Legendary composer Joseph Koo dies at 91

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 5, 2023
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Legendary composer Joseph Koo, who wrote many iconic Chinese songs, died on Tuesday in Vancouver, Canada. He was 91.

A file photo of renowned composer Joseph Koo Ka-fai in 2005. [Photo/VCG]

Koo is regarded as the "Godfather of Hong Kong music" and one of the most respected composers from China's Hong Kong region. He was best known for composing numerous classic Chinese songs that people still sing to this day. Those include "Below the Lion Rock," sung by Roman Tam for the eponymous television series, which remains the city's unofficial anthem, as well as other hugely popular theme songs for TV series such as "The Bund" and "The Legend of the Condor Heroes." He was also known for his scores to two Bruce Lee films, "Fist of Fury" and "The Way of the Dragon," as well as iconic films like "A Better Tomorrow."

"Joseph Koo's works are evergreen and always feel new, and have accompanied the growth of Hong Kong people over the years and have enriched the lives of Chinese people around the globe," said Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong's Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism, in a statement on Wednesday. "His spirit and the memorable, touching melodies he created will be passed on to generations. We will always miss him."

The versatile and prolific music guru was born in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, on Feb. 25, 1931. His family then moved to Hong Kong in 1948. Born into a scholarly family, Koo was the son of a painter and is the younger brother of Koo Mei, who gained fame as a singer and actress in the 1950s and 1960s. Koo has said his interest in music came from his sister, and after learning to play the piano with a Filipino musician, he launched his own music career as a pianist and a bandleader working in a night club.

In 1961, his first-released song, "Dream," was chosen as the theme song for the film "Love Without End" and features vocals from his sister Koo Mei. In the same year, Koo went to the United States to study composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship as well as a sponsorship from Hong Kong movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw. Upon graduation, he returned to Hong Kong and worked for the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest movie studios as a film music composer and arranger.

Koo joined Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) when the television station commenced broadcasting in 1967. As music director, he composed for the variety show "Enjoy Yourself Tonight." Subsequently, he began to focus on writing theme songs for TV series, pioneering a fusion of Western music with Chinese rhythms. In 1974, his theme song for the TV drama "The Fatal Irony" accompanied a boom in Hong Kong pop music. Regarded as the genesis of Cantopop, the song irrevocably changed Hong Kong’s music scene, which until that point had been dominated by songs adapting the melodies of foreign songs, with original Cantonese songs often being ignored and considered of little social status.

In 1981, Koo returned to the United States to continue his studies, and after a second return to Hong Kong, continued to write commercial jingles and music for TV dramas. Over the ensuing decades, Koo composed more than 2,000 songs, including many memorable TV theme songs in collaboration with the late legendary lyricist James Wong. Koo and Wong were the golden duo for Cantopop songwriting, just like the legendary Beatles pairing of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Many Hong Kong megastars have sung his songs, including Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung, Danny Chan, and Alan Tam. These songs reflect their times and are now considered to be classics of Cantopop and timeless pop culture gems in Hong Kong. The songs also had a great impact on the mainland and China's Mandopop music world, entering the collective memories and soundtracks of generations of Chinese people.

A file photo of renowned composer Joseph Koo with Adam Cheng Chong-Sai and Liza Wang on stage at an all-star tribute concert in Hong Kong honoring Koo after he announced his retirement in 2015. [Photo/VCG]

"The magic in him was that he knew which of his songs were fit for which singers," said iconic diva Liza Wang on Wednesday, who sang many of the songs Koo created, including "The Brave Chinese" and "Love and Passion." "Whenever he created a song, he would ask singers to practice it first before going into the recording studio. I feel grateful that he made so many creations and helped so many singers boom, and that there were so many Chinese people who shared his musical journey," adding that Koo was an extremely nice soul and never scolded his singers, always encouraging them instead.

Later, in the 1990s, Koo immigrated to Canada but continued his work in Hong Kong music. In 2007, he wrote the theme song for "The Drive of Life," a drama produced by TVB to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland. In 2015, he announced his retirement, with a series of tribute concerts by various veteran Hong Kong singers held to honor him. At the time, he said he would significantly reduce his work on music, and became an oil painter like his sister. He moved to Vancouver in 2018 and lived there with his wife until his passing.

Koo has received numerous awards, including the Bronze Bauhinia Star from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government in 1998 and the Gold Bauhinia Star in 2015. He also received numerous other awards, including music-related awards from Hong Kong Film Awards, the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, and the Golden Horse Awards. To mark his great contributions, he received the Music Accomplishment Award from the  Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong (CASH) in 1997 and the Life Achievement Award from the Arts Development Council in 2011.

"Joseph Koo is a great musician in Hong Kong history, and it is very hard for us to part with him," Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau said following news of Koo’s death. "He is an invaluable treasure in the Hong Kong music scene, and his music was so popular and absolutely represented the golden era of Hong Kong music. May he rest in peace in heaven, with his beautiful and joyful songs representing angels that will forever be in our hearts."

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