Ruling his own world
Tedman Lee wanted to be creative and different - now he's living that dream as a DJ and multimedia maker
It's 1996 and Tedman Lee is adjusting to life in America. Having just migrated to Ohio with his parents, the 10-year-old from Hong Kong speaks little English, has no friends in the US, and knows nothing except mainstream Hong Kong culture. He is lost.
But one day, the young boy turns on the radio and hears the song If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) by rappers Nas and Lauryn Hill. The beat, the flow, and the lyrics, Lee says in hindsight, "blew his mind". He knew instantly that he wanted to do something creative - as well as something different.
Fast forward to today, and random glimpses of Lee's life reveal a man "ruling the world" - or at least his own world. There's Lee performing with his electro-rock band Ni. Ne. Mo. at Clockenflap, Hong Kong's largest music festival; there's Lee DJing with his crew, the Living Discoheads, at parties such as The Do-Over; there's Lee in his office, auditioning young models for a role in an Eason Chan Yik-shun music video that Lee's company is creating.
The Eason project is the latest - and perhaps biggest - sign that Lee has "made it", that he's far away from the nine-to-five pencil-pushing life he dreaded. "Eason was looking to do something different [with his music video], and that's what we do - fun, unconventional, different," Lee says.
The "we" he's referring to is Hehehe, a company Lee co-founded with like-minded creative types Eddie Yeung and Dee Lam, that specialises in multimedia content. Hehehe isn't even a year old but they've already produced commercials for Vans, Nike, and Red Bull; music videos for Jun Kung and, of course, Chan; and album art for indie band Hardpack. The Eason video, released last month, opens with characters in eye-catching, futuristic suits set against a stark white backdrop. It then explodes, along with the song's chorus, into a mishmash of surreal imagery involving android women and a kaleidoscope of floral patterns. Chan himself doesn't show up until near the final moments of the song, appearing only in quick cuts and extreme close-ups - he's barely visible. To say the video is different from the average Canto-pop music video is an understatement.
Hehehe was responsible for every aspect of creating the video, from conceptualising to designing the outfits and backdrop to shooting the footage and post-production work. The video became a major hit.
But it wasn't always so easy for Lee. Five years ago, having just returned to Hong Kong after graduating from university, he was juggling a sales job he hated by day and hustling in the indie music scene at night. "I came back to Hong Kong with the goal of just doing something creative," Lee says. "I wasn't sure what. I just wanted to do something."
He frequented gigs and clubs, befriending local scenesters and seeking ways to collaborate. One night, while singing karaoke with a group of indie rockers, Lee's vocals impressed the group. "They told me they had a band but needed a vocalist and asked if I was interested. I have no formal music training, but I wanted to try it anyway."
That band eventually became Ni. Ne. Mo. They will release their debut album in October.
Lee continued branching out and expanding his passion projects. He met local rapper Masta Mic during a gig and Lee's love of hip hop led to him managing the rapper and his crew, Justice League.
Lee made little to no money from his music exploits - it was all for fun. In the "real world", Lee bounced from that dreaded sales job to several advertising jobs between 2008 and 2011 before trying his hand as a brand builder for a small, startup fashion label last year. Everywhere he worked, he felt stifled by the lack of creativity and the constant need for commercialisation.
"Nothing was like I expected it to be. It got to the point where I just said 'F*** it, I'm going to do my own thing'," Lee says.
He quit the fashion job in early 2012 and spent a couple of months producing and recording a YouTube documentary dedicated to Hong Kong's disco scene of the 1980s, titled Night of the Living Discoheads. "I had been hearing from friends about the infamous disco scene in Tsim Sha Tsui in the '80s," Lee says. "And I was amazed at how vibrant and fashion-forward the scene was."
Lee interviewed current and former bar owners on Canton Road, various DJs, and music journalists for the documentary, and their enthusiasm about "the old days" inspired Lee to organise a series of retro disco nights at Bar City in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the more popular nightclubs during Hong Kong's disco boom in the 1980s.
Lee originally requested friends, such as DJ Yao, to perform, but eventually decided to get behind the decks with a couple of other acquaintances as well. That became yet another side project for Lee: the Living Disco Heads DJ collective. "I played around with decks in college, but I was no expert," Lee says. "But hey, why not give it a try?"
However, the DJ project, band, and documentary gigs were all passion projects - Lee still needed to figure out how to make a living. Everything fell into place in March when he met his future Hehehe partners at a gig.
"I met Dee [Lam] first and we talked about how we were so fed up with our day jobs," Lee recalls. "We were just ranting that night, really, but I met him for coffee a few days later and Dee told me about his idea of starting a company. Then he introduced me to Eddie."
The three clicked immediately. Not only are they the same age (27) and share similar attitudes (which Lee describes as "liking stupid s***"), their skillsets complement one another. Lam is an illustrator and graphic designer (he also has a side gig as Josie Ho Chiu-yee's concert guitarist), Yeung is a videographer and production guru, and Lee, the hustler - always networking, always full of ideas.
With Hehehe's growing success and various side projects, Lee's a man with little spare time these days. "I basically don't get home every night until 3 or 4am. But it's OK, I love what I do."