Hong Kong Elvis impersonator Melvis talks about his 28 years on the road, and how he became the King
- Kwok Lam-sang had never heard of Elvis Presley before his death in 1977, but quickly became obsessed with the ‘King of Rock ’n’ Roll’
- He researched the star, got an Elvis suit made, won some Elvis competitions, and has been performing without a break since then
“Hello. This is Elvis.” An introduction like that when you answer your phone could leave you all shook up. However, far from being a voice from beyond the grave, it is that of a man very much alive – 67-year-old Kwok Lam-sang, better known as Melvis.
Kwok has been swivelling his hips for almost three decades in Hong Kong’s biggest nightspots, where he plays for tips dressed as his hero and warbling his songs.
Age is no barrier to Kwok, and he can still be seen performing seven nights a week.
From here it’s a stroll to the pubs of Wan Chai, which are full of customers welcoming the weekend with a beer. It’s noticeable that Melvis walks with a slight limp, but when asked if he is OK he just smiles and waves away the concern. “It’s no problem,” he says.
By the time he arrives at Churchill’s bar on Lockhart Road, there is no sign of Melvis’ limp. Before long he has rattled off Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock. He seems to have found a new lease of life, as have some of the drinkers, who start to join in.
“He has so much passion. His expertise is doing Elvis,” says Terry Li, who has been singing along. “My older brother first told me about this guy who dressed up as Elvis and sang around the bars. Finally I met him and I was impressed. He is a legend in Hong Kong.”
Alas for Li, his request for a Beatles song is swiftly turned down. “I don’t play Beatles songs. Only Elvis,” says Melvis, who looks insulted at the very thought. He finishes his last song with a flourish, swings his guitar towards the crowd, thrusts an arm in the air and shouts: “Yeah, baby!”
“I only found out about Elvis after his death in 1977. It was all over the television and newspapers here. When I lived in China, I did not know who he was and never had the chance to hear his music,” Melvis says. “In Hong Kong after he died, his music was played everywhere. It was then I started to listen and learn his songs.”
He got hold of a copy of the 1970 documentary, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, and gathered together as much information on the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” as he could.
“I’d learn the words from reading them in books and hearing them on [tape] cassettes and CDs. I saw how he moved and dressed in videos,” he explains. “Elvis is my hero. He really touched me. My favourite song of his is It’s Now or Never. It’s beautiful.”
Melvis knew that if he was ever going to take to the stage and perform as his hero it would also have to be “now or never”. He had his first proper Elvis suit made and went on to win local Elvis impersonator competitions in Kowloon in 1981 and 1983.
The problem was that Chinese music lovers were not big fans of Elvis like he was. “When local Hong Kong people saw me they thought I was one of the Beatles, or sometimes Michael Jackson,” he says.
Over the following years he had limited success playing in Kowloon bars, but there just weren’t enough Elvis lovers. It was then he came up with a plan: he would go where there were more fans of “The King” and play to them.
Despite never having set foot on Hong Kong Island in his life, on February 17, 1992, he went to try his luck singing to tourists and expats around the bars in Lan Kwai Fong. It was a decision that would change everything.
He soon made a name for himself and began singing regularly in Hardy’s bar in the nightlife district, where he was paid HK$100 per Elvis song. From there he got a gig in Club 97 bar, which was just around the corner.
“The foreigners liked me playing Elvis more than Chinese people. It was so much better than working in a factory. The work was not too hard. I just went around and sang songs,” he says.
As well as his gigs at Hardy’s and Club 97, Melvis was starting to become a regular on his own touring circuit of the expat bars playing for tips. He claims he has never missed a night performing – no matter how bad the weather.
When he first started out, he originally called himself “Marvis”. At the time, former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos had been in the headlines, so he decided to combine the names Marcos and Elvis to create his stage name, but it did not last long.
“When I was singing in Club 97, the owner said it was better to call myself Melvis, as Marcos was not a good guy,” he says.
Melvis became the proud owner of 30 Elvis suits, made by a tailor friend in Tsuen Wan. “I haven’t kept all of them because they got too old. I only wear a few now, but keep the others because of the memories.”
Surprisingly, he wears them out on the town, too, not just when he is performing. The spectacle of the Elvis impersonator doing his shopping dressed in a white jumpsuit is bound to draw a few funny looks from other customers in his local ParknShop, but it doesn’t bother him at all.
Despite his flamboyant appearance, he comes across as a quietly spoken, shy man in conversation. It is clear that dressing up as his hero gives Melvis confidence and a sense of self-worth. “I wear my costume all the time. The only time I take it off is when I am at home. It makes me feel good,” he explains.
“I make maybe HK$500 a night [playing for tips], but I do this really because being Elvis makes me happy and it makes other people happy too. I have two children in their 30s and they don’t like Elvis. They want me to stop but I don’t want to retire. While I am still able to walk I’ll keep going.”
During a photo shoot at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, he smiles as he looks out over the famous Hong Kong skyline, this time dressed in a blue jumpsuit. Somehow he doesn’t look out of place. In a vibrant city filled with colourful characters, it is no wonder he wants to keep on playing “The King”.
Not even the recent anti-government protests or the threat of contracting the coronavirus can keep this Hong Kong legend from doing what he loves best. And epidemic or not, he’s not about to change how he looks.
“Elvis doesn’t wear a mask,” he says.