Digital cover: Hong Kong indie musicians with drive
March 26, 2021
Vicious, cutthroat and incredibly competitive, the mainstream music industry has always been a bewildering place for young artists. Alex Lam, Dough-Boy, Jordie Guzman, Sophy Wong and Terrence Ma are leading a growing number of Hong Kong musicians who are leaving the big labels behind in exchange for independence, ownership and creative integrity. Natasha Gillespie-Wong hears their story.
Stereotypes of professional musicians tend to stick to one pole or another: they’re either a world-famous, arena-touring troubadour with a millionaire lifestyle, or they’re down on their luck playing in a dive bar while working a “normal job” to make ends meet.
The global music industry, however, is undergoing a revival. With the growth of social media, a more DIY approach to music production has emerged, creating direct links between artists and fans. And in a dynamic, international city such as Hong Kong, where East and West intermingle, independent artists are rising up and staking their claim to the future of the local sound. We talked to five such personalities who are prepped, passionate and ready to be heard.
Having grown up as the son of Cantopop singer, songwriter, producer and actor George Lam, Alex Lam is no stranger to the limelight. But the American-born singer, songwriter and actor never intended to work in the entertainment industry.
After graduating with a degree in English literature from the University of Southern California, Lam taught yoga full-time in Los Angeles for five years before returning to Hong Kong over a decade ago. Lam’s passion for music soon took hold, however, and he signed with Universal Music Group and released his eponymous EP in 2012.
With breakout hits such as “Happy Marriage” and “Magic” appearing on Hong Kong radio charts, Lam was offered film and television roles – both of which he was hesitant to accept. “When I first came back I was resistant to doing film projects,” he says. “I was single-minded, but only being passionate about one thing actually limits you.”
It was this realisation that led Lam to begin his acting career. After starring in multiple Asian films such as Dearest Anita and Lion Rock, Lam became a household name in his own right and even diversified into producing and directing roles.
“You look at classic movie stars like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, they can sing and dance and do comedy; they can probably write too,” Lam says. “The entertainment mindset has to change; people should be mutli-faceted.”
Nowadays, Lam focuses on adaptability and staying true to himself. Since leaving Universal Music Group in 2018, Lam has been producing his own music. “As a creator you have to be true to what inspires you. Sometimes that means choosing a song or genre that isn’t mainstream,” he explains, adding that he hopes to broaden not only his own horizons but those of the Hong Kong market as a whole.
Being open to opportunity has allowed Lam to successfully carve out his own niche in music and film. He acknowledges his past reluctance to venture beyond the familiar but now understands and advocates for the need to examine a career from all perspectives. “I’ve come to realise my music is diverse in genre,” he says. “I actually really embrace the unexpected. I think it’s a great opportunity to learn a lot more things.”
One place he can truly embrace the unexpected is on his Youtube channel, which he launched as a vehicle to show people “the real Alex”. Lam has welcomed collaborations with everyone from musicians and producers to yoga students and chefs.
Dubbing his recording space “le Fishtank”, he adopts an observational role when collaborating with other artists. “I have a friend who collects home aquariums. He likes to have a drink and just watch every fish in their own little area, their ecosystem” Lam says.
Inspired by this thought process, Lam aims to nurture aspiring artists and discover what he can give rather than take from them. “Every time we have a guest come over,” he says, “they bring their own bioluminescence and their own colours and I want them to show them off uninhibited.”
Toronto-born hip-hop artist Dough-Boy discovered rap when he saw Jay-Z for the first time. The American rapper, songwriter and producer was appearing on MTV, and Galaxy Ho, as the yet-to-become Dough-Boy was then known, was mesmerised. “I was like, ‘Man, what is this? He’s not singing but it’s still music,’” he recalls. “‘What is it?’”
Ho, who grew up in Toronto and attended high school in Singapore before moving to Hong Kong at 17, and started laying down beats on his laptop while still in high school. He was just 24 when he won Best Original Song at the 2014 Hong Kong Film Awards for The Way We Dance.
Rather than catapulting the artist to the top of his industry, however, the newfound fame made him seemingly too expensive and overqualified for employment with a local production company. So Dough-Boy did the only thing he could: carve his own path. He first turned to teaching music as “just a little job to get by” but soon himself as inspired by his students as they were by him.
“Turns out, [teaching] is really cool!” he says, laughing. “It’s inspiring for the kids but for me as well. I got a lot from teaching.” In fact, Dough-Boy has played a major role in expanding Hong Kong’s small but growing hip-hop scene by setting himself up as an example for new and up-and-coming creators.
Having released three albums and collaborated with the likes of MC Jin and MaSiWei, his message for aspiring artists is to take the leap and stay true to their authentic selves. “It’s easy to do it, whatever I’m doing; you could have done it too,” he says, humbly. “Just do your thing because if you’re really about it, it’s definitely going to work out.”
Seeing where he is now, at the height of Asia’s rap scene, it might be hard to imagine the hurdles Dough-Boy had to overcome. But he knows more than anyone what it feels like to start from scratch with nothing but drive, determination and an unwavering passion for music. It’s always the road less travelled that brings you to where you need to be.
Jordie Guzman is on a mission to find meaning through music. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Guzman had his sights set on a career in law. But that all changed when, as a teenager, he moved to Hong Kong with his mother who served as consul general for the Dominican Republic. Asia’s World City changed his definition of work and success.
“I love law, but I love music more,” he says. “Hong Kong is the place that made me pursue music. It’s like a black hole, in the best way possible.”
Guzman’s golden ticket came when he was selected to go on tour as the bassist for Cantopop sensation Coco Lee. “I’ve learned a lot from touring that I’m now applying to my personal music career,” he says.
