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Interview: Wyman Wong on lyricism and never looking back

Hong Kong's most iconic lyricist discusses the role of a lyricist, the music industry, and never looking back

Written by
Josiah Ng

If you’ve ever stepped into a karaoke room in Hong Kong or heard a lick of Cantopop from the last 20 years, chances are you’ve heard the work of Wyman Wong. Arguably the most famous modern Cantonese lyricist, Wong has penned hits for everyone who’s anyone in Cantopop, including Eason Chan, Sammi Cheng, Jacky Cheung, Fiona Sit, Aaron Kwok, Leo Ku, Hacken Lee, Denise Ho, Twins and many, many more. This year, his most recent hits include two numbers written for Hins Cheung: the chart-topping Robin and top five hit Different Classmates, which are preceding Cheung’s new album, Vibes, out on October 5.

But Wong is not just an accomplished lyricist. He’s widely considered a fashion icon, has appeared in several films and was a successful DJ with Commercial Radio Hong Kong and Metro Broadcast Radio before his songwriting career took off. Despite working in Cantopop for more than 20 years, Wong shows no signs of slowing down or losing his touch. How does such success make him feel, we wonder?

After 20 years in the music industry, numerous awards and hits, you’ve earned yourself a notable reputation. What do you make of all that?
A problem with aging is people looking back. I’ve seen too many people who spend way too much time reminiscing once they hit a certain age. For me, that’s pretty lame. But even great people can fall into this trap. I think that can diminish the impact of that person’s accomplishments somewhat. For instance, say someone wrote three great books in their 30s, but then in their 60s, they’re still talking about those books without having released newer, better material. That’s pretty pathetic. Seven out of 10 great people are like that. That’s why I’m scared. I’m very cautious and I won’t let myself fall into that trap. I’m not the kind of person who likes to look back over my career. And it’s not that I’m afraid of seeing anything in particular if I look back, but I’m worried that I might become trapped in reflection.

Is it tough to continue to producing newer and better material?
If you find it really hard you shouldn’t be in the industry. Either you keep achieving or you have to bow out. Maybe consider doing something else. In creative industries, ability, talent and ideas will run out one day. You can’t prepare for that day, either. You can only consider doing something else when that time comes. Maybe seek new achievements in another field. The world’s full of opportunities and I believe people want to do more than one thing anyway.

With that in mind, your recent song for Fiona Sit, Me, Ten Years Later, is a response song, written with your 2006 collaboration with Fiona, To Me, Ten Years Later, clearly in mind. Obviously it looks back, but do you view that as a way of moving on?
Not really. This is like the movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Some stories, after a little time, you want to see a sequel, and it’s more of an emotional thing. If people like the story, and if there’s room for development, then I’ll do it. At the same time, I know this is what a lot of people want and would like. There are certain songs that resonate with people and that they identify with, so I try to expand on those. But I can’t do that for all my songs and I won’t force it if it doesn’t work.

How did your collaboration with Fiona Sit first come about?
Same as all my other collaborations with artists – the record company reached out to me. It’s very business-like in the sense that over 95 percent of the time, I don’t even get to meet or chat with the artists before I have to start writing. For newcomers to the industry, if I’m lucky, the record companies will show me photos of the artists. Very rarely do I get to listen to their voices, so I have to guess what they’re about most of the time. That was what happened when I first wrote for Fiona. I only saw her photos. I didn’t know who she was or what she was about. It’s only after two or three records, five or six songs that I finally got to know her. And even after I do meet these people, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can become friends. And by friends, I mean we meet outside of work and want to see each other other than for work. Fiona is one of the few artist friends I have. Many people ask me if I’m biased when it comes to writing lyrics for artists, but whether I know the artist or not, the work I produce has to be good because it concerns my reputation and my brand. It’s just that if I’m more familiar with the artist, it’s easier for me to grasp what kind of song suits him or her.

If you don’t have the luxury of meeting the person beforehand, how do you go about writing lyrics for them?
Let’s say in fashion you see some nice fabric and you buy it, whether you have a design or not. You draw or jot down a design idea whether you have a client or not, to use later. Then, later on, when a client you are not familiar with approaches you, there are materials and ideas already there. When it comes to lyrics, it’s not really drafting, but I write down themes, topics and subjects that I find interesting. That way, when an unfamiliar artist approaches me, I can find something suitable from those 500 or so ideas I already have in my little notebook.

Do you feel the focus of your writing has changed over the years?
A good lyricist should be able to write about all kinds of things. When someone tells you what they want, you should be able to provide it. That’s fundamental. It’s evident that there have been changes in my writing over the years, mainly because the lyrics reflect what’s important to me at that stage of my life. In the beginning, I wrote about relationships and break-ups because that was most important to me in those years. But in the last two or three years, I’ve focused on writing about social issues.

Why is that?
It’s impossible not to be in touch with the world. I can’t see myself writing about romance, especially after these last few years with what’s going on around us. This is our livelihood. It should reflect what we feel most strongly about. And thinking from a listener’s perspective, this is also what they’re most concerned about.

In terms of writing lyrics in Cantonese, there’s a lot to account for, such as making sure tones aren’t sung improperly. How do you address the technical challenges of setting Cantonese to song?
It’s definitely challenging but I don’t see that there’s anything particular that I have to intentionally overcome. To me, if you are meant to be a lyricist, you will intuitively know how to do it. Throughout my creative journey, I’ve never had to try to overcome anything. If one day I have the feeling that I need to purposefully address significant challenges, then I’m not meant to be writing or doing that thing anymore. It’s like Formula 1 drivers: once they hop in the car they know more or less how to do all the techniques. Of course, there are technical things that can be achieved through hard work, but talent is crucial.

When did you discover your talent for lyrics?
I found words fascinating from a very young age but I actually never really thought it was a particularly special gift.

Who inspired you?
There are so many! Richard Lam Chun-keung, Jimmy Lo Kwok-jim and Albert Leung are three that I love. There are others I like, of course, but love and like are different things. There are works by Poon Yuen-leung that I like very much, as well as works by Chow Yiu-fai.

And what usually goes through your mind when writing lyrics?
I don’t have to think too much about anything. Ideas come to me naturally. I don’t need to call for my muse, the muse comes to bother me! Oftentimes it’s when I’m about to sleep. If you are meant to do something, the muse will do that. It rushes in unannounced. And it causes a lot of insomnia.

You’ve worked in so many different capacities, in fashion, radio and film. Is there any central idea that ties them all together?
I’m not very conscious about any specific idea or motivation. I think I’m doing the world something good and it’s fun. You know the drama Lost? It is about a group of people stranded on an island who fight to survive. There’s a scene that involves the main character, Jack, who’s been leading the group and making sure that they have what they need since the beginning – food, shelter, clothing, etc. One day, one of Jack’s subordinates finds golf balls on their airplane which crashed. Using other miscellaneous materials, he makes a makeshift golf course on the island. People gathered, played and had a good time. And Jack says to the guy: “I used all my efforts and spent days and nights keeping everyone alive, providing food, building shelters, finding water. But all it takes to make everyone happier than ever is for you to build one golf course.” Keeping others alive is a huge contribution and a noble thing, but to make people happy, there needs to be a person who builds the golf course. I think I’m that person. I think art is the golf course. Survival is not enough. Life is what we want. Perhaps even way before I knew what art meant, I was already making art because I subconsciously understood the concept.

What’s the role of a Cantonese lyricist, in the grand scheme of things?
To do our best. Many people praise Cantonese lyrics for their depth of meaning compared to lyrics in other languages. I have to say, I’m proud to be a part of this and I’m very grateful that Hong Kong citizens continue to support all the artists, beyond just us lyricists. As a result, I will continue to uphold my special role – to produce the best. 

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