs from the U.K. (“Do They Know It’s Christmas”), Canada (“Tears Are Not Enough”), and the U.S. (“We Are the World”), Luo assembled all the Mandarin singers of the day (60 in all from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia) to record “Tomorrow Will Be Better”. Singers included Cai Qin, Qi Yu, Fei Yuqing, Julie Su, Pan Yueyun, Angus Tong, and Sarah Chen. A music video was made of the song. The purpose of the song was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China’s independence from Japanese occupation.

One of Luo’s most famous songs came out in 1991: “Pearl of the Orient”. It is a song about Hong Kong as a jewel in the Pacific and implores its citizens not to lose its Chinese culture and identity in the face of British colonization. “Queen’s Road East”, a Cantonese offering, satirizes the city’s return to China in 1997. In 2004, when the United States requested that Taiwan send troops into Iraq, Luo protested by relinquishing his U.S. citizenship. Four years later, Luo held a live concert that turned into a charity fundraiser for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in China.

Cai Qin 

Chinese Name: 蔡琴
Mandarin Name: Cài Qín
(b. 1957 in Gaoxiong, Taiwan)

Biggest Hits:

你的眼神 “Spirit of Your Eyes”
把悲伤留给自己
恰似你的温柔
被遗忘的时光 “Forgotten Time”
读你
康定情歌
夜上海 “Shanghai Nights”
不了情 “Endless Love”

Cai became a sensation across China in the early 80s with her hit “Spirit of Your Eyes”. She was eventually to become known as the second greatest Taiwanese female pop vocalist after Teresa Deng. Sticking mostly to vocal pop and folk songs, she sings in both Mandarin and Taiwanese. During Cai’s first year in college, she entered a singing competition with a guitar and blew everyone away. She was handed numerous awards from both Taiwan and Hong Kong and embarked on a world tour throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. The rest, as they say, is history. Luo Dayou selected her out of the sixty to be the initial singer opening the song “Tomorrow Will Be Better”. Her music became a centerpiece of the 2002 Hong Kong hit film Infernal Affairs.

Julie Su

 

Chinese Name: 苏芮
Mandarin Name: Sū Ruì
(b. 1952 in Taibei)

Biggest Hits:

一样的月光
酒干倘卖无
誰可相依 “Who Can Be Dependent”
牵手
跟着感觉走
再回首
奉献
请跟我来
是否
亲爱的小孩

Like Luo Dayou, Julie was born in Taibei in a wealthy family. Her musical career began in 1968 when she began singing English songs in nightclubs. In 1976 she recorded an English album. But fame did not come until 1983 with the release of the song “The Same Moonlight”. She was called a late bloomer, rock goddess, and Chinese music’s first “black singer” due to her soulful approach. Captivated with her voice, the most outstanding musicians were attracted to performing on her subsequent albums. She was even featured in articles in Japan. Julie’s 酒干倘卖无  was so popular in 1984 that it became one of the biggest songs of the year in Hong Kong while her “Who Can Be Dependent” was named “Song of the Year” there in 1985. No other female singer could hold a candle to the intensity of Su Rui’s voice with its timeless charm. She elevated the status of women in rock, who had hitherto sung exclusively in feminine soft sweet styles. And this cleared the way for other women to mount the stage. The first to follow in her footsteps was Anita Mui.

Anita Mui

 

Chinese Name: 梅艳芳
Mandarin Name: Méi Yànfāng
Cantonese Name: Mui Yim Fong
(1963-2003 in Hong Kong)

Biggest Hits:

赤的疑惑 “Red Suspicions”
似水流年
蔓珠莎华
爱将
烈焰红唇
Stand By Me
淑女
夕阳之歌
女人花
亲密爱人
一生爱你千百回
似是故人来

Anita Mui’s sultry stance, over-the-top costumes, and often provocative songs, like “Bad Girl”, a cover of Sheena Easton’s “Strut”, earned her the nickname Asian Madonna. Ms. Mui was undoubtedly the biggest Hong Kong female pop star in Hong Kong throughout the 1980s. Her first notable hit was 1983′s “Red Suspicions”. Her popularity grew to such an extent that she sold out the Hammersmith in London, England. In fact, from 1987 to ’88, she held a record-breaking 28 consecutive concerts.

