Before the 1960s, Cantonese music in Hong Kong was available in limited forms, such as traditional Cantonese opera and Cantonese renditions of some Western music by several comedians. Tang Kee-chan (鄧寄塵), Cheng Kuan-min (鄭君綿), and Tam Ping-man (譚炳文) were among the singers who produced Cantonese records in Hong Kong. As the educated Hongkongers admired western cultures and the Taiwan music companies are better established, the young generation at that time preferred Western songs from the United Kingdom and United States of America or Mandarin songs from Taiwan. The audiences of Cantonese music was disregarded as old or uneducated.
In the 1960s, Cheng Kum-cheung and Chan Chai-chung (陳齊頌) were among the popular Cantonese singers who explicitly targeted the younger generation. However, the public perception that Cantopops are second class music was yet to be changed.
Around 1971, Sindokla (仙度拉), a minor singer who had never sung Cantopop before, was invited to sing the first Cantonese TV theme song, "The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs" or "Tai Siu Jan Jyuan" (啼笑姻緣). This song was the creation of the legendary songwriter Gu Gaa-fai (顧嘉輝) and the songwriter Yip Siu-dak (葉紹德). The beautiful music, the Classical Chinese lyrics, the increasing popularity of televisions, and the rising of Hongkonger's self-respect were the reasons that "The Yuanfen of a Wedding that Cries and Laughs" became a big hit. It had forever changed the status of cantopops.
From 1970s to 1990s, many popular Cantonese songs are TV theme songs. Usually the theme songs are written in classical Chinese for programmes with ancient background, and in colloquial Cantonese language for programmes based on modern life. One of the most well-known theme song star was Roman Tam, he was respected for his prefect singing skills. TV theme songs are still important part of Hong Kong music.
It is interesting to note that Cantopop established a tradition of writing lyrics in Standard Modern Chinese (with standard Mandarin syntax) but pronounced in Cantonese. Fewer songs contain Classical Chinese (Wenyan) lyrics and yet fewer with truly colloquial (and usually comical) Cantonese lyrics. Cantopop maintains the Cantonese Opera tradition of matching the musical notes with tones in the Cantonese language. More singers since the 80s depart from traditional Cantonese Opera vocalization in favor of Western techniques (though big names like Roman stayed true to traditional techniques).
Samuel Hui (許冠傑) started out as a Western musician. Several of his box office hit (starting in 1974) brought the Cantonese movie and Cantopop to the next level of popularity. His songs, written in colloquial Cantonese language, mirrored the life of common Hongkongers. He was not the first one to do so, but he was the first one to do so in the way that his lyrics were acceptable to virtually all classes of Hong Kong people.
Wan-gwong (尹光), aka "Prince of Temple Street", is the representative of yet another class of Cantopop music. The lyrics of his songs are unusually coarse and vulgar, his target is mainly the not-so-educated and his songs seldom appears on TV or radio. Although he will never be counted as a Cantopop star, he surely has a place in the history of Cantopop music.
Although Hong Kong is highly populated, the "tastes" of Hong Kong youths are quite close. As a result, most stars tend to sing songs with similar topics and so most popular songs are "maudlin love ballads" similar to those of Madonna and Britney Spears in United States. But there are still many sideline musicians like Beyond and Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) whose songs reflect the dark side of the society. In recent years, the presences of yea chi, the pancakes, LMF etc, has a great impact on cantopop industry. Their songs voice out the youth attitiudes and beliefs. This kind of music is similar to Hip Hop cultures in the western society.
Almost all modern Cantopop stars go into the movie business regardless of their ability to act. They immediately expand to the Mandarin market once their fame is established, hence pure Cantopop stars are almost nonexistent. Their successes could be gauged by their income from various sources. For example, according to some reports, Sammi Cheng earned HK$46M (around US$6M) from advertisement and merchandise endorsements in the month of January 2003 alone.
Cantopop is not restricted to Hong Kong. Since the late 80s the entertainment industry in the Guangdong Province of Mainland also raised a sizable production team and market for "made-in-China" Cantopop. Rivalry and the involvement of the Underground in the entertainment industries on both sides prevented the Hong Kong and Guangdong Cantopop industries to merge, although a few Mainland singers made it on Hong Kong hitlists. It is notable that the Cantopop industry in Hong Kong attracted many stars raised in Overseas Chinese communities, such as Sammy Yip from Canada and Coco Lee from the United States.
The Cantopop superstars in the 1990s and early 2000s: