Headphones and a smartphone with a Chinese pop artist on the screen.

How Mandopop and Cantopop break social stereotypes and embrace gender inclusivity

These Chinese language pop subgroups deserve more recognition in the U.S.—and for more than just the music

Jerry Xie listens to Mandopop on his phone.

Xintian Wang

Words by Xintian Wang

When Haoran Chen immigrated to the United States from China in the early 2000s, the then-preteen grappled with the challenges of cultural assimilation and exploring his own gender identity. It wasn't until he stumbled upon the mesmerizing lyrics of Sammi Cheng's "Shocking Pink" that the transformative power of Cantopop revealed itself. The vibrant celebration of individuality in the lyrics resonated deeply with Chen's journey of self-discovery.

"Don't worry about being in the darkness / You are the brightest pink in the night / Even if you are different from the crowd, try your best to shine,” the lyrics write. Written by well-known lyricist Wyman Wong, an LGBTQ+ activist, the song became a lifeline for Chen navigating doubt and uncertainty about his identity and sexuality in his new home.

Chen, now the founder of the Mandopop bar 929 in New York, told me in a recent interview that he sensed that this song is like a “hidden message, openly telling us that it’s okay to be different from the social norm."

A dark-haired man in a white sweatshirt stands at a DJ station, in front of shelves featuring records of Chinese pop singers.

Haoran Chen DJing at his Mandopop bar 929.

Xintian Wang

However, the impact of Cantopop and Mandopop on shaping cultural narratives and empowering the queer Asian community might not be as widely recognized in the United States. According to Chen, even during the golden age of Mandopop, Chinese American singers like Coco Lee faced struggles to get recognition in the United States following her debut at the Academy Awards in 2001 singing her Oscar-nominated song “A Love Before Time.” In the global music scene, K-pop and Japanese idol culture seem to attract more attention compared to Chinese pop songs. Yet, the genre has quietly revolutionized the lyrical and thematic landscapes in the music industry. Mandopop and Cantopop artists have managed to attract a dedicated following among the Chinese diaspora in the United States with their innovative approach to music and storytelling in the West.

Since its emergence in the mid-1970s, Mandopop has been predominantly shaped by artists from East Asia. Icons like Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng (邓丽君), Beijing-born Faye Wong (王菲), and Hong Kong singer and actor Jacky Cheung (张学友), renowned for performing in both Cantonese and Mandarin, dominated this era. The genre, a subset of C-pop (Chinese pop), initially insulated from external influences, reflected China's need to cater to its vast market. This deliberate stance can be traced back to China’s former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening Door” policy in the late 1970s, which welcomed many Western cultures to the country.

The change in the political landscape has marked a new era, according to Marc L. Moskowitz, an anthropology professor at the University of South Carolina. "It was really the 1980s Mandopop that was offering more choices about gender identity. Unlike the masculinist undertones of 1980s rock, these songs celebrated androgynous men, defying the government's desires for traditional gender norms,” he says.

In the 1980s, the Hong Kong experimental music group Tat Ming Pair, consisting of Tats Lau and vocalist Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, released the song "Forget She Is Him" in 1989. This song attempted to blur gender boundaries by interweaving traditionally male and female traits in the lyrics, creating a sense of gender fluidity and androgyny.

Zhenglan Lu, a musical semiotics expert and journalism professor at Sichuan University in China, agrees with Moskowitz. She points out that the ‘70s witnessed minimal gender awareness in songs until events like the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in China.

A young Asian American man stands at a counter, in front of shelves of liquor.

Haoran Chen in his Mandopop bar 929.

Xintian Wang

“The prevalence of cross-gender songs was notable during this era. Songs like ‘Sweet On You ’ by Teresa Teng, ‘The Sea’ by Tom Chang, experienced a resurgence as they could be sung by both men and women without explicit gender distinctions. This provided an avenue for self-expression without conforming to traditional gender roles,” says Lu.

Mandopop and Cantopop also saw many iconic nonbinary icons brought from Hong Kong films. Leslie Cheung (张国荣), a legendary Hong Kong actor and singer played a pivotal role in breaking gender barriers in China. The success of the movie Farewell My Concubine (1993) directed by Kaige Chen, featuring a gay opera singer sympathetically portrayed by Cheung, was a groundbreaking moment in Chinese-speaking film.

"In both his movies and music, he conveyed being a gentle spirit—something very different from the hyper-masculine musical performances in the People’s Republic of China at that time,” says Moskowitz. “This embrace of gender fluidity in Mandopop reflected a return to traditional conceptions of manhood, challenging the rigid masculinity promoted during the Cultural Revolution.”

A dark room with posters of Chinese pop singers and an air conditioner on the walls.

The walls of Haoran Chen's Mandopop bar 929.

Xintian Wang

The impact of cross-gender songs reached its zenith after the 2000s, according to Lu. Nearly half of the Top 500 songs challenged conventional gender norms according to her 2011 research. Take the song "Ci Xiong Tong Ti (literally as intersex)," by the Taiwanese band Mayday for example: its lyrics feature cross-dressing and a more fluid approach to gender. The song challenges traditional gender norms by suggesting that a person's true self can encompass both male and female elements, transcending societal gender restrictions. The song wrote: "I can be a man or a woman, I can flow and adjust the percentage of my identity. As long as you love me, everything is fine."

Today, more Asian Americans like Chen hope Americans can also enjoy Mandopop and Cantopop. From challenging gender norms to providing a platform for self-expression, these genres have resonated with not only the queer community, fostering inclusivity and empowerment, but also many Asian American immigrants who longed for a cultural symphony that transcends borders.

“As a Chinese American living here, I felt connected to the song as it gave me the courage to break racial stereotypes, and I hope Mandopop can heal more people suffering from the same struggle to find themselves in this melting pot.”

Jerry Xie, who immigrated to the United States when he was 14, says that Mandopop and Cantopop are more than a nostalgic harbor, but a book to perceive the world in depth. When he heard the song “Guang Hui Sui Yue,” literally translated as “Glory Days,” he was shocked by how a Cantopop song can reflect social issues. Written and sung by the Hong Kong rock band Beyond, the song was a tribute to the first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. The song wrote: “Can we ignore the boundaries of skin color? May this land not distinguish between you and me, high or low. The beauty revealed by vibrant colors.”

“As a Chinese American living here, I felt connected to the song as it gave me the courage to break racial stereotypes, and I hope Mandopop can heal more people suffering from the same struggle to find themselves in this melting pot,” Xie says.

As these genres continue to find their place in the U.S., may they inspire the Asian American community to break free from the constraints of societal norms, fostering a world where individuality is celebrated, stereotypes are shattered, and inclusivity reigns supreme.

Published on December 20, 2023

Words by Xintian Wang

Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.