Sitting in a spacious foyer covered with prints by the artist Claude Monet at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum earlier this month, Canto-pop singer Eason Chan informs Young Post that art should not be a privilege for rich people.
“Because it’s so important. Appreciating art is like time-travelling. Looking at a Monet painting brings you right into the 19th century, and that’s just astonishing,” he says. And it’s not just visual art that thrills him. Recently, he says excitedly, the wife of the late lyricist Richard Lam Chun-keung sent him a handwritten draft of The Only One (天下無雙), a song Lam wrote for Chan’s 1998 Eason Chan’s Happy Days album. “I literally cried when I saw it. It was just like a painting, and it completely immersed me in his world. It was just, wow,” he enthuses.
As we speak, fellow Canto-pop singer Gigi Leung Wing-kei and actress Carina Lau Kar-ling saunter by. The public may be able to see Monet’s original works for HK$20 (the exhibition, presented by Le French May, will last until July 11), but this evening the museum is reserved for exclusive guests only. They are all attending a gala dinner of First Initiative Foundation, a charity founded by jewellery designer Michelle Ong, which is launching a story book called My Monet and a colouring book called Colour Me Monet. Illustrated by local artist Jeanie Leung, Ong hopes the book will introduce children to the French impressionist painter’s life.
Turning back to Young Post after nodding to his famous friends, he says, in a British accent acquired after years living in Britain: “Love for art has to be nurtured.
“Sometimes it even has to be forced. Because as children you can’t always make the best decisions.”
Ignoring his manager’s fervent gestures to end our conversation, Chan leans back in his seat and takes Young Post on a stroll down memory lane.
What made you join TVB’s New Talent Singing Awards in 1995? You quit school and flew back to Hong Kong just to join the contest.
I’ve loved singing since a young age. I was singing in choirs and doing chapel performances during secondary school. I’d go to karaoke with my friends and they’d praise my singing. I was very confident, I thought I was the best singer in the world. Of course, back then I hadn’t really seen the world yet.
But more than just friends saying I sang well at karaoke, I wanted to prove myself in front of a professional panel of judges. And big singers like Anita Mui, Alex To and Andy Hui had all won that competition.
I remember the year before I joined the competition, I was watching the show at home in London, and I was like, if I’d entered, I could have had a go at the winner, Gabriel Harrison. Maybe I could have beaten him. And my sister-in-law said, “Many years later, you’d would still be standing in front of the TV saying that, but you’d have never beat him.” So then I had to join. I need to thank her.
What made you give up architecture for a singing career?
After I won the contest, I was offered a three-year contract. My dad didn’t want me to take it, but I had just won – the whole of Hong Kong knew I could sing! I was very flattered. I told my dad I had classmates in their 30s doing architecture, so I could always go back and do that. Then the three years ended, and I was offered another contract.
Before, I was paid on a per-job basis singing at universities and such. But this contract was a seven-digit figure. A million dollars! What?! Then I realised, I gotta be serious about this. This is pro stuff. It’s probably then that I started thinking that [this] was actually ... a career.
Has it always been smooth sailing for you? Tell us about the tough times.
There’s always tough times in life, and it happens in any job, to any person. But these experiences make you stronger. An example? Hmm ... I can’t think of anything right now. I don’t tend to remember the bad things, and I guess I’m really enjoying my life right now.
What are the new challenges that singers are facing?
I think the creativity and quality of music-making is improving. Canto-pop is all about the touching lyrics and musical arrangement. It’s just that now the ways of listening to music, and thus promoting music, is different.
I’m not really up to date on the way I listen to music; I still listen on CD players and read the lyrics from the booklet. I’ve also got lots of vinyl, but I don’t have a player! But there’s gonna be one at the office, I’m having my own studio soon.
Many people criticise Canto-pop as being too manufactured. What do you say to that?
I don’t think people should be too cynical. I’m really bad with genres. Is this acid jazz, or jazz funk? For me, either I like a song, or I don’t.
Canto-pop has built its own character by having a similar structure and arrangement. I’ve used riffs inspired by the likes of Jamiroquai and Earth, Wind & Fire, but [with]Canto lyrics. Is that Canto-pop? Yes. There are variations in Canto-pop, many artists are trying many different things, it’s just that people mostly just talk about a few songs. And I don’t think it’s a problem. Those songs are popular for a reason.
When I was younger, my manager would listen to a song and say, “I hear money!”, and I’d have the same expression as you’re having now, thinking, argh, they’re all about the money. But they need to do that in order to run the business. When I first started, I’d tell myself I’d do half of the songs the label really likes, and I’d have the other half to do what I like. And they appreciate that. In the past couple years they don’t even give me restrictions anymore, although I don’t go too far from what they like.
What’s been a recent source of inspiration for you?
I really love the Deadpool soundtrack, especially the Salt-N-Pepa song, Shoop. I felt young again listening to it. The song reminds me of the whole movie, just so fun, so much humour.
If you have unlimited budget to do any project, what would it be?
That’s hard. I really think we need boundaries to get stuff done. We need a limit in order to break through to something else. But hey, let’s record in space! I think that’ll be fun, to record without gravity. And the song would be about moons. All sorts of moons.