THERE IS A SENSE OF amused hesitancy when Kay Tse On-kei brings up an innocuous question recently posed by her young son: What is the meaning of "milestones"?
"He encountered the word and came to us for an explanation," says Tse of her six-year-old son with her husband, singer-songwriter Louis Cheung Kai-chung. "It's quite funny. I was like, 'Oh, you're only six, what milestones can you have at that age?' And then I suddenly thought to myself: what are my own milestones?"
It's not that difficult a question for the 36-year-old pop singer, who was named as one of Hong Kong's Ten Outstanding Young Persons in 2010, although she admits that she has no career goals. "I have no specific targets," she stresses. "I actually have none. I just want to have the freedom [to do my music]. I'm like those kids who can't stop running when they're let loose on the grass. I'm in that state right now," she adds.
To others, Tse's milestones are apparent. Her catchy 2008 song, Wedding Card Street, wasn't just championed as the number one Canto-pop tune of the year at local award ceremonies, it also left a lasting impression on the collective local consciousness because of its concern for the consequences of our city's urban renewal plans. The controversy over Wan Chai's Lee Tung Street - the nickname of which gave Tse's song its title - has served to remind everyone of the song's message about conservation.
So it's no surprise to note that the song is on the set list for Tse's upcoming concert with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. Named after the Teresa Teng Li-chun song The Moon is Like My Heart, the programme will include rearranged versions of five ballads by the Mandarin pop icon, including timeless titles such as I Only Care About You and I Wish You a Long Life. Chew Hee-chiat, the resident conductor of the orchestra will preside over the numbers. It's the second collaboration between Tse and the orchestra - after a two-song performance at a charity gig in 2012 - and her second recent rendition of Teng's classics, which she performed in a tribute to Teng on June 25.
"To me, Teng Li-chun was a definitive figure when it comes to the gentle image of Chinese women," says Tse. "She was tender, had a very warm and sweet voice, and brought out the sentiment of both home and nation in an expressive way. When I was growing up, my parents always played her albums; they are very shy people, so they sang only privately to themselves. I was often listening to Teng's music at home." Tse has studied Teng's singing techniques, and others. "I love to observe the way a singer takes a breath at a certain point in a song - that in itself is a way of expressing emotions," she says. "I'm appreciative of the tiniest details."
Yet while Teng has been an inevitable point of reference, Tse attributes the influence of the Cantonese rock band Beyond - and particularly their late frontman Wong Ka-kui, who died 20 years ago in a stage accident during the filming of a game show in Japan - as a major motivation behind her decision to pursue a music career of her own.
"I listened to Beyond a lot when I was young," says Tse. "I don't like them for the rebelliousness of rock music or anything like that; I admire the fact that they are all flesh and blood human beings, that they're living their lives in an unpretentious way. The band taught that working in music is not the same thing as being stars. Musicians are real, ordinary people: they can laugh and cry and they are part of society. I'm influenced by Ka-kui's [creative attitude] in that, when you listen to my music, you are learning about my life."
She was discovered by composer and lyricist Adrian Chow Bok-yin during her winning turn at a Hong Kong University singing contest in 2002. The two have a fruitful singer-producer partnership that has spawned a number of popular songs. The results are refreshingly different from the typical love ballads on the Canto-pop market.
Tse's latest hit - titled The Best of Time , referencing Charles Dickens - is inspired by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and has already been taken up by some as the theme song of the proposed Occupy Central movement.
Tse describes her brainstorming sessions with Chow for their music collaboration as "a review of life".
"It's not easy to come up with ideas, and it always takes us a long time [to decide on the direction of the new songs]," she says. "We think about what has touched us, what we really want to say. It's not about turning the trendiest topics into songs. I think music is most precious when it's a direct expression of your own thoughts. I want our music to come from our souls."
She has overcome her fair share of adversity since her career debut: getting pregnant while still an emerging pop star in 2006; undergoing surgery for pneumothorax in 2008; and being treated for depression after a long bout of negative press in 2009.
Then there was her enforced exile from the TVB network, a result of the copyright disputes between the television channel and the so-called "Big Four" recording companies.
Tse is now in a much better place, mentally and professionally. She signed with a Taiwanese music label in March, and is in the process of recording two albums, her ninth in Cantonese and her second in Putonghua.
Her TVB exile wasn't all bad news: "It was a good occasion for me to think over things," she says of the impasse that began in late 2009 and ended in mid-March. "I was frequently seen on TV and in commercials before that, and my career was quite badly hurt by the conflict. But when I thought about it, I realised that I wasn't promoting my music just to be popular and in the spotlight. There are actually a lot of platforms for you to share your music with the world."
And what about her personal milestones? "Milestones don't necessarily have to be very big achievements," she says. "They can be small touching moments in your life. Whether it's with your son, your mum or your other half, when you feel for an instant that your hearts are connected, that you're very close together, that's an important milestone in itself.
"So when my little kid asked me about the word, I asked him, 'Have you come across any happy things today? They can be the milestones of your day, too,'" she says.
Kay Tse, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, July 26, 8pm, July 28, 3pm, HK$150-HK$300, Urbtix. Inquiries: 3185 1600