Armed with his acoustic guitar, street singer and busker Michael Lai Hiu-yeung is looking for adventure, and he normally knows where to find it.
In one YouTube video, Lai is shown at Wan Chai’s wet market, singing in exchange for soup ingredients. On another occasion, he left home with just HK$200 in his pocket, bought a ferry ticket to Macau, and ended up earning enough for a night at a hotel and a luxurious breakfast. A man once flew him to Hainan Island to perform, he’s been invited by random people to play at their weddings, and has helped out in countless other situations.
Lai’s a skinny boy with black-rimmed glasses, a mop of unruly hair and a constant smile. Before he found his ultimate passion, music, he loved skateboarding and practising magic. He showed off his skills by passing a phone between his fingers like one would a pen.
“When I perform I’m focused, and I forget what I’m sad about,” says the 22-year-old. People have approached Lai telling him how his music has cheered them up, even at times he was feeling down that day himself. “It’s great that I can make people happier.”
Lai doesn’t just sing on the streets, he sings in taxis, too. Though he wouldn’t reveal exactly how much he spends on taxi rides, he doesn’t even bother owning an Octopus card. He also has five drivers’ contacts on his phone, and occasionally eats breakfast with some of them.
Once in the taxi, he starts a conversation and plays for them.
“Their work is boring, and people don’t usually talk to them,” he says. “But they have [so much] life experience. And you’ve paid, so you should make the most of it and get the stories out of them.”
[WATCH] After our interview, we were treated to a special performance of his new single, Skywalker
When he was 15, Lai would tag along when his father attended singing lessons. After two years, in 2009, he took part in two singing competitions because he wanted to perform. He won one and placed second in the other, but felt he wasn’t quite ready to be a singer.
“Back then I just knew how to sing, and only a couple songs,” he says.
So he started learning the guitar by watching YouTube videos, and began playing on the streets. He met other street performers and formed a four-piece band, Sollasedo (a play on the sol-fa syllables).
Lai originally planned to take a gap year after secondary school, working as a composer’s assistant and busking when he was off work. But he was close to giving up on music.
“Being an assistant is tough, and you do a lot of stuff that’s unrelated to music,” he says. “I would see my friends drinking and enjoying life, so I told my parents I wanted to study again. And they said no. They gave me the best advice: don’t be afraid of working hard.”
By that time, Lai knew he only wanted a career in music, so he decided against pursuing further studies and continued singing on the streets for three years. Now, he feels like it’s time to move forward.
“I’ve met people in the music field who are really experienced. [They] gave me feedback on how to improve. But I started thinking, am I to sing on the streets forever?”
So when a producer approached him to record in the studio, he jumped at the opportunity. His first single, Skywalker, is set for release on Thursday. With lyrics by singer-songwriter Chet Lam Yat-fung, Skywalker is all about Lai entering the music industry.
“You can never stop me now,” he sings on the record.
The single also includes Cope with Life, the first song he ever wrote.
“I wrote it during a difficult time in my life when I had to make a lot of compromises. I wanted people to see the happy, positive me in Skywalker, but there’s also another side,” he says.
“I’ve asked my dad if he feels embarrassed when he has to tell people that his son sings on the street. But he said he’s proud of me, because I’m working towards my passion. Now, with my single out, at least I can show them I’ve accomplished something.”
Lai is planning on releasing his first album early next year, and is already hard at work. He’s even written a song about the ongoing Occupy protests called I Promise You an Umbrella.
“I couldn’t sleep one night, and went out to the protest sites. I was very touched because I have never seen Hong Kong’s youth so united, so passionately doing one thing together,” he says.
Overnight, he composed a song and sent it to lyricist Chow Yiu-fai, not knowing if he would respond. Chow did not answer immidiately, but two days later, Lai received some lyrics from him. He recorded the song and within 48 hours it was online, complete with a music video of photos from the protests.
“It’s meaningful because it’s no longer just about me,” says Lai.