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Music

Joyce Cheng on defying the haters and her first solo concerts in Hong Kong

Canadian singer and actress daughter of late comedienne Lydia Sum and singer Adam Cheng has faced her fair share of criticism, from comments about her weight to her Cantonese, but finally she’s come into her own

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2018, 7:38pm

It’s not been easy for Joyce Cheng Yan-yee. You might think that being the daughter of famous parents – late comedienne Lydia Sum Tin-ha, known as Fei Fei, and singer Adam Cheng Siu-chow – would have helped pave the way for her to easily make her mark in the Hong Kong entertainment industry. But for most of her life it’s been a struggle dealing with criticism.

If it’s not her weight, it’s how her Cantonese is sprinkled with English words, because she was born and raised in Vancouver. Critics had claimed she was arrogant, which is hardly the case for the down-to-earth singer and actress.

It’s been particularly challenging since Cheng’s mother – also known as Lydia Shum – died of liver cancer in 2008. Recently, though, the 30-year-old singer and actress seems to be finally coming into her own and is gearing up for her first solo concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom on April 21 and 22.

Even this has been far from plain sailing. Cheng had a major setback last October when she injured her left ankle – at the same time she received approval for her concerts at the Coliseum – a venue typically reserved for the top Hong Kong artists.

A post shared by Joyce Cheng (@princejoyce) on Nov 5, 2017 at 9:00pm PST

On her Instagram account she posted a video of herself in a hospital bed in tears, worried she would not be well enough in time for the concert, but told her fans she would press on and do her best.

Doctors have now given her the green light to perform in flat shoes, not heels, Cheng says, but admits her ankle still hurts doing twists and turns while dancing. Nevertheless she is looking forward to the concerts, which are appropriately titled, “Break A Leg”.

Recently, Cheng dug out an old video of herself and classmates performing a version of the Backstreet Boys song I Want It That Way, and it reminded her why she’s an entertainer.

“The 12-year-old me was so into my performance. We’re all doing the same movements but I’m really into it, stomping my feet, and the more the audience laughed and applauded, the more I got into it,” she recalls.

“Finding that video has reminded me that things will always go wrong, but at the end of the day, I need to enjoy myself since it was so hard to get this opportunity [to perform at Hong Kong Coliseum]. If I’m able to enjoy myself then my audience will, too,” she says.

The ups and downs of Cheng’s entertainment career have had much to do with a negative focus on her appearance, which doesn’t fit the mould of the typical Hong Kong starlet.

When she was starting out, she was criticised for her weight – reportedly 100 kilograms at the age of 15 – so she dieted to the point where she dropped to 51kg (and was a spokeswoman for a weight-loss company). Slimming down didn’t guarantee success, though, and even her weight loss was the subject of much tabloid fodder.

Then, five years ago, she decided to ditch the diets and waistline watching. While criticism persisted, Cheng doesn’t care what people think about her size.

“This is who I am. There’s no point in trying to chase after something, some ideal that isn’t me … I don’t feel that dieting is important any more because I’m healthy. My blood samples are good, I don’t feel there’s a need to be a ‘skinny minny’ version of myself,” she says.

“It’s really funny – I’ve been seeing certain comments online where they say, ‘You don’t need to diet for your concert, so what do you have to prepare for your show?’ And I think, well there’s singing and dancing, because that’s the main focus of the show. But it’s funny how people still have that mentality that if you put on a show, you have to strip or something,” she says with a laugh.

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Her career was in a lull until the release of her breakout hit single Goddess in 2016. The lyrics – alluding to her personal experience – speak of how people are judged unfairly, resulting in a lack of self-confidence, and how each woman is a goddess no matter what they look like.

The song was written by Wyman Wong, a Hong Kong lyricist whose also known for his sartorial fashion sense. Cheng says Wong researches everything about her when penning her songs; following her social media accounts and reading all her interviews to tap into what she’s going through.

“If it weren’t for him, no one would really take me seriously as a singer, because for the first few years of my singing career, I was kind of going with whatever my record label wanted me to do, whether it was my image, what song, what genre of music I was going to do, who I was going to work with to make this music,” she says.

“I just kind of went with it because I have to admit, at that time I didn’t know what I wanted, and I also didn’t know if what I wanted was the right thing to want. I also believed what I was told – that if you take certain measures you will be able to do something the market will love.”

A lot has happened these past 10 years. I feel like I’ve come a long way both as an entertainer and as a human.
Joyce Cheng

The day before Goddess was released, Cheng reveals, two people she admired in the industry told her they doubted the song would succeed because it was not a typical, sappy Canto-pop love song. Cheng didn’t give much credence to her mentors’ opinions, though, feeling confident it would do well, winning her more praise from fans.

However, she admits she is not always the strong woman portrayed in Goddess. When she was younger, she was keen to please, and even today she sometimes doubts her talent.

“I always ask myself, ‘Was that a hit because of me, or was it because I was working with such great people?’ It’s not the right way of thinking but I’m trying to be honest,” she says. “I find that being honest with myself and with my audience has helped us create a relationship with each other that is much more precious than me trying to give what the market wants.”

Cheng admits that digs from haters can still be hurtful, but she has come to realise that not everyone will like her, and besides, that’s not her goal.

“What I want to do is to add colour to people’s lives – I don’t do this stuff to make people like me. It’s not right [and] it’s not possible. But if I can sing a song for you, if I can dance for you, or make you laugh, if I can give you a cookie and you’re like, ‘Mmmmm that’s so good’, I’ve brightened your day somehow, that’s all I want to do,” she says.

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Before the success of Goddess, she had considered quitting the entertainment industry altogether. No one had been noticing her album releases and she wasn’t getting calls for gigs.

One day she was making cookies to give to friends and family, when she made a life-changing decision. She was on the phone with a friend ranting about how she’d had enough of the business and would never sing again, and make cookies instead.

Much to her surprise her friend encouraged her to turn it into a business. Called Homie Cookies, it has grown from taking orders via email to having stands at markets, and now has two shops.

She fondly remembers her grandmother loved eating whatever she made, from cookies and tarts to brownies and cream puffs. “I think she would be really happy if she knew I owned my own cookie shop,” she says with a big laugh.

She lost her grandmother – who had raised her in Vancouver – and her mother in the same month 10 years ago. They were the two people she had always been closest to.

“A lot has happened these past 10 years. I feel like I’ve come a long way both as an entertainer and as a human. I’ve done a lot of growing and it feels weird to have come so far without the backbone of my family [mother and grandmother],” she says.

“I think a part of me will always hope that they know what’s going on because of course there have been mistakes, there have been hardships that I had to get through myself within these past 10 years, but in general I feel like I’m going down the right path – I hope I am – and I hope they know, and I hope that they’re proud.”