THIS time last year, Douglas Li was basking in his 15 minutes of fame. A song he had composed had just been declared top of the pops at the sixth annual Songwriters Quest. Within weeks, Canto-pop star Sally Yeh had confirmed she would be using his song, an 'alternative' love tune called Can We Talk?, on her next album. Li, as composer and co-lyricist, was thrilled. He had put his heart and soul into the song, weaving in themes of loneliness in the big city and illustrating a society where people had no time to talk to one another, not even their lovers. Whether for its emotional lyrics or rhapsodic melody, Can We Talk? was a resounding success. It made it to number one on some music charts and lingered near the top of others. And Yeh's album, as they often do, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. A year later, with Can We Talk? just another golden oldie, Li has counted his earnings. Including the cash prize at the awards event - which he split with a co-writer - an advance from the record label, his share of royalties from album sales and countless hours of radio time, he made just $25,000. 'It's pretty bad here,' he said. 'Being a composer anywhere else in the world is completely different from being a composer in Hong Kong. In the US, if you have a hit song, you can survive conservatively for five years without really having to work on anything else. In Hong Kong, if you write a song and it becomes a hit, you can probably only survive a few months.' For Li, last year's victory was bittersweet. It both cemented his enthusiasm for songwriting and forced him to face the truth about songwriting in Hong Kong: that it is under-appreciated and under-paid. Most of Hong Kong's million-dollar-selling Canto-pop stars, including Leon Lai, Anita Mui and Aaron Kwok, do not write their own music. Instead, they rely upon composers and lyricists - amateurs as well as veterans - to supply them with a constant slew of slushy ballads, pop songs and rap-inspired techno tunes. The recording industry here has something of an assembly-line quality to it: find someone who can sing and has the right image, pick a song from the thousands that are submitted to record companies every year by aspiring writers, record it ... and a star is born. For the new discovery there are record deals, media interviews, overseas concerts. But for the composers who labour over the melodies and spend hours tinkering with piano keys and guitar strings, or the lyricists who rhapsodise about togetherness and heartbreak, there is only more of the same. There is clearly a huge disparity between what songwriters deserve and what they get. With rare exceptions, they make only a fraction of what a top-selling performer might pull in from their songs. Not surprisingly, there are very few songwriters in Hong Kong who devote their time solely to composing exquisite music and touching lyrics. Most simply can't afford it. Instead, this creative expression happens on weekends, during lunch-breaks and after work. It's a situation which some in the music industry are trying to rectify. 'Songwriters are tremendously important to the industry,' says Susanna Ng, regional managing director for EMI Music Publishing and the chairman of the Music Publishers Association. 'We are planning to increase our investment in new talent, including giving writers under contract to us an advance for their living expenses.' There are thousands of struggling music and lyric writers in Hong Kong, many hoping to sell one of their songs to a publisher attached to a record label. Once a piece of work is either recorded or performed in public, its writers are eligible for membership of a non-profit organisation referred to as CASH - something of a misnomer - the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong Ltd. 'If a writer works hard and people like his or her work, they can make a decent living. Otherwise, it's very difficult,' said Angelina Law, senior manager of corporate communications for CASH, which has more than 1,300 published songwriters on its books. The price of exclusive publishing rights for a song varies between $3,500 and $10,000, paid by a publisher looking for new material on behalf of a performer. The real money - if any - for the writers comes in the form of royalties from record sales, concert performances, radio broadcasts and even karaoke. Even so, exposure would have to be extremely high and records would have to sell in the hundreds of thousands to make it worthwhile to the writer. Just 6.25 per cent of the retail price of every album is allocated to the writers but, because each song has a different composer and lyricist, the profits are minimal. The Canto-pop scene is changing - slowly - in favour of the forgotten writer. Some radio stations mention the names of the composer and author after a song is played and Commercial Radio has even stopped playing cover versions (Cantonese lyrics recorded over Western hits) to encourage originality. And to further encourage newcomers, CASH organises the annual Songwriters Quest. 'New songwriters don't know where to go and who to contact,' said Law. 'Even if, in the contest, their work is not chosen, publishers will jot down the songs they like and ask us later on.' There were more than 400 entries to this year's competition, whittled down to 12 for the final, held on October 22. All but one of the songs were about that old favourite: love. 'Maybe it is easier for songwriters to express their emotions in a love song,' said Law. 'They are also more commercial, which is something the judges always look for.' Successful songs in Hong Kong follow a tried-and-tested formula - familiar to anyone who has heard a Canto-pop melody. But publishing company executives are looking for more adventurous work. 'If a songwriter has potential and doesn't win the contest, we always see if we should promote them afterwards,' said EMI's Ng. 'If we find a fresh writer, he will need time to develop his music, prepare demo tapes and learn about the industry and what works. If someone doesn't know enough about the industry, they can't make the right music for the right artiste. 