Pop star Ellen Joyce Loo was trailblazer for Hong Kong’s LGBT community and broke down stigma around mental illness
On Sunday, the Hong Kong pop star died from a suspected suicide. Reporter Vivienne Chow looks back on her last meeting with the singer, where she appeared to have come to terms with her sexuality and bipolar disorder
“At this time of my life, I feel that I’m more inspired by gender and political issues as a musician and as an artist. I want to speak up for women and sexual minorities.”
Ellen Joyce Loo told me this last December during an interview leading up to the onstage reunion of at17, the alternative Canto-pop duo that she co-founded with Eman Lam Yee-man when she was just 15 years old.
A talented musician who appeared to have come to terms with her bipolar disorder and sexuality (she married her wife in 2016 and came out publicly as a lesbian last year), Loo described 2017’s Girls Girls Girls Live in Concert at Queen Elizabeth Stadium, their first show in seven years, as a “reunion of two grown-up women”. During the December interview, Loo had never sounded more mature, hopeful and optimistic.
The show turned out to be a great success and their fans were looking forward to one day seeing the duo perform their favourite songs at the Hong Kong Coliseum, the Mecca of Canto-pop, such as The Best Is Yet To Come, which includes the lyrics: “There will always be a kiss that hasn’t been tasted/ A candle that hasn’t been lit/ The best is yet to come”.
But the best will never come. On Sunday morning – just eight months after I spoke to this confident woman excited about the future – Loo fell to her death from her flat in Happy Valley. She was 32.
After we last spoke, Loo appeared to have been enjoying her time in the limelight. The night before her death, she was shooting an episode of the ViuTV reality show Good Night Show – King Maker, in which she appeared as a celebrity judge. Singer Terence Chui Chi-long, a friend of Loo and a fellow guest star on the reality show, says Loo answered a WhatsApp message about meeting up with him at 8am the next morning. She seemed to be fine.
But all people – regardless of whether they are famous or not – appear hard-wired to put on a mask in search of acceptance and recognition. Loo did her best to break that pattern. Her greatest achievement was being open about her sexuality and her mental illness, giving outsiders a glimpse of the real Loo.
Born in Toronto, Canada, Loo moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was four. She could’ve lived the life of a typical Hong Kong child – she was an overachiever at school – but the discovery of her father’s guitar when she was nine changed her life. She practised constantly and with the encouragement of her father – who failed to achieve his dream of becoming a pilot – she took part in a music competition in 2000 at the age of 14.
It was here that she met Lam, who went on to become her bandmate and long-time collaborator. They were taken under the wing of local music industry veteran Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, who had just set up his People Mountain People Sea label. The teens, aged 15 and 19, were signed up as the duo at17 – their name was inspired by the Janis Ian song At Seventeen and their average age.
Loo broke the rules by pursuing her musical dreams despite her good grades. And she broke more rules with Lam during her days in at17 by performing their own music, a breath of fresh air in the Canto-pop industry dominated by manufactured acts.
After at17 went their separate ways in 2010, Loo became a musician, composer and producer, and pursued her career in Taiwan, where she earned great success with her unique blend of pop and folktronica. Last year, she took the award for best arrangement at the Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan. At the awards ceremony, she broke another rule – announcing her marriage to cinematographer Fisher Yu Jing-ping.
Unlike most Hong Kong celebrities who either remain silent or pledge loyalty to Beijing to earn access to the vast China market, Loo was vocal about her political views, particularly during the days of the Occupy protests in 2014, which resulted in her being banned from the Strawberry Music Festival in Guangzhou in 2015.
When asked how she felt about the ban, she replied: “I never had to live on renminbi anyway.”
Loo also became a spokeswoman for people with mental illnesses by making her personal experience public – she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013 and had been receiving treatment for more than a year. She often spoke publicly about how the illness affected her, urging people to show sympathy for other sufferers.
Loo had admitted she was suicidal. During one interview in 2017, she said she once would’ve done anything to end the pain, including killing herself, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
We will never understand the emotional turmoil she felt and we are in no place to judge.
Lam emerged after more than a day of silence, telling the media that friends and family were taking care of Loo’s funeral arrangements. She posted on social media: “If you ask me if I am okay, I can tell you I will never be okay, because this [Loo’s death] can never be okay.”
It appears to be human nature to forget or move on when it comes to pain and suffering. But Lam, just like Loo, pointed out a truth that most people find uncomfortable. Emotional pain cannot be overcome or forgotten. We can only try to live with it.
If you or someone you know are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page