HK Magazine Archive

Hong Kong Jazz Legend Elisa Chan Kit-ling: 'Why Would I Give Up Music?'

HK Magazine interviews the Cantopop superstar.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 October, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:51pm

Cantopop superstar Elisa Chan Kit-ling started her career in showbiz when she joined 70s pop group The New Topnotes at 16. Her fame grew in the 80s after notable collaborations with Leslie Cheung and Maria Cordero, and she went on to mentor Cantopop greats such as Twins, Nicholas Tse and Joey Yung.

Ahead of a concert with jazz divas Patti Austin and Janis Siegel, Chan shares some wisdom about the music industry and the beauty of jazz with Evelyn Lok.

My family never put any pressure on me. I was already independent before I joined The New Topnotes.

I’m not sure if it was the wrong decision, but I don’t really care anymore. Because it got me to where I am now.

It was fun. And it wasn’t a 9-to-5. My responsibilities were just learning the song and memorizing lyrics. Isn’t that easy?

For me, singing was never about fame.

But I’m merchandise. Of course you want more exposure. It’s just marketing.

I didn’t know that. I just wanted to sing!

[Putting on a show] is one of the most crucial elements of live performance. It’s called “live” because you are managing the mood at that exact moment.

In many ways, jazz is very free. But at the same time, “jazzing something up” means to style and layer it up; there’s a lot of theory behind it.

It’s all about the experience of a soloist: how he expresses the harmony of the performer, the band, the audience—to achieve creativity in one split second.

It’s really difficult to sing jazz in Cantonese. It’s all about improvisation—to bend the musical notes in the language.

Cantonese has its own unique culture, and poignancy. With jazz a musician bends the words however they want. But you can’t do that with Cantonese. You can’t add to the intonation: It’ll turn into Cantonese opera.

Cantonese opera is perhaps the closest to jazz, because it has its elasticity.

Fewer people pay attention to Cantopop, because the world has opened up. No one needs to watch TV anymore. Everyone’s on YouTube.

I don’t see it as a shame. As [legendary Cantopop lyricist] James Wong once said, “Music follows the culture of society.” As the culture changes, you can’t expect the music to stay the same.

The popularity of K-pop isn’t surprising. Even in the 80s we were listening to Japanese songs. Before we had Cantopop we were all listening to Western pop.

Sometimes the more you do, the more scared you feel. Because the more you know about yourself and the more talented people you meet, the more you start to feel inadequate.

There’s always hard work behind successful people.

What’s 100 percent? When you can truly handle any problem that comes your way.

I never give myself full marks.

People ask me, “Don’t you get tired? Won’t you stop making music?”

Why would I give up music? I wouldn’t give up eating. I wouldn’t give up breathing. In every way, music is my motivation.

I’m most afraid of losing my ability to work. I wish there was someone honest to tell me “I don’t think you can anymore.”

I’m afraid that I won’t be able to take it. It’s the same with aging. Everyone says that you can age beautifully. But it’s something to get used to.

Knowledge is important. The more you know, the more you observe—that’s how you can open yourself up and reflect. That’s the only time people can improve.

If you can’t upgrade yourself, how are you going to upgrade others?

When I teach music, I don’t teach do-re-mi-fa-so; I’m not good at that. I’m not an academic trainer. But what I teach is the appreciation of music, what to take from it, how you can see it from different angles.

But I don’t know how to appreciate heavy metal. It’s just not my cup of tea.

I want to transcend the ignorance of my younger days. When I think back now, I think, “Who is that silly little thing?”

But it’s very hard for me to judge that girl now, because it was so far away. I cannot relate anymore. But I’m glad that girl had the experiences and made me who I am.

I’m not very attached to the limelight. I just like to play.

I don’t have to put on a persona, I have to be that persona. Everyone has different identities. Once I’m not on stage, not in costume, I’m not that singer any more.

If you wipe off your makeup, you’re at home with your legs up, and you still think you’re that singer—then you have a problem. The environment spoils you.

My life is everybody else’s life. It’s very ordinary.

There’s a lot of conveniences that come with fame, but I’m going to die like anyone else. Everybody ages; everybody is the same.

We’re all just like the Chief Executive: We have to face the public and accept criticism. You have to be aware of your actions.

I don’t exactly look forward to anything else in life right now—just life itself.

See Chan in concert together with Patti Austin and Janis Siegel on Oct 19-20, 8:15pm. Academic Community Hall, Hong Kong Baptist University, 224 Waterloo Rd., Kowloon Tong, 3411-5182. $380-880 from