HONG KONG'S CANTO-POP stars get all the glory, but behind every hit song is a great songwriter. And one of the very best is Mark Lui Chung-tak, who has penned a catalogue of chart-toppers since the mid-1990s as well as presided over the success of superstars Leon Lai Ming and Kelly Chen Wai-lam, and newer talents Janice Vidal, Justin Lo Ting-wai and RubberBand.
Lui's contribution to the music industry will be celebrated this month with the three-night Mark Lui Thank You Concert series at the Coliseum, a retrospective of his 20-years in the game.
Since Lui's first works were published in 1992, the composer, arranger and producer has composed more than 600 songs, earning a reputation as the most productive songwriter in the city.
A-list Canto-pop stars such as Lai, Chen, Andy Hui Chi-on, Joey Yung Jo-yee, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, Eason Chan Yik-shun, Sandy Lam Yik-lin and veteran Deanie Ip Tak-han will be performing Lui's music. "About 70 per cent of the city's top singers will be there - and they are all very good. I hope to make it a showcase of Hong Kong music," says Lui, who has won best composer at Commercial Radio's Ultimate Song Chart Awards for 11 years running.
"I'll make sure that all the songs featured are the audience's favourites. And I'll try to make them even better, not just by simply rearranging them."
Lui launched his music career with the song, Let's Hug (performed by Vivian Chow Wai-man) and two songs (performed by Hacken Lee Hak-kan and Sam Hui Koon-kit) that he co-wrote with friend C.Y. Kong while they were studying in England. "C.Y. returned [to Hong Kong] a year earlier than me. He took my demos with him and played them to people such as Vivian Chow's producer. In the meantime, I worked on a range of film scores with Uncle Jim [lyricist James Wong Jim]. This was how I started," he says.
While in secondary school, Lui became friends with Wong, who was at the time living with the mother of Lui's best friend, author Eunice Lam Yin-nei. "Sometimes I would hang out at his place … that was how I met him," Lui says.
He later got the chance to collaborate with Wong on the scores for several Tsui Hark movies, including Green Snake and Butterfly Lovers. While the former was nominated for best original film score at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1993, the latter went on to win the award in 1994.
During the upcoming concerts, Lui will share memories of his friendship with Wong, a man he calls his mentor. "He is the person I must pay tribute to the most. Without him, I wouldn't be here today," he says. "When you start out, you don't know how to get work as a freelance musician. Some people say hanging out with producers might help. I did try to please one particular producer, but it didn't work since I wasn't that kind of person.
"Uncle Jim said talent never goes unrecognised in this world. If people don't want your stuff, it's because it's not good enough. If you are not famous, it's because you haven't done anything outstanding. So, all you can do is do your best and impress people."
While at St Paul's Co-educational College, where it was mandatory for every student to pick up a musical instrument, Lui had the chance to try his hand at anything from the violin to harmonica, and eventually found his passion: the guitar.
Then he went to boarding school in England, which became a period of musical exploration. "If I hadn't gone to England, I might not be doing music today," he says.
At boarding school, Lui devoted most of his free time to playing the guitar and drums, forming rock bands and recording demos. "I later played those songs to Uncle Jim. He was quite impressed and gave me some suggestions about how to improve them and encouraged me to try different styles. I started to think this could be developed into a career. But still, I didn't dare give up my studies," he says.
He fell in love with classic hard rock such as AC/DC and Iron Maiden, as well as Canto-pop during his time in England. "When I was in Hong Kong, I only listened to music from Europe and America, and was not into Hong Kong pop music. But when I was in England, maybe I was a bit homesick. I would go to Chinatown to buy cassette tapes of Danny Chan, Leslie Cheung and Alan Tam," he says.
He also occasionally visited London to watch acts such as acid jazz band Brand New Heavies and Japanese singer-songwriter Ryuichi Sakomoto, one of his biggest musical influences besides Wong and The Beatles.
When he graduated from Imperial College London, Lui finally returned to pursue his dream. In 1995, his breakthrough came with the songs Strong and Pure Legend, which he wrote for Aaron Kwok, and Lui also produced Kelly Chen's debut Cantonese album, Dedicated Lover.
"When I first started producing Kelly's album, she was a newcomer who had started from scratch. Both of us were so young and had a passion to work something out together," Lui says.
The album, which contained chart-topping numbers Dedicated Lover, None of Your Business, Who Wants to Let Go and I'll Miss You, was a huge commercial success and helped Lui build his reputation, opening new doors for the young producer and giving him the opportunity to form, with Stephen Fung Tak-lun, the Britpop-influenced band Dry. Lui and Fung will play their most popular numbers at the concert.
In 1996, Lui got another break when he was given the chance to co-produce Leon Lai's Perhaps. The album, featuring the hits Words of Love Not Yet Spoken and Perhaps, Maybe Not, However brought Lai a new level of stardom. "The first time I met Leon was in a recording studio. Of course, I'd seen him on television before that. I thought he was just an idol and a handsome guy that every woman loved. But every time I saw him, he changed the way I thought about him. He is dedicated to producing something good for his audience," Lui says.
After that, Lui and Lai went on to produce a series of popular and award-winning songs, such as Just Love Me For One Day, If I Can See You Again, I Love You Like This and the electronic dance songs Sugar In the Marmalade and Eyes Want to Travel.
Lui has also injected new blood into the scene by spotting Janice Vidal, Justin Lo (whom he signed to his production house, On Your Mark, in 2003) and RubberBand. While he was instrumental, Lui is quick to say the artists rose to fame on their own merits, noting Vidal's sweet voice, Lo's strong technique and writing ability, and RubberBand's distinct sound and socially relevant songs.
In recent years, the downturn in the Hong Kong music industry has meant fewer projects for local composers and producers. Lui urges musicians to think seriously about the issue. "Are we lagging behind? Are we doing what the market wants? Everyone in the industry needs to upgrade. The successes of the past mean nothing. It must be all about the future," he says.
Lui says his most challenging project is upgrading himself. "To move forward, I need to change - be it my mindset, the way I write songs, or my mentality. This is a big project," he says. "I've been in the industry and worked on my own philosophy for so long. Maybe it's time to start from zero."
Mark Lui, 8.15pm, June 21-23, HK Coliseum, 9 Cheong Wan Road, Hung Hom, HK$200-HK$580 Urbtix. Tel: 2734 9009