DRESSED IN A ritzy black suit with a glittering diamond leopard-shaped brooch on his left shoulder, flamboyant Canto-pop icon Roman Tam Pak-sin was giving his all: singing, dancing and filling an almost bare stage with the sheer force of his personality. I watched his solo show in an auditorium aboard the Superstar Leo packed with Gucci-clad tai-tais, and was moved by the wide range of styles covered by his classic hits, Carmen, Romantic Swordsman and Below The Lion Rock. He had no need for fancy backdrops or props; his music, unique dancing style and charm were enough for the entranced audience. As he belted out his songs, he proved yet again that he was an irreplaceable star, one of the most respected in Hong Kong's firmament. It was March last year when he gave that one-hour comeback concert to celebrate his recovery from a ruptured ulcer in his liver. It was a memorable night for me, not only because it was the only time I saw Tam perform, but also because I interviewed him after the show. I felt I had known him all my life. As a child in the 1980s, I remember sitting on a tiny stool in front of the TV watching him sing theme songs to martial-arts dramas. He looked like a serious man. By the 90s, he seemed more fun. Tam appeared on a Commercial Radio game show, hosted by the Soft and Hardcore Kids (Jan Lamb Hoi-fung and Eric Kot Man-fai), and his youthful attitude and cheeky sense of humour shocked the audience. Meanwhile, his hit song Bad Lover was winning over a new generation of fans. At school, we held contests in the classroom singing and dancing to Bad Lover. Later, when I started going to rave parties, Tam was there too, bumping and grinding in chiffon and sequins. Back aboard Superstar Leo, Tam joined me in the ship's VIP room, sinking into a comfortable sofa with megastar aplomb. One of his entourage brought him a coffee. Even up close, the 51-year-old singer seemed to glow with health and energy. His stage outfit had been replaced with a casual black top and trousers in startling, look-at-me red. I asked first what I wanted to know most: didn't he think he was a bit old for raves? 'Never remind yourself how old you are and why you should not be hanging out with young people,' Tam said. 'Many youngsters are my good friends.' True. Lately, Tam had switched his focus from performing to nurturing a new generation of singers. One disciple was pop idol Joey Yung Cho-yee. Tam did not have a mentor when he started out, but he did have idols, namely the Beatles. The boy from Guangxi moved to Hong Kong in 1962 and found work as a trainee tailor, trainee bank teller, then a guard at the now-demolished Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park. His parents had instilled in him a passion for music, but it was not until 1967 that Tam formed his own band, The Four Steps. It was later renamed Roman and The Four Steps 'when I realised I could sing'. Five years later, Tam was off to what he thought would be greener pastures. He formed a superstar billing with Lydia 'Fei Fei'' Shum Tin-har but it was a short-lived partnership, lasting only a year. Thankfully, the pair remained life-long friends. Tam's solo career also failed to meet his expectations; Mandarin artists such as Teresa Tang dominated the scene in the early 1970s and Tam cut his losses as Japan beckoned. By the time he hit Hong Kong again, Tam had mastered the skills needed for music production, for marketing his image and for making himself a legend. In 1976 he was hired to sing TVB's theme tunes. Thousands like me tuned in; Tam became a household name, and the rest, as they say, is history. On his sofa, Tam lit a cigarette and inhaled, which seemed a good moment to bring up the matter of his health. 'I realised my health is most important. If I was not healthy enough it would have taken a month instead of a week to recover from the illness,' he said of his liver ulcer. He had started exercising for two hours a day, he revealed, and was living life by the maxim 'tomorrow is another day', stolen from his favourite book, Gone With The Wind. But his new regimen could not prevent liver cancer. News that he had the disease shocked the SAR two months later, in May last year. Tam seemed to react to the diagnosis with characteristic energy, seeking treatment from both Western and Chinese medical experts. He even consulted a qi gong master and went to Sichuan to absorb the 'spiritual air'. Since July this year, he had been admitted to hospital four times. Last month it was reported that his weight had dropped to 32kg - a huge contrast to the apparently healthy man I had interviewed 18 months before. Between hospital stints he seemed determined to live normally, and was spotted out and about with friends, shopping and dining. Then, at about 11pm on October 14, he was readmitted to Queen Mary Hospital, his friend Fei Fei at his side. At the end of our hour-long interview, Tam broke the news that he was planning a solo concert this September at the Hong Kong Coliseum. 'I'm really looking forward to it,' he said. That concert never took place.