AFTER 10 YEARS of self-imposed exile in the United States, one of Hong Kong's most prolific composers, Lam Man-yee, is coming home. And it's a prospect she's relishing. New York isn't her scene any more, says the former one-woman Canto-pop hit factory, whose name is synonymous with dozens of 1980s songs and film scores. During that decade Lam's name rolled in the credits of more than 50 Hong Kong films, from blockbusters such as Hong Kong 1941 to flops like Merry Go Round. Her music helped propel the likes of Alan Tam Wing-lun, Sally Yeh Xian-wen and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing to Canto-pop superstardom. But it all became too much and she left Hong Kong for New York. She plans to resettle in the SAR from April. But the homecoming party has been brought forward. Lam is one of the headline acts of CityFestival 2002, with a musical retrospective 'Lam Man-yee - Journey Of A Hong Kong Composer'. It's billed as a musical extravaganza: a tribute featuring three performances highlighting her best work in contemporary music, dance compositions and pop music. 'I don't want to call this my homecoming show because when I was planning it with Benny [Chia Chun-heng, Fringe Club director], I wasn't thinking about moving back here yet,' Lam says. Since then, she has decided to be closer to her family and friends. Like many Fringe Club projects, this one started as a germ of an idea. 'Benny and I were talking last year and he thought we should do something on my music,' Lam says. Others expressed interest and then the Leisure and Cultural Services Department wanted to co-present it. The three separate program-mes highlight Lam's accomplishments in different fields. The first, Sonic Visions - Contemporary Music Performance, consists of her compositions in contemporary classical music, performed by a string quartet from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. The second is Dances With Lam, a recital featuring the composer's best-loved scores for local dance troupes such as the City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), Y'Space and DanceArt (including East Is Red by CCDC and Is There Life On Mars? by DanceArt presented with fresh arrangements featuring vocalist Michelle Wiley). The last instalment, Smooth Jazz And Pop Concerts, takes Lam into a new arena in the first part and a reunion with friends in the second. 'I haven't done that much jazz before,' she says, explaining how the concert's music will be smooth rather than hard-core, and involve some of Hong Kong's finest jazz musicians, including guitarist Eugene Pao and pianist Ted Lo. As for the pop concert, Lam has been working through her contact book and says she is enticing 'stars' to perform with her. 'I can't say who they are, but there will be quite a few.' Lam was the 'It' girl of her time, a darling of the music and movie industry. Many will remember the haunting scores of films such as Love In A Fallen City and Heart Of A Dragon, or pop songs such as Story Of Oshin (sung by Judy Ong) and Empty Chair (by rocker-crooner Danny Summer). Lam looks back on those days wistfully. 'I was so proud then, thinking I was such a professional,' she muses. The composer had a reputation for being intensely meticulous; were there times when she stepped on a few toes? 'Maybe, but it was always to do with the music,' she says. Lam thinks the Hong Kong music industry has changed immeasurably since her time at the top. 'I feel like I am on a different planet,' she says of the Canto-pop world. These days, after all, stars are often more about packaging than talent. She still treasures her countless awards from TVB, RTHK and Commercial Radio. But as much as the work was rewarding, it was draining and, by 1987, she was exhausted. In an effort to escape the pressure of writing guaranteed hits for demanding record executives, Lam went to New York for a change of pace. Meanwhile, the SAR's fickle entertainment world moved on and she was soon forgotten. She remains philosophical about that. 'People in Hong Kong are realistic. If they don't see you all the time, they don't think of you. It's natural,' she says. New York was a real eye-opener and a humbling experience, the composer says, adding that even after a decade in the city, she didn't quite 'fit' into a landscape she describes as extremely competitive. Success in that city required connections she didn't have, Lam explains. 'In New York there are just so many writers and composers, it's difficult to establish yourself. It's all about networking.' Lam was not prepared to play that part of the game. When her agent sent her to meet people at film fairs, her business cards would remain in her pocket, she says. 'I just can't walk up to people and make small talk. You can call me anti-social but I can't do parties. It's just not me. I can mingle with friends but not with strangers.' She managed to eke out a living as a composer, writing advertising jingles and occasionally returning to Hong Kong for projects with dance companies. Luckily, her shyness did not stop her from meeting her husband, Dan Thaler, in New York in 1998. As a workaholic, Lam, in her 40s, had never thought about marriage until then. 'I really believe in soulmates, because I found mine,' she says of Thaler, a retired tree surgeon from Montclaire, New Jersey, and her biggest fan. Thaler knows all her songs and when she shuts herself in their music room to compose, he stands devotedly by the door and listens, she says. Born into a middle-class family in Hong Kong, Lam was introduced to the piano at four, but insists she was always a rebellious child. 'I knew I loved music, but couldn't stand all the hours of practice and the study of theory.' So Lam did the minimum work to pass her piano exams - and then got a distinction, she says, matter-of-factly. She excelled at both the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome in 1973, and from 1979, the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany, where she studied for three years. This was after she had finished an undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. Dreading the study of 'boring' musical theory and history, she steadfastly avoided any course involving the subjects. Until 1982, Lam wanted to compose contemporary works, but she found its market limited. Churning out hit tunes was a much shorter road to fame, but she continued to create less commercial music too. 'I really enjoyed doing both, I don't believe you [should] sell out your creativity when you are writing popular songs or scoring movies,' Lam says, explaining how music complements the mood of a film. 'If I can successfully do that, then I think it's good.' The return to Hong Kong means Lam and her husband must say goodbye to their New Jersey home. Thaler supports the move and jokes that he can teach English in Hong Kong schools. 'He feels that I have already built such a great network in Hong Kong and that I shouldn't remain in the US, where there are just so many composers,' she says. Right now, Lam is in good company. At the press conference for her show, she enjoys the moral support of her husband and friends, fellow composer Anthony Lun Wing-leung and singer Stephanie Che Yuen-yuen. Lam claims a return to the limelight is hard for someone who has laid low for a decade. 'I am doing all the publicity work now because, starting next week, I have to shut myself out and focus on the shows,' Lam says. The comeback concerts may have people knocking at her door again, but she is taking things slowly. 'I want to enjoy myself more, I limit my work to six hours a day because my body isn't up to it any more, it's difficult to hunch over a piano all day.' Instead, she plans to use the time experimenting with new concepts. And to that end she recently tried mixing surround sounds and computer-generated music. 'I want to try everything, but if it's not good no one will hear about it because I won't release it.' Lam Man-yee - Journey Of A Hong Kong Composer. Sonic Visions - Contemporary Music Performance, January 15, 8pm, City Hall Theatre, Central, $200, $120. Dances With Lam, January 19 and 20, 8pm, Sheung Wan City Centre, $140, $90. Smooth Jazz And Pop Concerts, February 6 to 7, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, TST, $350, $250, Urbtix 2734 9009.