The happy outsider
MC Yan bucked the mainstream yet managed to make his name in music and the arts, writes Ben Sin
On September 1, 2012, tens of thousands of Hongkongers - many of them teenagers - stood outside government headquarters in Central demanding the cancellation of the national education course proposed for the school curriculum starting in 2016. Amid the sea of protestors, dressed almost all in black, stood Chan Kwong-yan.
Camera in hand, Chan, better known as local hip hop pioneer MC Yan, recorded the action around him: to his right, three students shaved Xs on the backs of their heads; on his left, a girl in a white dress poured fake blood over herself. Chan stood with the crowd, soaking in every chant, every fist pump.
Here was a man who - whether as chief lyricist for seminal local rap group LMF, host of an illegal online radio feed, or a street graffiti artist - had been anti-establishment for more than two decades, and felt at home surrounded by protestors. But he was particularly motivated by this demonstration. Two weeks later, with the help of Taiwanese rapper Dog G, Chan released the rap track Brainwash Education, with protest footage serving as the music video.
The track and video were banned on the mainland but became an underground hit in Hong Kong, Taiwan and, most importantly, on the internet.
Since 1997, when Chan teamed up with then-DMC world championship runner-up DJ Tommy for a six-track EP that shocked Hong Kong listeners with its profanity-laced lyrics - and would eventually lead to the formation of LMF in 1998 - he has been a controversial figure in this city. Especially musically, where his lyrical content has always been about, to use an old hip hop cliché, "fighting the man".
It's a message he learnt at a young age. Born one of seven children in a housing estate in Kwai Chung in the 1970s, Chan was a loner. He never saw much of his father - Chan senior was busy running a Chinese restaurant - and didn't exactly get along with his siblings. "I was always curious, I didn't want to just do what we were told we were supposed to do," recalls Chan, who dabbled in many religions in his teens - even once getting baptised as a Christian - seeking enlightenment (he is now a Buddhist).
A weekend job at a museum during secondary school spurred his interest in art, so Chan began taking art classes at the Chinese University at night, where a teacher told him something that changed his life. "He said to me: 'If you really want to learn art, you must leave Hong Kong'," Chan recalls.
He took the advice and saved for a year, leaving for France in 1991, at the age of 20. "I went with a few thousand [US] dollars and I spoke no French," he says. "Before my interview with the French consulate, I memorised a guide to France from a Reader's Digest."
He stayed in France for seven years, during which he studied art at Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts and fell in love with rap after listening to Rage Against the Machine. The time away opened his eyes and convinced Chan that Hong Kong was a superficial city focused only on commercialism and results.
After returning to Hong Kong in 1997, Chan dabbled in underground art and music, before forming LMF a year later. Widely considered the city's first rap group, LMF drew attention with its vulgar lyrics, although Chan insists the explicit content was not a gimmick. "We didn't set out to be bad boys or to use bad words for the sake of it. Our songs dealt with social issues such as growing up poor in housing estates or the superficiality of the city's art and entertainment culture."
LMF played independent shows, usually at old warehouses or tiny clubs, and developed a cult following among Hong Kong youngsters. The band's self-titled, self-released debut album sold 100,000 copies, strong enough to catch the attention of Warner Music, who signed LMF to a record deal two years later.
Ever resistant to mainstream culture, Chan and his bandmates insisted LMF be grouped under a sub-label of Warners. "We didn't want to be associated with the other local acts Warner were tied to at the time," he says, dismissing most mainstream musicians as "promotional tools".
Ultimately, LMF couldn't break into the mainstream and disbanded in 2003 following a few albums and some minor television appearances. A couple of members later started a new, lighter-toned rap group, 24 Herbs; some turned to less prominent creative work, such as graphic design; another opened a skateboard shop.
Meanwhile, Chan continued his creative pursuits. He made a name for himself as a street artist, leaving his mark on places ranging from Hong Kong's Cultural Centre to the Great Wall, using traditional methods such as spray-paint and even laser-tagging. His respected status as LMF's chief lyricist garnered him side gigs appearing on other musicians' tracks, most notably with Edison Chen Koon-hei.
In 2008, Chan, along with two like-minded creative types, started Hong Kong's first non-commercial (aka alternative) online radio station, Radio Dada. Chan says the station, operating out of a tiny booth in Langham Place in Mong Kok, doesn't make money. Instead, he says, it's about the freedom to play any type of music. Even though he still makes music today - he teamed up with Chen and rapper Chef to independently release a record, entitled 3 Corners, last autumn - Chan says he makes little money from music sales.
"It's nearly impossible to make money selling albums these days," he says. "Even the Canto-pop stars who operate under the commercial system can't make money off records anymore." Instead, Chan says he makes ends meet by doing live shows - LMF have regrouped and perform once or twice a year - and from his art.
Earlier this year, he was commissioned by music venue Hidden Agenda to paint one of its walls. His most prominent show in recent years has been "Kung Fu Wildstyle", a collaborative art project with New York hip hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy that pays tribute to Bruce Lee in a fusion of hip hop and Hong Kong culture.
The show debuted in Hong Kong last autumn and recently made its way to New York.
Though Chan and LMF never became household names, they had been influential enough that no history of Hong Kong's hip hop or underground music scene could be written without mentioning their names and their contribution. And that is perhaps Chan's proudest achievement - that he left a mark without selling out.
"LMF didn't become big because we didn't want to work with, and become, businessmen. I refuse to be part of Hong Kong's commercial arts and entertainment system. I will do things my way."