Local composer-arranger-producer Alex Fung Hon-ming has been one of Canto-pop's "invisible men" for more than a decade.
He has produced acclaimed records for singer-songwriter Ivana Wong Yuen-chi, as well as albums by stars such as Kelly Chen Wai-lam, Joey Yung Cho-yee and Denise Ho Wan-sze, but has rarely stepped into the spotlight himself. Until now, that is: he has just released his first solo album, Chapters, an ambitious undertaking that sets 10 classic Chinese poems to a range of groovy beats and melodies.
Famed for offering an alternative sound to Canto-pop stars, Fung was initially driven to develop Chapters by a project he worked on two years ago. "In the very beginning, this project was done with a group of students in Hong Kong," says Fung, who co-founded The Invisible Men music production house with Singaporean musician Hanjin Tan in 2003.
The poems come from the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and also from modern China. Verses including Tang dynasty poet Li Bai's Bring in the Wine and Xu Zhimo's Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again were shortlisted from the school syllabus," Fung says. "The idea was to help Hong Kong students memorise the poems by turning them into songs."
In exploring the enormous world of Chinese poetry for the project, Fung discovered the task was bigger than he had expected. "I'm really thankful for this project. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about Chinese poetry. I was a science student who hated memorising Chinese poems, but I became curious to know more about Chinese culture."
Like most students, Fung learned classical Chinese poems by rote at school and read analyses of the works without really understanding or appreciating their beauty. Today, he has a completely different feeling about these poems.
"To me, Chapters is not just a record, it's a cultural product," says Fung, who says he now feels he's on a mission to increase interest in Chinese poetry through contemporary music. "People now read a lot of lyrics by [songwriters] Wyman Wong and Lin Xi, who are regarded as the masters. In fact, names such as Li Bai and [Song dynasty's] Li Qingzhao are actually these masters' masters."
Fung says music and classical Chinese poems share some common ground, although they are different forms of art. "You don't have to understand Korean to enjoy K-pop, and be moved by its melodies and beats. I'm moved by some of the poems in a way I can't describe in words. The biggest challenge in making this album was to be soulfully connected with these great masters."
The music for each poem wasn't selected solely because he liked it, Fung says, but came about after research and a process of connecting with the great poets. For example, Xu's Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again was laid over drum'n'bass and acid jazz to illustrate how people would say farewell to London in a bar in the British capital these days. He picked neo-classical and post-rock music to fully express the mood of Ming poet Yang Shen.
Fung also picked singers Eason Chan Yick-shun, Kelly Chen, Ivana Wong, Chet Lam, Shin Wong, indie band Chochukmo, guitarist Ho Shan and Hong Kong Philharmonic cellist Anna Kwan Ton-an to express the mood of the poets. "When producing albums for other singers, the singer is the focus. But in this project, the focus is on the poets. The singers are just contributing their voices and are one of the sounds on the album, along with piano and the orchestra."
After starting classical piano training at the age of three, Fung obtained a diploma of piano performance from the Royal Schools of Music in Primary Six.
"There were a few years when I really hated music. It was a time when I had to take part in a lot of singing competitions. I won many of them and my parents were very proud, and would ask me to perform in front of their friends. I felt it was so uncool and started to hate music. So I just wanted to get the diploma of piano performance as soon as possible so that I could get rid of the piano and music," he recalls.
When he was about 14, Radiohead's OK Computer and Portishead's Roseland NYC Live re-awakened his passion for music; trip-hop and alternative rock have become major influences on his music in the years since.
Fung attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in music production and engineering. In 2001, he returned to Hong Kong looking for a chance to work in the music industry. "[My friends] told me to contact [then Go East Entertainment CEO] Paco Wong."
So Fung found Go East's phone number in the Yellow Pages. "I told his secretary, 'I would like to talk to Paco. I'm Alex Fung. I just came back from the US and I've got some demos here which I think Paco may like.' The secretary burst into laughter. She probably received a lot of calls like that every day. But luckily, after she stopped laughing, she said I could send my resume and demos to them."
Wong signed him as an artist-producer. Producing and arranging music for singers under the label, Fung became too busy to work on his own projects. "I was quite frustrated when I started. I was asked to write more karaoke songs, which was something I didn't know how to do, and my songs were criticised as 'too westernised' by the boss," he recalls.
"But since I came back from Boston, I have never thought about working in any other industry. I know where my passion is."
Fung also believes Canto-pop has been changing since the emergence of singer-songwriters such as Ivana Wong and Khalil Fong. "If you put aside your prejudices, you'll see that there's actually a variety of music in Hong Kong and you can find many choices in the Canto-pop world."