Scars in his eyes
Before the so-called Four Heavenly Kings first appeared in Canto-pop's firmament, it was lit by another set of young idols, dubbed the Four Musketeers. But theirs has been a tale of self-destruction and celebrity burnout. Of the quartet - Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Danny Chan Pak-keung, Paul Chung Po-lor and Ken Choi Fung-wah - only Choi survived. Earning a less-flattering title in the 90s as one of the Crazy Kings of local show business, the famously erratic singer has emerged after many lean years for an unlikely comeback with three sell-out concerts this weekend.
Choi turns up for the interview in a hotel coffee shop sporting a charcoal hat and shades that seem at odds with his image as a Prince Charming of the 1980s music scene. Still, he vividly recalls his heyday.
'I wore sunglasses whenever I went out,' he says. 'I liked eating fish balls and pig skin [at street stalls] but after I became famous I had to drive to the stalls to get the snacks. It was a Porsche.'
The Musketeers' golden years, however, are well in the past. Chung and Cheung committed suicide in 1989 and 2003 respectively; Chan fell into a coma after a drug overdose in 1992 and died a year later.
Choi's show business career, meanwhile, fell apart in the 90s in the wake of reports of increasingly odd behaviour. The reputation has haunted him since.
'I'm a normal person. Why does the press call me crazy? That's because they can sell more copies,' he says.
Yet, a surprise appearance earlier this year in the 30th anniversary concert for Jade Solid Gold (JSG), TVB's weekly music show, has revived Choi's career.
It reunited him with old friends, including actress-turned-barrister Money Lo Mun-yi, who was so moved she decided to finance a comeback concert for him (the main organiser is Martini Group, an entertainment company run by her husband, Kimmy Shuen King-on).
'We lost contact for so many years. I just want to help him,' says Lo, who has been accompanying the singer on his publicity rounds.
Choi certainly seems far more at ease compared to last month when he announced the show at Star Hall in Kowloon Bay - his first paid performance in six years - to a pack of entertainment reporters.
About 3,000 seats were snapped up within a day of tickets going on sale (Choi says the capacity is 3,226 people), prompting the organisers to put on more shows. The response surprised many, including Choi himself.
'In the beginning I kind of lost my confidence,' he says. 'Initially, there were about 100 signed up to my Facebook fan page, but it quickly went up to 500.'
The numbers will rise further, he says, although 'my fans are rather mature now and not everyone is at the computer'.
It is hard to decipher Choi's emotions with his eyes constantly hidden behind sunglasses. But the glasses are not merely decorative: they hide an injury to his right eye, sustained six years ago when he was allegedly set on by triads following a performance in Foshan city.
Choi is unwilling to revisit those dark times and steers the conversation away before he finally touches on the topic.
'I was attacked. It happened after the show. But I do not want to go into the details of why,' he says. 'But I tell you, if Choi Fung-wah's singing career is going to end, it will end on the stage.'
Choi remembers the glory days of the 80s when he landed a record deal with Sony after winning a singing contest at the age of 18. He entered the contest, he says, not to pursue stardom but to escape a 'terrible' summer job as a labourer lugging around metal parts.
'It was pathetic - I only made HK$20 a day. Then I learned from the radio that there was this singing contest with a top prize of HK$3,000. Of course, I signed up right away. Eventually, I won the competition and the cash. HK$3,000 was a big deal.'
Success came quickly. He became a radio DJ, a star on a popular television drama, hosted JSG and released a number of hits, including his own composition, Sin Ying (Beautiful Silhouette). In 1984, he began performing across the border, becoming one of the first local stars to venture onto the mainland.
'My first HK$1 million arrived very early on ... after my first year in show business. I was only 19, 20 years old,' he says.
At the peak of his career, he had about 20 credit cards and used them freely. 'When you are young and you have the cash, you buy hi-fi stereos, cars and you travel,' he says. 'Money was easy come, easy go.'
Choi's fall from grace was as swift as his rise was meteoric, with his penchant for off-the-cuff remarks setting off a series of unfortunate events. He was still riding high in 1985 when he hosted a JSG awards show on which Leslie Cheung won three of the 10 prizes. Cheung, apparently overjoyed, celebrated by singing one of Choi's hits that failed to win an award, prompting him to remark that 'a moment of glory is not eternal'.
Many interpreted it as a slight on Cheung and the TVB management, who dropped him as JSG host. To make matters worse, his record company became embroiled in a copyright row with the station. Without exposure, Choi's manager sent him to make movies in South Korea, but that came to nothing.
The next two decades were tough. Although Choi was invited to perform on the mainland, his image was undermined by constant reports about his odd behaviour. There was no income to speak of in the six years after the attack, and he was reduced to living in a 150 sq ft flat in Kam Tin with his mother helping out with rent and living expenses.
After all this time, Choi has yet to come to terms with his messed-up career. 'It was never my fault. Who doesn't want fame in this business? Who wants to be poor? Who wants to be attacked? But it was not my fault.
'My greatest weakness is telling lies,' he finally admits.
Despite a career in ruins, Choi insists he never gave up on music, although there was a suicide attempt in 1986 when his girlfriend of 10 years left him for someone else.
'I was too busy. I didn't even know that my girlfriend was already with someone else,' he says. 'I was on a Cathay flight to Seoul. I even had my suicide note ready. But a flight attendant caught me and stopped me from swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills.'
But through the bleak times, Choi says, he kept his voice in condition and waited for a break. Now his moment may have arrived.
'I was labelled 'negative equity'. But I tell you, I'm valuable and I can survive.'
All 4 Ken 2011; tomorrow, Sunday, Monday, 8.15pm, Star Hall, Kitec, Kowloon Bay.