“What’s good is that she doesn’t look like a Filipino. She’s very white. She looks mixed.”

This was someone commenting on Jennifer Palor, one of the more in-demand and popular singers in Hong Kong- a proud Filipina who’s lived and worked in Hong Kong for close to twenty years and has paid her dues playing what can be called “the cocktail circuit”- that creatively-stifling “gigdom” of “functions”, hotel lounges, and the handful of venues offering ‘live” entertainment that lean heavily on what’s passed off as “jazz” when it’s actually a combination of copyist pop mixed with artificial soul and copious amounts of musical self-indulgence.

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What keeps coming back to me, however, is that comment- and it’s something heard from many- about Jennifer Palor not looking like a Filipino being a “good thing”. It underlines how musicians from the Philippines are looked down on today by, especially, the local Chinese, as second class citizens from a Third World country many equate with domestic helpers and working girls. To have this racism and Great Divide invade the world of rainbow music is everything the art form should never be. But reality bites.

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Friends point to the racism in the US when black musicians were forced to play in segregated clubs while others left for the freedom and creative laissez faire of Paris to have the music in them heard- Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Quincy Jones, Lionel Hampton, Ray Charles, Lena Horne etc.

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Yes, but that was during the Forties and Fifties. We’re now in 2015, this is, supposedly, cosmopolitan Hong Kong, but the recent tightening of work visas for Filipino musicians- but out-of-work Nigerians are seemingly welcomed here with open arms, courtesy of their “refugee status- and the outrageously politically incorrect comments made by Legislative Councillor Regina Ip, below, about Filipino domestic helpers, seem to be sending out some very mixed and worrying signals.

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Regina Ip accused of racism over tales of Filipino maids bedding expat bosses – SCMP

Court sets trial of 10 Filipino musicians – HONG KONG NEWS

Discrimination against Filipino musicians and artists has been “trending” in Hong Kong since the Nineties. With more and more clubs opening up during those years, and the Wanchai that once was a hotbed of Chinese Suzie Wongs becoming a long strip of pick up joints for expats, these places hired ‘live’ bands to churn out note-perfect versions of whatever were the current hits of that time.

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Wanchai was becoming Funky Town and musicians from the Philippines found a pot of gold at the end of their adobo rainbow, and were hired for less than half to what it would have cost to hire a band comprising Westerners or locals. It was still more than they made back home and the gigs were easy enough. After all, how many of those who frequented these bars and clubs in the rapidly changing Wanchai area came for the music? They came to get laid, and here, too, those ladies brought to Hong Kong, also from the Philippines, undercut their Chinese rivals. It was Little Makati and an area, with those associated with it, looked down by many then- and now.

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Meanwhile, Chinese amahs were being replaced by domestic helpers. From the Philippines. Have working visa will travel and they came to Hong Kong to start a new life and send pesos back home. Nothing wrong with any of that. It was economics and opportunities. But for the musician from the Philippines, no matter how good, or famous they were back home, there was jealousy, suspicion and distrust from local musicians as their jobs were being taken away.

The late Donald Ashley, below, easily the finest drummer to have come out of Hong Kong, was the most vocal about how he felt about these “flips”, and how they were “cheapening” the role of musicians by taking every gig that came their way for whatever chump change was offered.

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Ashley was a fiercely passionate and much in-demand musician who might have played on recording sessions with Filipino musicians like Bassist Rudy Balboa, whom he respected, but refused to work with certain arrangers from the Philippines. He dismissed many as “cheap copyists” hired by music companies to cut corners without pride of the end product. Many times, he was right, and held steadfastly to this belief until he succumbed to illness and passed away last year- way too early in life.

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When singer Regine Vellasquez, today a mega-rich diva in the Philippines, was signed to PolyGram Music in the Nineties as an innocent 17-year-old by Alex Chan, below, then head of the music company’s Cinepoly label, the marketing, promotion and image building, all had to do with “un-Filipino-ing” this talented young singer.

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Despite George Michael having released a similarly named album less than a year earlier, Chan insisted that her debut international release be titled, “Listen Without Prejudice”, meaning, listen to the voice, and not the nationality behind the voice- a Filipina. The album cover only revealed half her face and was air-brushed and whitened.

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To gain “local acceptance”, her debut single was a duet with Canto-pop megastar Jacky Cheung, and the accompanying video- one of those plodding ballads- filmed in a washed-out bluish white tone. A Filipina tan was nowhere to be seen. Regine Vellasquez needed to look “white”.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNP-qp7xFdU

Having just joined PolyGram at the time, I wondered why this girl had been signed in the first place when the Executive who discovered her seemed embarrassed at his own artist. All he kept telling everyone within earshot was about the high notes she could reach and how she was “better than Streisand”. Who cared? And why should a 17-year-old be compared to Barbra Streisand?

It’s why I have little time for Producer and music executive David Foster, who made all those female munchkins he produced sound so much older than their years including Charisse from the Philippines. And where’s her career today after those appearances on Oprah and a shortened stint on “Glee”?

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As for Regine- her surname was dropped- the singer’s debut record was a hodge podge of styles to please everybody. It didn’t work. The record tanked, and all plans for turning Regine Vellasquez into an international recording artist were axed. She stayed with PolyGram- in the Philippines- where she achieved the mega diva status she enjoys today.

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It wasn’t always like this in Hong Kong- this weird necessity for music companies to apologise for getting behind an artist from the Philippines, and local music fans “downsizing” and “downgrading” artists from this country.

