From death to depth for Canto-pop: Hong Kong lyricist Siu Hak on Keung To’s anti-war song, local music scene’s growth

  • The music industry veteran, real name Tseung Tsz-hin, describes the process of writing a pacifist message for the Mirror member’s single, What The Work Says
  • He shares about witnessing how a new wave of Canto-pop artists has resurrected the genre from being ‘a dying scene’ that lacked creativity
Emily Tsang |

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Hong Kong lyricist Siu Hak (小克) shares his thoughts on how the city’s music scene has evolved. Photo: Handout

In March, Canto-pop star Keung To had an unusual request for lyricist Siu Hak: write an anti-war song using a music demo about love from songwriter Gareth Tong, known as Gareth.T.

For inspiration, the 47-year-old wordsmith, whose real name is Tseung Tsz-hin, immersed himself in older pacifist songs, though the theme is quite rare for Canto-pop. The most memorable one he found, Siu Hak noted, was Amani by former rock band Beyond.

“It was a tough song to write as Gareth originally sang the music demo in English. The opening line was ‘loving you’, and I had to turn it into something in Cantonese that would fit the rhythm,” the lyricist explained.

“Composing Cantonese lyrics with Gareth.T’s music is hard because his usual groove and rhythm fit better with the English language.”

Despite these challenges, Siu Hak managed to write a hit. What The Work Says (作品的說話) dropped on Keung’s birthday on April 30. Within the first two weeks of the music video’s release, it had already racked up more than 4 million views on YouTube.

“I’m impressed Keung To chose to drop a song about his wish for world peace on his birthday – it shows his vision and kindness,” mused Siu Hak.

In discussing the evils of war, the song’s lyrics convey the message that “good and evil are a free choice” and that art is the most truthful way to depict love. It reminds listeners quietly about the importance of kindness.

Hong Kong rising R&B artist Gareth.T shares about his music journey

Besides being a renowned lyricist, Siu Hak is also an artist and cartoon illustrator. He started writing Cantonese music in 2007, and his first chart-topping single was If I Am Eason Chan (如果我是陳奕迅), sung by rock band Mr.

Over the years, the industry veteran has written hundreds of songs, and he is known for a style of lyrics that is soul searching and philosophical.

Among his most unique works is a trilogy of songs written for local singer-songwriter Endy Chow Kwok-yin in 2012. The music examines some of the most abstract topics to have ever been explored in Canto-pop, such as the soul and the material world.

Keung To embarks on a journey of self-reflection in Mirror in the Mirror

In the 2000s, Siu Hak witnessed Hong Kong’s music industry being overtaken by the more scintillating music of K-pop and Mando-pop.

Siu Hak said he felt there had been a time when Canto-pop was “a dying scene” that lacked creativity and diversity. Cheesy love songs or karaoke music with catchy tunes dominated the mainstream local scene.

“Karaoke songs that became hits in Hong Kong used to carry rather simple messages, usually expressing emotions about heartbreak or love,” he recalled.

But early last year, Siu Hak sensed the beginning of a change when he watched Commercial Radio’s Ultimate Song Chart Awards Presentation – arguably one of the city’s most prestigious music awards. The best-known artist of a new wave of Canto-pop, Keung, took home two coveted local prizes – My Favourite Male Singer and My Favourite Song.

Last April, Keung To scooped four awards at ViuTV’s first Chill Club Music Awards. Photo: Captured from Facebook

Siu Hak said this swell of home-grown talent represented a shift among younger generations: “Times are changing; young audiences demand a change in Canto-pop. They have different tastes in music genres, singing skills and themes.”

This phenomenon prompted Siu Hak to drop a hit in 2021 with a sarcastic title, The Music Scene Is Dead (樂壇已死), in which he asks listeners to pay more attention to emerging local stars.

“They are working hard and trying different things to make it a blooming, diverse scene,” said Siu Hak.

The lyricist is actively contributing to the evolution of Canto-pop. For Mirror’s Jeremy Lau Ying-ting, affectionately known as Jer, Siu Hak wrote eight singles that all fell outside the realm of conventional love songs.

Lau, whose singing talent has earned him the accolade of being the successor of Canto-pop legend Eason Chan Yick-shun, has been praised for his songs touching on issues such as forgiveness, depression and reincarnation.

“Write down what inspires you – phrases you read in a book or heard in a song that touched your heart. This is when your soul syncs with that of the creators,” the lyricist said, as he shared advice about cultivating creativity. “Let these ideas sink in you. And then, one day, they will become something.”

This was a time for young talent to shine, Siu Hak said, and he tasked teens interested in creative work to believe in themselves and chase their passions.

“We may no longer be as free to speak our minds, but there is still room to tell a message subtly,” he said. “You answer only to yourself – be honest and do what you love.”

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