Chapman Chen: A Hong Kong Cantonese Classic (The Shanghai Bund) in Maastricht 曾焯文:香港上海灘揚威荷蘭

Summary: On 7 July 2017, Johan Strauss Orchestra performed “The Shanghai Bund”, a prestigious Hong Kong Cantonese song, on Vrijthof Square, Maastricht, Netherlands, which received thunder-like applause from a 25,000-strong audience from 80 nationalities. This shows that some parts of Hong Kong culture are now international classics.舊年有重要樂團在荷蘭公開演奏高歌香港經典粵語時代曲上海灘(顧家輝作曲),二萬五千觀眾拍爛手掌。可惜樂團指揮誤以為此曲出自共產中國。上海灘一曲氣勢如虹,宣示八十年代香港崛起。香港文化融匯華洋,自成偉大文明,必須保存。Video of the performance:

This song announces the rise of Hong Kong

 “The Shanghai Bund” was composed by Joseph Koo in 1980, with lyrics by James Wong, as the theme song of a TV drama series of the same name. In the song, the ups and downs of strong human emotions are compared to the surging billows of the Whampoa River of Shanghai. This song and the related drama series announced the rise of Hong Kong in 1980 as a replacement or reincarnation of the early Republican Shanghai, a city which had been financially, culturally, and fashionably stunning with all its foreign settlements before 1949.

The Song Came from Hong Kong, NOT China 

However, André Rieu, conductor and founder of John Strauss Orchestra, and most of the Western audience, unaware of the differences between Hong Kong and contemporary China, thought that the song came from China. In reality, Hong Kong has inherited orthodox Chinese culture and organically combined it with Western rationality, forming a unique and glorious civilization of its own. Moreover, while the two soprano-singers’ singing skills are professional, their Cantonese has room for improvement. And I have added English subtitles to the video, which are singable based on the original melody.

(A Promotional Photo of the TVB series, The Shanghai Bund)

Full Text:

Hong Kong has replaced Shanghai as the Oriental Pearl 

The Shanghai Bund refers to an embanked quay in Central Shanghai, where there were and still are a line of classical colonial buildings like the Shanghai Bank Building. During the late Ching Dynasty and Early Republican period, with quite a few international or foreign settlements, Shanghai combined Western and Eastern cultures, and haboured people from all walks of life, like revolutionaries, intellectuals, journalists, publishers, gangsters, secret agents sent by various countries. Being a cosmopolitan and free society, it was financially, culturally, and fashionably number one in China. After 1949, it lost most of its former characteristics. The song, The Shanghai Bund, and the drama series of the same name suggest that Hong Kong, the economy of which took off in the late 1970s, has replaced Shanghai as the Oriental Pearl.

The song has enchanted the entire Asia

The song, The Shanghai Bund, has enchanted the entire Asia, so much so that it has been translated into various languages, including English, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. In the 1980s, partly because of this song, almost all Mainland Chinese were learning Cantonese in admiration of Hongkongers.

The song makes good use of simile 

Making good use of simile, the song is very variegated. It likens the intense emotions of love and hatred and fierce struggles in human society to the stormy torrents of the Whampoa River. (The fact that the lyricist James Wong did not know there were actually no significant billows in the Shanghai Bund as he had never visited Shanghai when he wrote the lyrics of Shanghai Bund precisely shows that he had projected the Hong Kong society onto Shanghai in the song.) And all the successes and failures, all the favours and grudges, all the passions and conflicts, will all be cleansed and washed away by the billows.

The River of No River 

This reminds us of ancient Chinese poet, So Tung-po’s (1037-1101) famous line, “Eastward flows the great rivers, whose waves have washed away gallant heroes,” as well as the song from the1954 movie, “The River of No River”:-“There is a river called The River of No River. Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes wild and free! Love is a trav’ler on The River of No River, Swept on for ever to be lost in the stormy sea.”

The first few notes of The Shanghai Bund, long6 ban1 long6 lau4 (Billows run, billows flow) are so magnificent that they are comparable to the first four notes of Beethoven’s Destiny Symphony. They are actually loudly announcing the rise of Hong Kong.


The mother tongue of the two sopranos is not Cantonese 

The mother tongue of the two sopranos involved is obviously not Cantonese. The pronunciation of quite a few words in the song is incorrect. For example, leoi5裡 (inside) is sung as lei5; mei6未(not yet) as wei6. Words ending in p, t, k are sung without them (checked-tone syllables or  syllables ending in a stop consonant  are present only in Cantonese and classical Chinese but not in Putonghua), for example, jik6亦 (also) and fuk6伏 (fall) are respectively sung as ji6 and fu6. I suggest that André Rieu either invite the original singer, Frances Yip, to sing the song, or find a professional singer whose mother tongue is Cantonese, or hire a linguist to correct the pronunciation of the Sopranos.