In the Sixties, along with the British Beat Boom Invasion, Hong Kong saw a Filipino musical invasion led by D’Hijacks, the Beatles of the Philippines, who were the talk of the town when they became the resident band at the Bayside in Nathan Road, the most popular club in Hong Kong when people from the island didn’t think twice about “going to that other side” known as Kowloon.

D’Hijacks was something Hong Kong had never seen- five guys with Beatles haircuts who played note perfect versions of the Fab Four’s early hits. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

No one cared if they were Filipinos just like no one cared when the Philippines’ answer to the Rolling Stones- the Downbeats- started performing at the Mocambo in Queen’s Road, Central. All eyes were on the drummer/singer Joey Smith- a dead ringer for Mick Jagger- and four other guys who played incredibly well, and looked like a young Keith Richards. Four Keith Richards lookalikes and one Mick Jagger clone, brought out Hong Kong’s female groupies out in force, and the Downbeats went through them all like Jumping Jack Flash in heat.

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Away from these imported bands from the Philippines, Hong Kong was also home to Filipinas like Christine Samson, who won many thumping male hearts by playing her Hofner bass and singing with D’Topnotes. She was the girl-next-door who happened to be a musician and many wished to marry. Alas, she married multi-instrumentalist Romy Diaz from Danny Diaz and the Checkmates.

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One of the first pop groups in Hong Kong and very popular for their time were the Fabulous Echoes comprising the Ruivivar brothers and Bert Sagum- three Filipinos- Scot Stan Robinson and singer Cliff Foenander from Ceylon. Though they had hit pop records like the gimmicky “A Little Bit Of Soap”, the Echoes were a show band known for their hugely popular ‘live’ performances and kinda cornball stage antics, which eventually took them to Hawaii where they became the Society Of Seven.

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Later on came Filipino acts like the Danny Diaz and the Checkmates, who even beat out popular all-Chinese pop group Teddy Robin and the Playboys in Levi’s Battle Of The Bands- jazz guitarist Tony Carpio, and singers Rowena Cortes and Teresa Carpio.

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These were home-grown Hong Kong talent many had watched grow up on pop shows at places like City Hall, and, later, television. Local musicians looked up to them as they were bloody good, and which was the best form of endorsement- and sense of belonging. No one thought about their nationality. They were Hong Kong Belongers.

Danny Diaz, Teresa Carpio, Tony Carpio et al were Made In Hong Kong and a vital part of the then-fledgling music scene being orchestrated by people like “Uncle” Ray Cordeiro, the various overnight pop music writers, and other radio disc-jockeys in Darryl Patten and Tony Myatt, who, at one time, sang with the Fabulous Echoes.

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By the time Regine Vellasquez came along and was being gift wrapped to be something she wasn’t, the image of Filipino musicians had taken a battering.

Apart from the changing face of Wanchai and the hiring of musicians from the Philippines, perhaps it had to do with Hong Kong soon to stop being a British colony and all the concerns that The Handover held for many. Perhaps it had to do with the end of the local band scene and the rise of the Canto-Pop idol.

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Perhaps it had to do with the loosening of visa restrictions which allowed in more and more workers from the Philippines to take up jobs as domestic helpers and working girls.

Whatever it was, it had a negative impact on the image of the Filipino musician. Even popular Canto-pop singer Alex To once suffered from discrimination when it was learnt that he was part Filipino, his father having been one of the most in-demand musicians in Hong Kong- percussionist Ollie Delfino who was always recruited to perform alongside visiting artists like Sammy Davis Jr.

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A Western musician friend and I were discussing the situation that exists today, and his take had to do with a “lack of assertiveness” by Filipino musicians. To him and others, though there being some very good musicians, there’s the belief that very few feel the need to be original. It’s like thinking, Ok will do as they go from gig to gig with no ambitions to be anything more and better themselves.

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Even when Arnel Pineda was discovered by Neil Schon on YouTube playing the usual Hong Kong gig circuit, and asked to replace Steve Perry in Journey, it was because he was a Perry copyist- a very good one- but still a copyist.

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What’s more- or less- whereas Danny Diaz, Teresa Carpio and other Made In Hong Kong Filipino talent demanded and received top dollar for their performances- and still do- most of the Filipinos being recruited by clubs and those ubiquitous hotel lounges are content to take what’s offered, and watch from the wings as hack musical talent is imported from the UK, and mainly Canada, on “expat packages.” Why? Colour blinds many, and, apparently, the music “sounds better” coming from a white- or black- face. How very wrong they are. What this does is give these mediocre performers- names are withheld to avoid embarrassing them more than they have already been embarrassed- a silly sense of self-importance where they become legends in their own yum cha break.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHRXVnGrZ1A

When one thinks of the creative musical talent pool in the Philippines- Bam from Bamboo comes to mind along with some of the members of former all-girl Rock band General Luna- one has to wonder if those in Hong Kong bringing out talent from over there is only interested in copyists with no place nor need for originality? If so, surely this is an insult to the intelligence of local audiences?

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Meanwhile, I look at an exceptional singer like Jennifer Palor and wonder why, after almost two decades in Hong Kong, she has yet to be signed by a major music company despite what that person told me a few months ago: “What’s good about her is that she doesn’t look like a Filipina. She’s very white.”

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SClawa71tc

Perhaps it’s not too late for this to happen and, by so doing, show Hong Kong audiences that musicians from the Philippines, or originally from that country, can be as creative as today’s most popular part-Filipino musical export- Peter Gene Hernandes aka Bruno Mars whose late mother came from the Philippines where she was a singer.

Bruno Mars performing and recording with Jennifer Palor? Impossible is nothing, Yoda says.

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Hans Ebert
Chairman and CEO
We-Enhance Inc and Fast Track Global Ltd
www.fasttrack.hk