Play it again, Lam
The timing of singer Sandy Lam Yik-lin's comeback could hardly be better. With the lamentations of Canto-pop pundits that there are no real stars in the business any more, following the untimely deaths of Roman Tam Pak-sin, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Anita Mui Yim-fong, it was only natural that Hong Kong's hungry press should have taken more than a passing interest in Lam's return
to the stage.
Two months ago, the name Sandy Lam might have resided in the 'where are they now?' section of artists. She had 10 years at the top, from the late 1980s to the 90s, with a string of hit albums and sold-out concerts. And just when she was at the pinnacle of her profession, six years ago, she gave it all up for love and motherhood and seemed to fade out of the spotlight. Her most recent original album, Truly Sandy, appeared in 2001, the same year she last performed in Hong Kong. In an industry where fame is measured by one's visibility, some thought she had moved on.
Lam is treading carefully as she steps back into the Hong Kong limelight. She has chosen to test the water by performing a series of concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, in collaboration with singer and composer Anthony Lun Wing-leung. There's a hush about pending recording deals. And at a packed press conference recently she played the part of the true diva by turning up more than an hour late, accompanied by an entourage including her image consultant and management-company figures who fussed over her before every photo opportunity.
So it comes as a surprise that when the time finally arrives for an audience with Lam, she is demure and warm, polite if reserved. She hasn't changed a bit, looking girlishly sexy at 37 in a black top, billowy trousers and a leather jacket, her diminutive frame heighten by stiletto heels. It had seemed as if Lam were intent on easing herself off the Hong Kong music scene. 'No, no,' she protests. 'I'm yearning to see my fans as much as they are waiting to see me. It's just that in the past few years my career path has taken me to Taiwan, Japan and mainland China. It isn't as if I haven't been working; I just take longer to produce an album.' So her concerts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic don't really amount to a comeback, she says. Like many of her contemporaries Lam has courted the China market, notably when she performed, in Putonghua, the first number of musical Les Miserables at last May's Beijing opening, presided over by impresario Cameron Mackintosh.
'I've been working steadily, but maybe the work hasn't been highly visible in Hong Kong. I've also been performing in shows on the mainland and at private functions,' she says. Lam has called Beijing home for five months now; before that she lived in Shanghai for two and a half years and Taiwan from 1998 to 99. 'I've always liked Beijing,' she says. 'I feel that in China, if you really want to make music and experience the culture, then Beijing's the place to be.' Her previous sojourns, however, were really the result of circumstances. The time spent in Taiwan allowed her to be close to her husband, singer-songwriter Jonathan Lee Zhongchen, and their daughter Hsi Erh (now five and a half). Living in Shanghai allowed Lam to be close to her mother, who was ill. Beijing, however, has proved the most inspirational. 'There's a sense of history to the place and the people have a lot of pride. The new generation of Beijing musicians have that background and are bold. I am learning every day. Even the direct, opinionated way they speak is something new. I really enjoy it.' The other stops probably reflect the restlessness in an idealistic singer who just wanted to make music, but who also had to put up with the scrutiny celebrities have to endure in Hong Kong. 'I'm not fond of the limelight,' she admits. 'I just prefer to live in private. There are many things I would like to do. I want to be free but there are certain things I know I can't do.'
Lam admits she greatly misses Hong Kong, especially visits to wet markets and chatting with stallholders and housewives. 'That connection between people is so amazing, and that's what music is all about too. I still have the feeling of being adrift sometimes, always asking myself, 'Am I going to make this city my home?' It's a very important process to go through,' Lam says.
But life wasn't always balanced, she realises. 'You were a singer and were always put on a pedestal, and there was no way you could come down to Earth and look at things from a different perspective. With hindsight, I felt I made things difficult for myself and for other people by indulging myself too much in my artistic world. That's why marriage, motherhood and my mother's illness brought me back to reality. I value people around me a lot more now. Previously I
would always say, 'I want to do this, why can't you
see it my way?' Of course, you're younger then and full of yourself.'
Therein lies one of the reasons for Lam's enduring appeal in Hong Kong, says Commercial Radio 2 music director Vani. 'She doesn't have a very high public profile and this was true even when she lived in Hong Kong. You won't see her singing in some housing-estate mall like a lot of the new singers today. When she makes an appearance, you can be sure it will be something major or meaningful. So she's always maintained this mysterious air.'
The concerts with Lun and the Philharmonic are a surprise because Lam still enjoys a dedicated following, despite her rare appearances in Hong Kong, and would be able to fill the Hong Kong Coliseum on her own. Tickets for the first three shows have sold out, so an extra show has been added on March 7.
