Culture changer: Chet Lam

Singer-songwriter Chet Lam is working for the day when the local music scene becomes a thriving community, writes Lee Wing-sze

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 5:32pm

In his smartly decorated apartment nestled in Pok Fu Lam, Chet Lam Yat-fung is preparing dinner and experimenting with his new "toy": a pasta machine. "It's really fun - not complicated at all. I'm trying a new recipe tonight. It should taste good," Lam says as he catches pasta strips rolling out from the machine.

The homegrown musician has a head full of ideas, be they about music, travel or, now, food. "I've been jotting down all the great recipes I've tried. I'm thinking about publishing a cookbook," the 36-year-old says. He has never been satisfied with just being a singer-songwriter since he released his debut album, Pillow Songs, under his own LYFE label in 2003.

In addition to being a musician, Lam has a long list of titles to his name: theatre actor, columnist, travel writer, photographer, concert producer, music festival founder - and cookbook author is likely to be added soon. But music is what he is best known for.

With 11 full-length solo albums and some mini albums produced independently during the past decade, Lam has established himself as a city-folk musician whose guitar-based tunes incorporate reflective, insightful lyrics about life and love.

Next month, Lam will play two concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium to mark his 10th anniversary as a singer-songwriter. "I haven't changed much over the past 10 years, except that now I know more about style and how to dress. But I'm still doing music and writing songs the way I did, not intentionally for the market," he says.

His attitude hasn't changed, but the topics of his lyrics have broadened. While most of the songs written in his early days, such as A Cigarette Without You and Paris in Your Eyes, are personal and mostly about love, on recent albums he has become more socially conscious. For instance, on his ninth album, My Lonely Planet, Lam focuses on the history of Hong Kong in the track Victoria, while Two Brothers talks about relations between Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

In Chinese society, entertainers are not supposed to be too serious. When you say something serious, they're people are listening, but not the majority

His latest album, Oh My Goodness, features tracks devoted to good causes, such as the government exercise campaign theme song 12345, National Geographic Channel's 2010 Earth Day theme Ocean, and WWF's Earth Hour Campaign's Chinese theme song Light Up Your Dreams.

The environmental activist hopes that his songs will arouse people's awareness, especially about conservation. For example, he dreams of a day when nobody in Hong Kong eats shark's fin.

The self-taught guitarist embarked on his songwriting journey while in secondary school. He had his first song selected and performed by pop singer Chilam Cheung in 1998.

Over time, Lam has learned that as a singer-songwriter, "the art is to achieve a balance between self and social consciousness", finding something personal in social topics in order to touch people and make them listen.

"In the West, singer-songwriters are there to kick your brain. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ani DiFranco, they are all influential politically. But in Chinese society, entertainers are not supposed to be too serious. When you say something serious, some people are listening, but not the majority. However, when you sing a love song, people will be all ears."

Chinese singers rarely perform songs criticising the government or tackling social issues. In the 1980s, mainland rocker Cui Jian and Taiwanese pop godfather Lo Ta-yu tackled such subjects - but they aren't from Hong Kong.

Still, Lam is happy to live and let live. "It's all good as long as I can do what I want. There should be different stuff in the industry."

However, he does feel frustrated when people don't understand his work. "I was quite upset after releasing One Magic Day. It seemed that not many people understood what I was doing. But then I read an article reviewing the album on [mainland social network] Douban and it said everything that was on my mind. I'm really happy when people understand what I do," he says, referring to his last Cantonese album.

In recent years more new names have joined him in the singer-songwriter ranks. He is excited by the changes. "When there's only a small group of people doing it, it's just a cult; but with more people doing it, it becomes a culture," he says.

He knows there is a long way to go before this culture in the Chinese music industry becomes as big as it is in the West. "It takes a long time to turn a cult into a culture. I think we are halfway there now," he says. "[The singer-songwriter] is still a very niche market in the Hong Kong pop music scene."

With his LYFE production house, Lam has produced shows for the likes of hip hop duo Fama, his sister Eman Lam Yee-man's at17, My Little Airport, The Pancakes and Singaporean musician Hanjin Tan.

Last year, Lam founded another production house, Seeing Creative, a nonprofit arm that organises live shows for up-and-coming musicians and bands. After its debut programme, a rerun of "Singing Hands" by Japanese-Chinese percussionist Arai Soichiro, it launched an indie rock music festival, The Future Sounds of Hong Kong, with a line-up of local underground bands, including Chokchukmo, Modern Children, RedNoon, Supper Moment and ToNick, in the summer.

Lam's next adventure in music will lie in collaborating with more local indie bands and musicians. "The Future Sounds of Hong Kong was one of the most exciting projects I've done in all these years. I was wowed by the solid and mature performances from Supper Moment and Chokchukmo," he says.

"There are more and more talented musicians on the scene and I want to do something to introduce them to more people."

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Chet Lam 10th Anniversary Concert - Dream On Live 2013, Mar 9-10, 8.15pm, Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Wan Chai, HK$380, HK$480, Urbtix. Inquiries: 2734 9009