'It would be good to find a special song, something stylish, instead of the ordinary ones we always hear. Some of what I've been hearing recently didn't give me a fresh feeling. It was too 'pop' for me. These writers should be doing something more adventurous and exciting.' But the only finalist to adopt a fresh approach, Lee Siu-man (who calls himself Schumann) failed to capture the judges' imagination. Instead of the usual love themes, Lee, a broody 22-year-old former computer science student, had written an acerbic, political song called You Can't Show Off Your Love after an ancient Chinese proverb about the perils of showing off your money. Sung by Cheung Lap-kei - whose most recent claim to fame is his status as an ex-boyfriend of buxom Chinese actress Ronnie Yip - this jazzy, buoyant song is about a Hong Kong man who keeps a mistress in China, something Lee says everyone is either talking about, or doing. 'Being on a crowded train is horrible / But now you don't mind / Because your mistress will be waiting for you. She is going to keep you warm with her body / And shower you with her hot kisses / If you give her easy money. It is the spirit of a free market economy.' Lee said: 'I've written 50 songs but haven't done anything with any of them. I chose this song because it is much more fun. A lot of love songs don't give the writer too much scope for creativity.' It was followed by an endless stream of melancholic love tunes: Being Alone, Hoping and Set Me Free (which includes a throwaway line about a bungy-jumping experience). Lyrics, for the most part, were formatted and familiar,such as this from A Light: 'I switch on a light / As I wait for my lover alone in the dark. You used to say I was the most important. But how come you have disappeared? My heart died as the sun came up.' Among the better of these ballads was Never Devoted To You, written by an unlikely songsmith, Stephen Ho. A senior executive at Chase Manhattan, the bespectacled and be-suited Ho doesn't quite fit the creative-composer image, although he has been writing songs since he was at school. However, he and his lyricist partner - an engineer - picked up the second runner-up prize of $10,000 and are negotiating a deal with a record company. Never Devoted To You is a melancholy tune about a man's denial of his love for a woman who left him, which the pair wrote 10 years ago after a poignant high-school experience. Ho says he submitted the song - one of 20 he composed between 1975 and 1987 - because it struck him as the most marketable. 'People will try to stick to some proven formula and most melodies are quite predictable. It is what the market demands and what people are exposed to here. You can't really blame them. Hong Kong is basically a pure pop scene. A hit here is often more about promotion and packaging, which is sometimes more important than the quality of the song itself.' That is a side of the industry very familiar to first runner-up Erica Li, creative director of Warner Music. Her entry, You Have Helped Me Appreciate Myself, is a love song. 'About 90 per cent of the songs I write about are about love. I think Hong Kong people can relate to that. They don't worry about starvation or politics or other issues. They worry about love.' She began her musical career as half of a duo called Paradox and became a songwriter when a producer asked her to write Cantonese words for Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now in 1988. Since then, she has written songs for Jacky Cheung, Leon Lai and Alan Tam and has just completed a song for Sally Yeh which will be featured on her next album. But she has every intention of hanging on to her day job. 'Writing songs is very unstable, and you have to wait and wait and wait to be paid. I haven't written a really big hit yet but if I ever do something for Jacky Cheung that sells in Hong Kong and all over Southeast Asia, and I get the royalties from broadcasting and karaoke and maybe even a movie, then I can be a millionaire. But I'm not that materialistic. I still live in a government housing estate.' Some local singers, however, do write their own material, like 23-year-old Ma Chun-wai, who also works for TVB as an emcee. He sang his own composition, Our Love Will Last Our Whole Lives, for the Songwriters Quest judges. 'I think a singer should write all his own songs,' he said. 'There is no solid musical training here for artistes. Singers should be aware of high writing and composition techniques and it is a little shameful that we do not learn music as an art.' Writer Frances Chiu, a marketing executive with Apple Computers, learned music as religion, although she has made the transition from writing Chinese Christian music to 'secular' work. 'I used to write about life, people and society,' she said. 'But now I like to write about reflections and romance, because they say everyone can feel love and have experiences with it. It's more relevant than writing about your grandma.' For the Songwriters Quest, she submitted a song called Lost Mail about a letter which goes missing. The idea for the lyrics struck her when she saw a 'Return to sender' envelope in a neighbour's mailbox one day. 'I wondered how a person might feel like if she was like a lost letter, floating around, not being able to find someone to belong to. It's a sad song.' But it was neither a sad song nor a political song that most impressed this year's judges - music arrangers, singers and producers. It was once again a love song, To Love A Bit More And To Love Deeper, written by 23-year-old computer programmer Lau Cho-tak. He wrote the song based on 'the feelings of other people as they describe them to me'. In addition to the $30,000 cash prize, Lau and his co-writer also attracted the attention of Polygram. The company wants to reserve publishing rights to the song while deciding which of its artists is best-suited to record it. His recent triumph also seems to have spurred him on: he has decided to opt out of the cerebral world of computers and will start working full-time for a music publishing company to help manage performers and their repertoires. It's a dream which last year's winner Douglas Li also followed and today he is a full-time writer and music producer. 'I'm still trying to survive from writing songs because it's what I really like. It's tough because it's my biggest interest and it's the only thing that keeps me going. I look at really successful songwriters like David Foster and Babyface and I wish I could be like them. But they are in a different league, and that is just a dream.'