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Hong Kong gigs

Hong Kong Canto-pop legend Lowell Lo’s comeback complete at 65

He grew up pals with Bruce Lee and listening to a young Michael Jackson, taught himself to sing in Cantonese despite dyslexia, and wrote 100-plus film soundtracks, then walked away from music for 15 years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 12:15pm

Dyslexia did little to stop singer-songwriter Lowell Lo Koon-ting from having a longstanding career. The supposedly retired Canto-pop veteran has just released a new album and will be performing two concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum in June. If anything, the condition that Lo has lived with since childhood has served him well.

Lo, 65, moved from Hong Kong to the US with his family at the age of 16. He was already an adept guitarist when a teacher at his high school asked him to prepare an assignment.

Daunted by the prospect of reading a poem aloud to his class, he asked if he could sing it instead.

“I picked a poem [and set it to music]. The class asked me to sing it three times. That gave me the hope and courage to write music,” he says. “I’m dyslexic, but I can focus.”

Growing up in Seattle – Bruce Lee was a family friend – Lo was exposed to a wide range of American music, and initially tried to imitate the folk-based pop of Peter, Paul & Mary.

“I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong [pop music]. I was listening to Michael Jackson when he was 10 years old singing I’ll Be There. I listened to soul, blues, country, and Top 40 as they called it back then,” he says.

“I’m a folk singer, from the very beginning, but my parents were Cantonese opera singers, and that’s in my blood. It’s a very important element in my music.”

Lo has also studied jazz guitar, and says he spent four years working out a system of harmony that he believes fills in some holes in music theory as it is usually taught. He also has a strong affinity for the blues.

His latest studio release for Universal Music is a follow-up to last year’s Beyond Imagination, a project that saw Lo reinterpreting some of his hit songs. It also showcases the singer as a socially aware artist who cares about the environment.

Beyond Imagination Too includes two new songs, one of which has been released as a trailer and is called Kumbaya, although it has neither the tune nor lyric of the well-known campfire spiritual recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary.

Kumbaya, a sort of New Age blues with prominent electric slide guitar, was written in English before translation into Cantonese, and articulates some of Lo’s environmental concerns.

“It’s an environmental song. It’s definitely not Canto-pop,” Lo says, adding that he likes the new release because it has a lot of blues elements. “It’s not blues as such, but it has that element in it. I love blues. It’s easy to learn – three chords – but it can be very sophisticated.”

The Coliseum shows will include songs in both Cantonese and English from different phases of Lo’s career, including hits he wrote for other artists.

Looking back, Lo could have had a musical career in America. He had already written two top 40 hits by the time he returned to Hong Kong in 1977, but what he thought was an international opportunity was contingent on his coming home.

Five tracks Lo had submitted to the American Song Festival competition, written and sung in English, had all won honourable mentions, and he had also been recognised for his singing. He once wanted to compete in the Yamaha Song Festival in Japan, but hadn’t placed highly enough to qualify to represent the US.

Following his success in America, however, he thought he had a sporting chance of winning the TVB Song Contest in Hong Kong. The winner of that would go on to represent the city in the Japanese competition.

It was not to be. Lo came in fourth, but, still hopeful, he tried again in 1978. That time he came 16th.

Lo, who sang and wrote lyrics in English, had arrived back in Hong Kong just in time for the first flowering of Canto-pop. It was new territory, but encouraged by some interest from the Warner Music Group he stayed on and started doing gigs in hotel bars, learning to perform in Cantonese while continuing to write songs

“People thought this guy is singing really strangely,” he says. “Nobody had heard a style like that before in Hong Kong. I didn’t really know how to sing in Cantonese back then. My training was singing in lounges.”

In 1980, he picked up a residency at the Chin Chin Bar of the old Hyatt Regency in Nathan Road. There he met the hotel’s public relations manager, Susan Tong. They married, and she has since written the Cantonese lyrics for many of his songs, including his breakthrough hit, Sky Bird, for which Lo composed the music in 1982.

Tong says the couple decided she should write the words because they couldn’t quite afford the services of a professional Canto-pop lyricist.

“We asked ourselves who would be the ideal person to sing it, and I thought George Lam Chi-cheung, who at that time was with EMI,” says Tong.

“We had a mutual friend, Brenda Lo, who was a DJ on Commercial Radio. She took the song into EMI, but it never got to Lam. The managing director heard it and said ‘Who is this guy? Let’s sign him’ and offered him a contract.”

For about a decade after that Lo was a hugely successful singer, songwriter, occasional actor, and composer of film soundtracks.

People thought this guy is singing really strangely ... I didn’t really know how to sing in Cantonese back then. My training was singing in lounges.”
Lowell Lo

In addition to writing hits for himself and other artists, including Lam and Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, he went on to write music for more than 100 movies, starting with 1985’s Infatuation and including 1989’s God of Gamblers and its sequels.

Then, in 1993, he walked away from stardom.

The catalyst, he says, was feeling unable to justify to himself the huge production and promotion budget spent on an album he made for Taiwan’s Rock Records with Mando-pop singer-songwriter Jonathan Lee. At the time 2 X Man Life only sold about 15,000 copies in Hong Kong, although it is now a sought-after collector’s item.

Lo continued to study music, and occasionally to compose for the screen, as well as developing an interest in environmental activism. In 2000 he and his wife opened a green-themed shop in Sai Kung, which is still in business although it has moved premises several times, and, Lo frankly admits, doesn’t make any money.

Lo returns with green message

In 2008, at the instigation of a fan who was prepared to back the show, he came out of retirement for a concert at the Coliseum – “that was for fun” – but continued to turn down offers to make records until Universal Music approached him with a proposal to re-record songs from his repertoire to modern standards of audio fidelity.

“I said ‘If you’re not afraid to lose money, I’m not afraid to make a record’,” he says. “I knew I could do it better than before.”

The result was Beyond Imagination, which featured new versions of such established Lo favourites as Forever By Your Side, Wishing For Eternity, and Sky Bird.

The album has sold more than 25,000 copies.

Fans, he says, should expect a few surprises at his upcoming Hong Kong shows, although not of the kind those who caught his guest appearance at a George Lam concert in 2008 at which he used his whole 10-minute slot to deliver a lecture on green issues, will remember.

“We’re trying to do something different,” he says. “I like combinations of things. I don’t know about trends. You have to just do what you like.”

Lowell Lo, Hong Kong Coliseum, Hung Hom, June 10 and 11, 8.15pm. HK$280-HK$680 Urbtix. Inquiries: 3761 6661