Singer-Songwriter-Producer Alex Fung Says Cantopop is Not Dead
He's brought a breath of fresh air to the city’s music mainstream, thanks to his work with singers including Ivana Wong and Joey Yung. His latest album is a collection of instrumental 90s Cantopop classics.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I started learning to play the piano when I was around 3, because my dad loves music. At around 5 or 6 I started joining competitions and performances. My dad was very proud and wanted to show off my musical talent.
For a while, I hated music. So I tried my best to finish all the piano exams—when I was in Form One I already had my Performance Diploma. I felt great after the exam—because I didn’t have to keep learning classical.
I was very rebellious when I was around 12 or 13—I stopped playing or listening to music.Then by chance I heard a song by Radiohead. And then I heard songs by Portishead. I was like “Wow, music can be like this!” That’s when I fell back in love with music.
I was planning on going to Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study, but just before I flew there, I came down with a pleural effusion caused by tuberculosis. I had to go to the hospital every single day for nine months.Because of that, I stayed in Hong Kong and randomly picked something to study: I ended up studying electronic engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for one year. Yeah, it was totally out of nowhere.
When I could finally go [to Berklee], I got to learn all the music that I love: a little bit of jazz, a little bit of acid jazz, a little bit of funk, a little bit of alternative rock—and I also learned how to produce music. I didn’t think I’d come back [to Hong Kong].
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I started working in New York—I was going to stay there. But I felt guilty for leaving my parents behind, and I thought they would feel like they’d lost their son. Because of them, I came back. I didn’t know anyone from the record companies, so I had to cold call from the Yellow Pages, looking for [legendary music agent] Paco Wong. I got through to his secretary and she was OK with me sending over my resume and demo. One week later, Paco called and asked to meet me. That’s how I broke into the industry.That was the year 2003.
I was asked to write all these “K songs” [songs aimed at karaoke]. I didn’t know how to write these songs. After a while, I started questioning myself: Am I good enough to be here? Luckily I met [Cantopop singer] Ivana Wong, who also has passion for music, passion for something different—passion for what we think real music is. Through a friend from college, I met [producer and singer-songwriter] Hanjin Tan and we formed a production team called The Invisible Men. We started by creating hip hop music for Edison Chen, then later Ivana’s less mainstream Cantopop, and then recently, music for Joey Yung.
"People who say Cantonese music is dead are just selectively deaf."
We want to bring a new sound to Cantopop. There’s a lot of treasure inside Cantopop. When I was young I was too self-indulgent and arrogant to understand or appreciate it. I didn’t open my ears and listen to the music with an open heart.
That’s how I came up with my new album, “Chapter II—Stars of My Universe,” to bring together Cantopop songs that I’ve been listening to since I was a kid, no matter if I liked them or not. I want to reintroduce them to people. The people who say Cantonese music is dead are just selectively deaf. Cantonese music is not just Cantopop. We have Cantorock, we have Canto indie rock, we have Canto EDM too. People don’t know because they don’t care.
We’re half-dead because of these people. With less support and resources, it’s harder to make better music.
Am I angry? Yes, a bit. I still believe we have a great future. For a city so tiny, with seven million people, we have so much talent. Why can’t we just open ourselves up and stop criticizing Cantonese music? Let’s really listen and really watch what’s going on in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of beautiful things happening.
I chose to do cover songs [on the new album] because they can bring collective memories back to people—it’s not just my own experiences or sentiments. If you buy my album on iTunes, there’ll be a digital booklet with three full music scores included. Why? Because I don’t believe music is only for the masters or professionals. I hope that people who are learning instruments can jam with my music, or with their classmates.
As a father, I think education is really important. I hope I can help promote music education.