A star is torn: singer-songwriter Justin Lo finds fame on his own terms
CREATIVELY, HONG KONG just doesn't do it for singer-songwriter and producer Justin Lo Ting-wai. After a brawl with Malaysian Chinese singer Gary Chaw Ge and an alleged "orgy" with Japanese model Rui Kimura provoked media interest in his personal life, the 36-year-old singer shunned the local Canto-pop industry and relocated to Beijing in 2011.
"I can't stay in Hong Kong. It was a dead end for me two years ago, and it'd still be a dead end if I lived here. I'll still come back and work, but I won't live here," says Lo, who is better known as Zak Tin, which is the Cantonese transliteration of his English name.
"I was very lonely in Hong Kong. My girlfriend lives in Beijing and I want to be with her. And I'm sick of Hong Kong, creatively. I can't get my creative juice flowing here. I'm done with the industry games in Hong Kong. That's why I gave up."
But his relationship with this city didn't end there. The singer still comes here to meet his friends and fans. And there is the Hong Kong Coliseum, where he was discovered in 2005, and where he has performed several sold-out concerts.
Lo has recently played guest at nine concerts for singers, including Kary Ng Yu-fei and Janice Vidal. He also appeared at lyricist Wyman Wong Wai-man's retrospective concert.
On May 25, he returns in his own right in a concert titled "Justin Tough Live".
The title is a play on words of one of his biggest hits, loosely translated as Tough Life - a song about pursuing your love interest despite disapproval from others. It pretty much sums up his life story so far.
"I have been looked down on my whole life. My whole life was spent being bullied: first when I was in secondary school [in the US], by white kids, and later by paparazzi when I was in Hong Kong," says Lo.
"But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - that's a good line. It's something that leads to self-encouragement."
Lo has also found consolation in music. Born in New York, he grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Seattle when he was 13. He says he has always been musical and has performed in a family band in night clubs ever since he was a child. He sang in school choirs and learned to play the piano and guitar by ear. As he grew older, he embraced all musical genres: Canto-pop, grunge, hip hop, jazz and rock.
Lo studied for a fine arts degree before landing a job as a web designer at Yahoo! in Silicon Valley, San Francisco. But a decade ago, he grew tired of his design job. It was then his uncle, veteran musician and composer Ted Lo Sheung-ching, encouraged him to return to Hong Kong to pursue a career in pop music.
"I made my decision right away and left three months later. All my friends thought I was crazy. All my family was, like, 'Why did you quit? You got stock options, you got paid so well. You're going back to be a starving musician, are you stupid?" recalls Lo. "But I'm not afraid. Everyone has to take that step, that risk once in their life. Why feel comfortable? A person's dead when they're too comfortable. I was like, 'Whatever'. I'm not going to listen to anyone. It's my life. I'm happy."
He worked as a producer for three years, but the turning point came when he was offered a solo spot to sing in Leo Ku Kui-kei's concert, while the star had a wardrobe change. Although Lo says he never wanted to be a singer, the experience reminded him how much he loved performing. Paco Wong Pak-go, the boss of entertainment company Gold Label (now Gold Typhoon), then signed him as a singer.
He may not have the typical model-like looks of most male Canto-pop singers, but his voice and talent give him a fresh appeal. His 2005 eponymous debut album was well received, and he played a solo concert at the Coliseum the next year, fulfilling the dream of every local singer.
His penchant for melancholy songs is the result of his cynical disposition, he says. But his meteoric rise in the industry came at a hefty price. He lost his privacy - his personal life came under constant media scrutiny - and he found there was no room for him to carry out his ideas, some of which were too radical for his mainstream record label.
His headstrong nature didn't seem to work too much in his favour, either.
"I wanted to become a producer again, but my company said I had a responsibility to them because they'd invested a lot in me and I couldn't just leave. This industry is like the triads - once you get in, you can't get out. Plus it's easier to make money as a performer. Singing two songs equals one week's worth of production work," says Lo.
"But if you step in the limelight you've got to deal with a lot of crap. That's the down part," Lo continues. "All the junk that's not related to music, like fighting for awards, has nothing to do with music or performing. I'm not down for it. That's why I left."
Now signed with record label Media Asia Music, Lo hopes he can continue to release singles. "I can produce two or three singles a year. I don't want to do 10 songs for the sake of having an album. It's a waste of money and time," he say.
Lo says he doesn't mind holding more concerts in the region and in China. For the upcoming show, he says the 13-piece band and the music will be the main focus. This bucks the local trend of having concerts that are packed with gimmicks, an approach which goes down well with audiences here.
"My previous shows were very visual but this time there's going to be none of that. It's all music, nothing fancy. No costume changes. If you come, expect to hear music. That's what a concert is. I'm going to sing a lot more songs and play more instruments this time. I'm going to do everything original. I'm not going to rearrange [songs] for the sake of rearranging, because I think my fans like originals. I like originals, too," says Lo.
"I just enjoy being on stage. Put me on stage and I'm happy," adds Lo. "I love that natural high. I'm so confident on stage.
"Once you give me a mic and put me on stage, I'm the king."
Justin Lo, May 25, 8.15pm, HK Coliseum, 9 Cheong Wan Road, Hung Hom, HK$200-HK$550 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2314 4288