'Anthony has always been a very good musical partner in all that I've done, but he's also a very good singer and a good performer. The fact that I get to work with the Hong Kong Phil and Anthony is a bonus. It's a wonderful opportunity,' she says.
Much of the industry's respect for Lam stems from the fact that she has always dared to be different. While other Canto-pop singers were warbling soppy ballads, Lam grabbed the bull by the horns and launched into R&B and fusion in the late 1980s. 'You did what you had to do,' she says. 'There was no rhyme or reason, no right or wrong. It was a fun time. When I wanted to do that there was a team of people who were there to support me. As a Cantonese speaker it was interesting to find a way to interpret a Hong Kong song with an R&B and jazz-fusion element. It was very fulfilling, whether the market accepted it or not.' With so many new singers joining the fray in the last few years, including Twins, Yumiko Cheng, Shawn Yu, Edison Chen, Shine and Boyz, the older generation of artists such as
Lam have been relegated to the media sidelines - although not necessarily in sales and popularity.
'The general perception is that you're only popular and sell a lot when you're in the papers every day. That's a myth,' says Vani. 'The older singers just have older fans who don't go out and scream at concerts, but some of these singers are selling so well they still collect million-dollar royalty cheques. I don't think Sandy's popularity
Shy, and not a typical leggy beauty aspiring to be a celebrity, Lam began her career as a voice behind a microphone at Commercial Radio after an audition in 1982. She was only 16 and still at school and could work only part-time. Within two years she had turned full-time and had a recording contract with CBS/Sony. She released her eponymous debut album in 1985. With her naturally fair complexion, big, bushy hair and high, tremulous vocals, Lam could have been mistaken for a young Japanese idol. Her record label played up the similarities by picking Japanese hits for her to cover.
To the industry she was just another disc jockey trying to cash in on her popularity by releasing records. It wasn't until her 1987 album Grey that people started taking the disc jockey seriously as a singer. Both the title song and a cover version of Berlin's Take My Breath Away (from the movie Top Gun) shot up the charts, bringing Lam her first awards.
The transformation of Sandy Lam from 'Japanese' teen idol to sophisticated city woman came in 1988, with new manager Clarence Hui Yuen, a new recording contract with WEA and a new creative collaboration with Lun. Her City Rhythm albums firmly established Lam as a singer with ability. Lun, who met Lam in 1987, is unstinting in his praise for the hard work she has put into her career.
'After Grey, Sandy realised there was room for improvement in her singing,' he says. 'She had a lot of film offers but turned them all down and instead spent four days a week taking singing lessons from Kong Wa and Teresa Carpio. She was always learning and she hasn't stopped since. Not many singers today would be willing to put in that much.'
Lam also holed herself up in an academy in Maryland in the United States in 1990 to pick up the finer points of dancing; she returned as a well-rounded performer who could tackle singing and dancing with gusto. 'I daresay Sandy is now the only female singer left who gives her audience the assurance that they will always get a quality performance. You can't say that for many of the more acknowledged top singers,' says Vani.
Lam's rise to the top would also have been impossible without the help of certain erstwhile romantic interests, such as Clarence Hui and her husband. Other collaborators included Singaporean singer-songwriter Dick Lee and lyricists such as Thomas Chow Lai-mou and the late Richard Lam Tsun-keung. All played an important role in helping shape the cosmopolitan urban groove in Lam. 'I was very fortunate in having their support. That was golden creative period for producers, singers and songwriters,' she recalls.
Lam and her team spawned more than 30 albums - in Cantonese, Putonghua, English and Japanese - in two decades. In 1991 alone Lam released eight albums, including compilations, which sold 1.85 million copies. Sales of her 1995 album Love, Sandy have now topped three million copies around Asia. She also took time out to develop her Japanese market, which flourished briefly.
Like all pioneers, Lam has won some and lost some. Not all her albums have gone down well with her fans. The concept album Wildflower, released in 1991 after one of Lam's early collaborations with Lee, was hailed artistically as a watershed in her career, but it turned fans off by being too ballad-laden and difficult to understand.
As subsequent albums became more jazz-fusion-centric, Lam lost some of her mainstream fans but garnered a legion of diehards who still eagerly await her discs and concerts. 'It's fulfilling knowing how important my music has been to a bunch of people. It doesn't matter how many; it's a big experience just knowing I have touched their lives. Maybe I am idealistic but I believe in dreams and going for it. I don't really care what other people think,' adds Lam. In 1997 she made a brief foray onto the stage when she became one of the first Canto-pop stars to sing and star in a home-grown musical, Snow Wolf Lake, opposite Jacky Cheung Hok-yau.
