Pop diva Coco Lee and music producer Chiu Tsang-hei may look like an odd couple to be putting on a concert together, but they actually have a shared history stretching back almost two decades.
The unlikely pair met in 1997 when Chiu produced two songs on Lee's first Cantonese album, Be Careful Next Time, which remains the only Cantonese album she has produced in her two-decade musical career. Chiu later became her tour's musical director for the mainland and Asia. In an interview to discuss their upcoming crossover concert, they can't stop complimenting each other about their early collaboration.
So perhaps it is about time they did something together in their home city. The concert, titled Made in Hong Kong, partly serves as a reminder to the local audience that the 39-year-old was actually — to many people's surprise — born and raised here. Lee spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong before moving to San Francisco at the age of nine, and later returned after finishing high school.
Sitting in a luxurious suite in The Ritz-Carlton, where she married tycoon Bruce Rockowitz in 2011, Lee sounds excited as she describes her love of the golden era of Canto-pop in the 1980s, which is also the main theme of the concert. Alan Tam Wing-lun, Danny Chan Pak-keung and Anita Mui Yim-fong were, among others, role models for the teenage pop-star-wannabe.
"A lot of these songs affected my upbringing. They make you happy and forget all your troubles," Lee says. "Everyone will go back to the good old days while listening to these songs. Life is easier when you are younger, right?"
The concert will also serve as a challenge for the musical director and the singer. Lee has mostly performed in Putonghua and English, and has a Western style of singing. So all the Canto-pop classics are new songs for her. "I have been reciting the lyrics every day, every minute, when I have time," she says. "I am the kind of person who takes what I do very seriously."
Chiu, who has served as producer for artists like Mui and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, promises some surprises: "I hope the audience sees them as new songs, as we spent so much time rearranging them."
The pair's good taste is not to be doubted. Having worked with established artists such as George Lam Chi-cheung, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Hacken Lee in recent years, Chiu never stops looking for new music to understand what's going on in the industry.
Don't be surprised when the serious-looking producer says he has seen the music video of Pharrell's Happy about 60 times, and enjoys music such as OneRepublic, Imagine Dragons and "the new Mariah Carey", Ariana Grande.
Lee gets her taste in new music through a more unconventional channel — her two stepdaughters. The girls text and share music with her, and her latest discovery includes British R&B newcomer Sam Smith. "When I make my own music, I let them listen and see what they think," she says. "If they say they and their friends would like it, then it should be OK," she says.
Lee has an impressive résumé in the international pop industry. She has released singles that made the US charts, and she became the first Chinese singer to perform at the Academy Awards, when she performed A Love Before Time, theme song for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2001.
Yet she has received more attention overseas than at home.
Based here, Lee says Hong Kong has a special place in her heart and she is excited to be staging her first stadium concert in the city. But is the homecoming a dream come true, or does she regret never achieving great success here? A little bit of both, she says.
"I believe in faith. You've got to be grateful for everything you have and I am happy enough to have the chance to do this concert," she says. "If I really want to make it in Hong Kong, I should spend more time here and do more, which I hopefully can in the near future."
In the wake of her lavish wedding — which included guests such as Bruno Mars and Beyoncé, and made headlines for days in 2011 — the happy-go-lucky singer seems content with her family life. Lee has mentioned many times she feels blessed and grateful for the support of her stepdaughters, who will fly to Hong Kong for her coming concert, as well as her husband.
"He has been really supportive of what I do and has never asked me to give up anything in my career, especially when he sees I am most happy when performing on stage."
Still, Lee admits to have slowed down somewhat since her marriage, as she wanted to focus more on being a wife. "My husband works in a really high-stress environment, so when he comes home, I hope I can do anything to make him happy," she says.
And now, after receiving so much from her career and her family, she thinks it's time to give something back. The proceeds of the upcoming concert will be donated to the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, an organisation the couple has endorsed for years.
"When you can help people, it is a big accomplishment. Life is not just about gain," she says. "It makes you human when you can give back to the world."
Coco Lee X Chiu Tsang-hei Made in Hong Kong Charity Concert, July 5, 8.15pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$380-HK$580, HK Ticketing. hkticketing.com/eng