When Kessay Chan Kwan-ming took to the stage at the South China Morning Post Student of the Year (SOTY) award ceremony on February 28 this year, there was a vague sense of confusion. What's all that equipment on the table? What is his performance? Sensing his audience's questions, Kessay quickly explained: "Oh, this is a looper. It copies my voice and plays it back while I sing on top."
For the next five minutes, Kessay wowed the crowd with his one-man a cappella performance of Pharrell Williams' award-winning song Happy. At one point, he even navigated what appeared to be a technical error with humour and professionalism, making it seem like the glitch was part of his act.
The 17-year-old Yuen Long Lutheran Secondary School student's performance had his audience clapping along, and it won him the Student of the Year Performing Artist award.
Despite his great performance, Kessay only started dabbling in one-man a cappella about a year ago.
"I enjoy singing with others more than I do singing by myself," he says. "But in Form Five my singing friends had to concentrate on their school work, while I was drawn more towards my music."
Back in January, Kessay performed in front of a panel of judges in hopes of becoming a SOTY Performing Artist finalist
Being a solo act pushed Kessay to rise to the occasion. With no teammates to rely on, he had to own every aspect of his performance. "I had to master all the techniques involved in creating a track. I had to learn how to beatbox, and sing bass notes, even though I'm normally a tenor. I also had to be my own lead vocals. There can be no weak links, or the whole thing sounds bad. So I had to be good at all of it."
Rather than crumbling under the pressure, Kessay took it as a challenge. Since no one at school could teach him one-man a cappella, he looked to YouTube and online a cappella forums.
As he honed his technique and found inspiration, Kessay felt a cappella was changing him as a musician - and as a person.
"I had to come out of my shell. You can't be shy as a performer," he says. "Also, you need to be a part of a team with the other singers, so I've learned to be more supportive and to take the initiative."
This sense of initiative helped, because it wasn't easy to become a finalist for SOTY.
"It's a process of trial and error," he says, "and a lot of times it doesn't work. Happy took me about two weeks to arrange."
What was never a trial was getting support from his parents. Kessay says they are behind him 100 per cent - even if they don't fully understand what he does.
His mother, a nurse, gets up early each morning to prepare his meals, even though he doesn't always have time to eat breakfast. And Kessay laughs as he recalls his father's words of wisdom: "I advise you to go to CUHK, as it's more stable. But if you choose not to listen to me, that's okay."
Kessay hopes to go abroad for university, studying conducting so he can coach others in the future. If he stays in Hong Kong, he's considering studying composing to help with his arrangements.
After winning the SOTY award, it would be easy for Kessay to be boastful. But he is refreshingly humble when he talks about his talent.
"I don't think there's first, second or third place in art," he says. "Every performance I saw through SOTY was incredible. I was just lucky enough to be in the spotlight this time."
Watch Kessay's winning performance here!