Mui had an unhappy childhood. She was the youngest of five and her father died when she was young. Her mother owned a bar but it burned down. In order to support the family, Mui dropped out of school to perform, with her older sister Ann, in operas and nightclubs. In 1982, Mui won the New Talent singing contest, beating out 3,000 contestants. After she began releasing albums, she won the Jade Solid Gold Best Female Singer award for five consecutive years. Her album Bad Girl sold 8x Platinum in Hong Kong. In 1988 she was invited to perform with Janet Jackson at the Olympic Summer Games’ Opening Ceremony in Seoul, Korea. In 1990, like Alan Tam, Mui announced she would decline receiving any more music awards to give newer singers more opportunities. Anita Mui died of cancer in 2003.

Leslie Cheung

Chinese Name: 张国荣
Mandarin Name: Zhāng Guóróng
Cantonese Name: Cheung Kwok Wing
(1956-2003, born in Hong Kong)

Biggest Hits:

Monica
不羁的风
当年情
无心睡眠
无需要太多
沉默是金 (with Sam Hui)
风再起时
左右手
倩女幽魂
风继续吹 “The Wind Blows On”
当爱已成往事

Just when the Chinese were about to crown Alan Tam as their king of pop superstardom, another male singer popped up to steal the title from right under his nose. And that singer was Leslie Cheung.

Leslie was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong into a middle-class family. He was the youngest of ten children. His father was a renowned tailor whose clientele included American actors Cary Grant and William Holden. But Leslie’s parents divorced when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother. He began to suffer from depression as his parents were not at home with him. At the age of 13 he was sent to boarding school in England but was expelled for displaying “unusual behaviour”. He worked as a bartender at his relatives’ restaurant and sang during the weekends. He selected his English name after Leslie Howard in his favourite film, Gone with the Wind.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Cheung attended university in Leeds to study textile management. But his father was taken ill and he dropped out after a year. His father recovered but Leslie did not return to England to complete his studies. In 1977, Leslie won second prize at a singing contest and signed a recording contract. He released a couple of albums in the late 70s but they were not well-received by the public. During one of his performances, he was booed off the stage. His contract was not renewed with Polydor. He starred in his first film (Dream of the Red Chamber) but the company failed to tell him that it was a soft porn film when he signed the contract. His natural acting skills eventually turned things around. He appeared in a number of television dramas and his popularity grew.

He joined Capital in 1982, the same record company as Anita Mui. Florence Chan was assigned to be his music agent. His first song “The Wind Blows On” was released in 1983 but it was the following year’s fast-paced number, “Monica”, that made him a music star. It was so popular that the Hong Kong populace began to demand more of these fast and energetic Canto-pop songs from the music industry. In 1987, Leslie released what became the biggest-selling album in Hong Kong that year: Summer Romance. He began to be known as the Elvis of Hong Kong. His acting career finally took off as he starred in acclaimed masterpieces of cinema: A Better Tomorrow, A Chinese Ghost Story, and Farewell My Concubine.

With the popularity of Cheung and Tam, fans of the two male superstars became increasingly hostile towards one another. This was fuelled by the press circulating false rumours that the two viewed themselves in competition with each other. They ignored Tam and Cheung’s constant pleas that they were good friends and regarded themselves as mutual partners and helpmates in the music industry. This created such pressure that both Tam and Cheung announced their retirement from their careers as singers. Leslie left the city altogether after farewell concerts and took up refuge in Vancouver. He was awarded Canadian citizenship in 1992. After finally finding some peace and tranquility, Cheung returned to Asia in 1995, releasing the albums Beloved (a collection of his movie theme songs) and Red (a fusion album). In 1997, Leslie embarked on a world tour and became the first singer (a record yet to be broken) to sell out the 80,000 capacity Shanghai Stadium two consecutive nights. In 1998, he released the Mandarin-language album, Printemps.

In 2000, China Central Television named Leslie Asia’s Biggest Superstar. In 2005, he was ranked as the #1 most popular actor in the past 100 years of Chinese cinema. He was voted into CNN’s “top five most iconic global musicians of all time” placing behind Michael Jackson and The Beatles.

Leslie Cheung achieved a net worth of 40 million U.S. dollars.

In 2003, on April Fools’ Day, the Chinese populace was in a state of fiery commotion trying to ascertain the truth behind media reports that Leslie Cheung had killed himself. Was it a sick April Fools’ joke or was it true? When reports began stating emphatically that it was no April Fools’ joke and continued broadcasting the news the following day, it flattened the entire nation with devastation more serious than any earthquake as a billion people struggled to come to terms with the suicide.

Leslie Cheung flung himself out of a window in Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel on 1 April 2003.