What does background music have to do with Hong Kong you ask? Don’t most places in the world have some kind of background music? Certainly, but in my experience there is something interesting about Hong Kong’s music that is featured in the malls, shops, toilets and etc. They range from the weird to the classical, the overtly friendly to the downright annoying. In the next 400 words or so I hope to convey a sense of appreciation for background music that you might encounter one your next shopping trip in Hong Kong.
Now supermarkets are really the strangest of them all! Both in variety as well as outright weirdness. For some reasons all the major supermarket chains decided it was a good idea to have their own music produced. However, rather than investing in any quality renditions all the music is done using cheap sampled instruments. This gives a slight comical effect as it sound transports you right to the eighties (which is probably the age of the songs…). Park and Shop and Wellcome are the two major offenders of this trend. ParknShop especially has the same four or five songs on repeat for at least the past five years since I first visited Hong Kong. They are also not ashamed of their music, rather they proudly play it throughout the stores. The Park and Shop jingles are real classics and I can (and do) happily sing along with them when I am shopping.
Score: A+: Snappy melodies, catchy tunes and a complete embrace of their own authentic expression.
2) Convenience Stores
The second category of background music did something interesting. Rather than focussing on the music they use one or two jingles and have a voice-over list out different sales or relevant things. Japanese Homestore in particular is excellent at this. I feel happy every time I’m there. The female voice-over, combined with the up-beat guitar melody simply makes me feel welcome. Strangely enough this is where Cantonese really shines as her end of sentence inflections (the 啦’s and 嘛‘s ) give a sincere and welcoming impression. The 優惠360 on the other hand tries to do a similar thing but fails to achieve the welcoming feeling as achieved by the Japanese homestore. More study is needed by the author as to the exact reasons why this is.
Score: B+: Cheerful but too much repetition, need larger selection of songs to be truly competitive.
MTR’s form perhaps the largest public area in all Hong Kong, hosting millions of its people everyday. The MTR music I would say is quite disappointing. They feature several songs, as well as some classical arrangements. I think there is a real missed opportunity in the way MTR utilized their music. Furthermore ‘I am so happy’ is surely one of the worst songs in public space today that only serves to emphasize the depressing realities of many working class commuters today.
F: A wasted opportunity, what if each MTR station, like their colour design also had their own music?
In the final category there are the many malls. Every Mall naturally has their own music. The Sha Tin mall for example has a soothing (painfully boring) piano melody perhaps meant to calm down the by now almost weekly tear-gas association gatherings held there. Piano music in general is a popular choice, perhaps adhering to the belief that it calms people down and induces them to shop there. Some malls use Chopin for example to create an expensive atmosphere perhaps as the unfortunate elitist image of classical music still holds strong today.
C: It is boring but effective. The mall music is hard to distinguish from each other however which undermines its effectiveness.
Background music is an important staple of many (enclosed) public and private spaces. Rather than opting for popular music play lists, as is custom in many European cities however Hong Kong tries to go its own way. A Hong Kong without its awful background music is a Hong Kong that has lost something very valuable. Yes it is awful, but I love it all the same. When I return to Hong Kong there are few things as welcoming to me as the perfectly unconvincing trumpet melodies featured in the Park and Shop. I hope the trend towards piano music is only a temporary one, and Hong Kong will fully embrace its rich musical heritage found in many supermarkets and convenience stores today. Perhaps the growing localist movement will find solace in and inspiration in the acknowledgement of their own uniquely Hong Kong supermarket music.