Her musical pursuits have earned her a comfortable niche in which she is 'not quite commercial, yet not totally uncommercial'. 'I never really expected to be a singer. I went into it purely for the love of music. That's why I felt free to come out with the not-so-mainstream stuff.' Her determined pursuit of her goals and her strength of conviction, not to mention her femininity, have made her a gay icon in Hong Kong, together with other 'strong' women celebrities such as Mui, Faye Wong and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia.
'I've heard that and I'm very flattered,' says Lam delightedly. 'I have a lot of gay friends who are all very interesting and beautiful and they appreciate many things in life. They have ideals and they dare to go after their dreams. That takes a lot of courage - to live with the fact that you are different from the norms set by society. I think we are very similar, with my music, and there is a connection.' Lam's single-mindedness extends beyond her musical ideals. She met her husband while she was in Taiwan working on her Putonghua albums. Before long, rumours spread of an affair between the two. He was still married to former Hong Kong disc jockey Chu Wai-yan and both he and Lam vehemently denied the gossip.
When Lam showed up at the Commercial Radio Ultimate Chart Awards on New Year's Day 1998, her black, closely-buttoned coat failed to hide a slight swelling in her midriff. 'Is she pregnant or did she just put on weight?' headlines screamed. It was the former; Lee divorced quickly and married Lam a few months later in a private ceremony in Vancouver. 'I'm very comfortable with who I am as a woman. I'm quite traditional, I wanted to get married, to love a man and be loved in return, be a mother and nurture my children. At the same time, I can be very honest with my feelings,' says Lam today.
Lam collaborated on several albums with her husband before they announced they would be going their own creative ways. It led to fierce speculation that the couple's marriage was on the rocks, especially because they were seldom seen in public together. Lam smiles wryly. 'They will write it anyway whether it is true or not,' she replies, adding that every couple needs breathing space.
'We'd already worked on so many Putonghua albums, two English albums and one Cantonese album; it was about time we did other things. A producer and composer cannot just write and produce for one singer. Of course, in a marriage, you're already seeing each other every day. When you work together as well, I think your perspectives are not as clear,' she adds.
'There's no good or bad about it. It's just a different style of working. While working with Jonathan, I learned a lot that helps me when I produce myself. It was a very good experience.' In our conversation, questions about Lee are often deftly turned to general topics and Lam is obviously not willing to elaborate on her personal life. About her daughter, however, she admits to being a little more forthcoming. 'I'm quite protective as a mother. I have to keep reminding myself not to be overly so. I used to feel strongly about talking about her to the press because I felt it was unfair to her. But I've realised she will eventually have to deal with the fact of who her mother is. When we go out and people come up to me for autographs, she will have to know how to deal with that,' says Lam.
'I think each person has a destiny. The fact is she is my daughter. Sometimes she asks me why I'm not like other mothers, and don't work and stay at home all the time. I think there's something for her to learn and something for me to learn from that. She has to accept whom she will be but I have to provide her with a stable environment.'
Domestic life seems to agree with Lam, who appears content. Cooking, one of her favourite pastimes, has led to a memoir of sorts she began about a year ago. The book, to be published in April, will take the form of a search for her roots through food. 'It will concern Shanghainese food. I went around my favourite restaurants and talked to the chefs, who taught me how to cook. I wanted to imitate what I had as a child,' says Lam.
She is also ready to pick up where she left off musically, with a new album planned for September. And the concert with Lun, whom she describes as 'the person I trust to do everything right', will occupy her for the next month. Lam and Lun will be sharing the stage, performing a host of favourites from both their repertoires, including her famous hit, At Least There Was You, and his, Man Behind The Piano, and a few duets such as Come What May, from the original score of the movie Moulin Rouge! Lun, who is as competent on the piano as he is at the microphone, is working closely with the Philharmonic to arrange the songs.
Lam admits to countless meetings because the project is so important for everyone involved, especially herself. 'For the first two years of motherhood I dedicated a lot of time to my baby,' she says. 'In the past year she has become quite independent and has her own group of friends. It's now easier for me to strike a balance between my career and home.'
For the foreseeable future that balance will be struck in Beijing, she adds. 'I guess I'm just looking for that personal space that will give me the chance to do what I want to - be away from the 24-hour Hong Kong entertainment environment, where you're always Sandy Lam.'