But pursuing music hasn’t always been easy. Not one to walk down the street and have a hit beat pop into his head, Guzman admits finding his personal sound – which he describes as “pop with a little bit of low-fi, trap, future funk” – has been a difficult and ever-evolving process.
“If I have a question about you as an artist, I’ll ask. But when I decided to produce my own music, I had to answer all those questions myself,” he says. “I knew what I wasn’t, but I wasn’t so sure what I was.” And thus, Moshup was born.
Guzman’s alter ego provides him the confidence and freedom to be fully immersed in his music, constantly pushing the boundaries. “In the same way Tarantino can kill people off in a movie, but he wouldn’t in real life, when I’m Moshup I can do so much more than Jordie can,” he explains.
The creator of Studio B also believes that music should be accessible to everybody, as the roots of music come from real life, with a little fantasy thrown in for good measure. He notes that while you may not like a particular song, it can still bring back or create memories. “Music evokes memory,” he says. “That’s what I want to achieve – to create memories.”
Working with young artists in his production studio, Guzman predicts a bright future for Hong Kong’s independent music scene. “I believe that the independent music scene here is like a volcano that’s bubbling and will explode any time,” he says. “The music industry is like a playground. Different people choose different things to play with but it’s all in one space; it’s all valid.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Sophy Wong discovered her talent and love for singing through karaoke. At 17, she participated in TVB’s The Voice and ended up in seventh place. “At that time, I felt like I was supposed to do something more practical and I should focus on school,” says Wong, who went on to study law at university. “It was only when I went to New Zealand for exchange during my sophomore year that I started to write music and truly explore that path. I realised deep down that my real passion is singing and music.”
Now an award-winning independent singer-songwriter, Wong hopes to set an example for young people by inspiring and encouraging the pursuit of true passion and trying new things. Among her inspirations is her mentor Chiu Tsang Her, a famous local producer and judge on The Voice.
“I’m grateful to have someone in my life to guide me. He didn’t just hold my hand and teach me everything, but encouraged me to create my own music,” she says. “And encouragement is exactly what young people and artists in Hong Kong need, to make sure they are comfortable trying something new and different.”
When it comes to music creation, Wong’s energy, passion and ambition to try new things are evident. While stamped with the identity of Hong Kong, her music doesn’t align with traditional Cantonese pop songs and instead combines different music styles, including R&B and electronic music, and the inspiration gained from the indie artists she loves.
“My roots are definitely from Hong Kong, and I’m trying to bring it further. When I go to Taiwan, Japan or wherever, I want to tell people that I’m from Hong Kong and the music is made in Hong Kong,” she says. Her latest album Harsh, with its electronic vibe and darker expression, “draws inspiration from the chaos and the atmosphere of the city.”
“But I also love FKA Twigs, Kimbra from New Zealand, Björk, and FKJ, and I travelled to see their performances. They’re artists that the local Hong Kong audience wouldn’t usually listen to and they don’t often come to Hong Kong. But feeling the music physically is different and I want to bring the gratification and the joy that I had when I saw the performances back to my fans in Hong Kong or Asia.”
With the help of the Internet and social media, Wong also hopes to expand Hong Kong’s independent music scene through collaborations. Together with lyricist Chow Yiu Fai and young artists, Wong will hold an art exhibition in Tai Kwun featuring six new artworks, songs and MVs inspired by the connections.
“The Internet is an open field, and if you have talent, a concept and guts, just do it. Everything is accessible and you can just DM someone if you want to collaborate,” she says. “For independent music, I think it’s important to not just focus on a small group of audience. If your music is good enough, you should see the whole world as your audience.”
Terrence Ma aka T-ma
As a producer, songwriter and coder, Terrence Ma has been exploring the world of music since the tender age of 14. After graduating from Brown University with a double degree in music and computer science, Ma brought his eye for detail and vast technological knowledge to Hong Kong’s independent music industry.
As music and technology become ever more accessible, there have been concerns that the musical landscape will become oversaturated and it will be impossible for anyone to be discovered. Ma, however, is embracing the increased interest. “Nowadays you’re basically competing with the entire world, especially on an independent level and because of that the standard of music is very high,” he says. “Plus, every country has its own unique sound and we now have access to it.”
So how does Ma think the Hong Kong music landscape compares to the rest of the world? The most striking difference, it seems, is the sense of nostalgia that makes Hongkongers particularly attached to the ballads from their childhoods. “I think because of the glory that the Hong Kong music industry had, a lot of people look to the past in terms of songwriting and in terms of the lyrics,” he says.
But Ma, through his own work and his production company, is hoping to move the industry in a new direction. Blue Moon Productions is geared towards emerging independent acts, with the aim to promote inclusivity, experimentation and following your dreams. “The company is kind of an extension of myself,” Ma says, laughing. “The hardest part so far has been trying to fill in the tax forms.”
Ma finds inspiration in speaking to friends outside of the industry to better understand his consumer. “It’s really about building connections over time,” he says, “Being an independent musician means that you really need backing from people, so you need to understand what they want.”
In a fast-paced city such as Hong Kong, what people want is constantly changing. But Ma’s mission is clear: “I see myself doing music no matter what. I may branch out into other stuff as well, but I will always be doing music.”
Photography / Issac Lam
Photography assistant / Ivan Chan, Jason Li, Hsiao King Ho, TK
Videographer / Wilson Lai
Editor / Zaneta Cheng
Styling / Chloe Mak
Styling assistant/ Jennie Wong
Hair / Toyo Ho for Sophy, Hin Wan at ii Alchemy for the boys
Make-up / Leo Tam for Sophy, Will Wong for the boys