The TVB drama series, The Shanghai Bund, tells how university graduate, Hui Man-keung (Chow Yun-fat) and coolie, Ting Lik (Lui Leung-wai) fought their way to the position of Godfather in old Shanghai from point zero, symbolizing how many a Hongkonger rose from poverty to prosperity around 1980. Although The Shangai Bund is a gangster story inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s (1972) Godfather (e.g., at the end of the story, Hui Man-keung is shot to death by machine guns at the door of a nightclub), it actually transcends to a spiritual level (cf. Chloe, 2014) and symbolizes the eternal struggle between good and evil; national well-being and individual romance; ideal and reality.

The Shanghai Bund is composed by a Hongkonger

After the performance of The Shanghai Bund, André Rieu the conductor praised the song as “beautiful”, adding that it was “from China”, without ever mentioning the fact that it was composed in 1980 by the Hongkonger Joseph Koo with lyrics by the Hong Kong scholar James Wong, while Hong Kong was still under British rule. What is impetuous about the song comes from the West and what is tender about the song comes from the East, in the same way that Hong Kong merging the best of orthodox Chinese culture and Occidental rationality into a great civilization that can stand proudly on its own in the world, leaving out the dregs of both sides.

Maastricht is culturally diversified like Hong Kong 

Maastricht itself is a culturally diversified ancient city like Hong Kong. The Romans first entered it in 50 B.C. Since then it was a place whether militarists from all nationalities tried to take hold of. Successively, it was occupied by France, Germany, Spain, etc. In 1992, the Treaty of Maastricht was signed there, giving rise to the European Community. The Vrijthof Square is paved with old colored stones. Every Summer, a lot of events take place there, especially performances by Johan Strauss Orchestra.

The fact that the Hong Kong Cantonese song, The Shanghai Bund, was performed on the Vrijthof Square, Maastricht, Netherlands, shows that part of traditional Hong Kong culture already has a seat among international classics.

Hong Kong Cantonese culture should be preserved

Being the foundation of Hong Kong and the lifeline of Hongkongers, Hong Kong Cantonese culture should be preserved, nurtured, promoted, and further developed. So Hong Kong secondary and primary schools should teach the Chinese subject in Cantonese (Putonghua may be taught as a separate, independent subject), and a Hong Kong Cantonese Culture should be added to the local curriculum.

My English translation of the lyrics

Below please find Romanization of the lyrics line by line juxtaposed with the original Han characters and my English translation, for the benefit of Western audience.

long6 ban1, long6 lau4

浪奔 ,浪流

Billows run, billows flow,

maan6 leoi5 tou1 tou1,gong1 seoi2 wing5 bat1 jau1

萬里滔滔 江水永不休

Myriad surging waves will not end.


tou4 zeon6 liu5 , sai3 gaan1 si6  ,wan6 zok3 tou1 tou1 jat1 pin3 ciu4 lau4

淘盡了, 世間事, 混作滔滔一片潮流

Cleansing all  world things, merging into a great current.

si6 hei2 ? si6 sau4?long6 lei5 fan1 bat1 cing1 fun1 siu3 bei1 jau1

是喜? 是愁? 浪裏分不清歡笑悲憂

Is it joy? Is it grieve, Billows cannot part laughs from cries.

sing4 gung1,sat1 baai6 , long6 lei5 hon3 bat1 ceot1 jau5 mei6 jau5

成功, 失敗, 浪裏看不出有未有

Success, failure, no one can sort out in the waves.


ngoi3 nei5 han6 nei5,man6 gwan1 zi1 fau2?

愛你, 恨你,問君知否?

Love you, hate you, Are you aware?



ci5 daai6 gong1 jat1 faat3 bat1 sau1


Like deluge, cannot be stopped.


zyun2 cin1 waan1,zyun2 cin1 taan1,


Turning bends, turning bays,


jik6 mei6 ping4 fuk6 ci2 zung1 zang1 dau3


cannot stop the complex struggles


jau6 jau5 hei2,jau6 jau5 sau4,


There is joy, there is grief,



zau6 syun3 fan1 bat1 cing1 fun1 siu3 bei1 jau1


Though I cannot part laughs from cries,


jing4 jyun6 faan1,baak3 cin1 long6,


Still would let   myriad waves

zoi6 ngo5 sam1 zung1 hei2 fuk6 gau3


Rise and Fall within my mind.



Video of the performance: