Leon Lai may be a great guy, but his singing still sucks

Yonden Lhatoo suggests it’s time to dethrone seemingly tone-deaf, out-of-tune kings of Canto-pop and revive an ailing industry with readily available fresh talent

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 6:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 May, 2016, 10:40am

I feel like the boy in that old story about the emperor’s new clothes as I write this. Does no one suspect that Leon Lai Ming is tone deaf?

I held my tongue over the past couple of weeks, as it seemed almost sacrilegious to criticise one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” of Canto-pop when all of Hong Kong was singing hymns in his praise after he managed to avert a public relations disaster for himself.

Lai, 49, had to cancel the first night of his concert series because the marquee he was to perform under was deemed a fire hazard. He was allowed to continue the next night after working out a compromise that should have been sorted much earlier.

The veteran performer and alleged singer was widely praised by everyone and their mums for his crisis-management skills, which were even contrasted with those of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, although I can’t for the life of me see the connection. It appears you can use anything and everything to attack Leung these days, even if you’re comparing apples to oranges, before you chuck them at him – but I digress.

Lai is so revered in this city that he was never in any real trouble over the concert fiasco – judging from the chatter, I daresay there were many fans out there who didn’t mind losing the nearly HK$3,000 they had paid for a ticket because it was all about “showing love and support for Leon”. My own hearing went a bit fuzzy trying to digest that.

Let me clarify here that I’m not disrespecting a medical condition that can be caused by genetic influence or brain damage. I’m just marvelling at multimillionaire, glorified karaoke singers who can’t distinguish between basic pitch changes – the kind of tone deafness that stems from a lack of musical training or education, and, as some experienced musicians have noted, can be tuned.

Let me further clarify: this is not character assassination; I don’t know much about Lai’s private life, but I’m sure everything they say about his charitable work, his contribution to youth development and his love of kittens is true. It’s just the singing part. And the awkward dancing. Actually, the whole “heavenly king” thing.

More than two decades ago, when my auditory senses were first assaulted by Lai’s purportedly dulcet tones, I remember saying to my Chinese friends in all honest incredulity: “But the guy is out of tune.” They laughingly tolerated the ignorant outsider.

At the risk of inviting a mob lynching by the formidable core of Lai’s fan base – an army of fanatical aunties and office ladies who could batter you to death with their LV handbags – I’m saying it again: “Hello? He’s still out of tune.”

Even more tone deaf than Lai, if such a state is possible, are the Canto-pop duo known as Twins. They are not twins and their music is rubbish. To date, I have yet to hear a song by the terrible two in which they share the same pitch as the rest of the band.

Their singing career has fizzled out these days, possibly due to a mass excavation of ear wax among the fan base.

I’ve often wondered why Canto-pop sucks so much, especially these days. Is it, as one theory goes, because Chinese is a tonal language and hitting the right notes can sometimes change the meaning of words?

A colleague who knows a bit about music dismissed the idea. “He’s just a lousy singer,” seems to be the educated guess.

Otherwise that would also beg the question: how come Mando-pop doesn’t suck so much, then?

There used to be a time, many years ago, when Canto-pop was cool throughout the region, including South Korea. Look at K-pop now in comparison.

What the industry needs is a breath of fresh air, and if it entails the dethroning of ageing, tin-eared idols, so be it. Listen to all those local and mainland singing contests on television. There are some really talented, hungry youngsters looking for a break.

For heaven’s sake.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post