Malaysian-Chinese singer-songwriter Gin Lee tells us about her artistic journey in Hong Kong, from arriving here unable to speak Cantonese to her darkest moments in getting to where she is now.
FACING THE MUSIC WITH GIN LEE
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Gin Lee first appeared on Hong Kong television in 2010 after taking part in popular singing competition The Voice 2, when she was immediately recognized for her vocal abilities. “It was my very first time to Hong Kong,” says the sweet-natured, sweet-natured singer-songwriter. “After the competition, I was approached by a few different companies and thought it was a good time to build a career. So in 2011, I officially came to Hong Kong and have been based here ever since. The same year, I signed with a company [BMA Records] and debuted as a Cantopop artist with my debut song “Here I Come”.
On how she got there, Lee recalls memories with her family, which were equally musical. Lee’s mother was a singer and her father a drummer who also sang. “Both my parents were in bands in the 80s – before karaoke. They were in different bands but, through friends, they met and fell in love.
Lee laughs as he continues. “That’s how my sister and I were born. But after my older sister was born, my parents gave up music and started working. Additionally, karaoke was becoming increasingly popular, replacing live bands and concert halls. Getting married and having children also meant having to earn more money.
It wasn’t until Lee was 16 in high school that his father, who felt the demand for live music was starting to return, suggested he form a band. The new unit, which included Lee, his father, older sister, and a few other friends, started playing together, giving him the experience that started it all. “I gained a lot of experience during this period. I was singing and performing, and my dad was teaching us along the way. How to dress and how to interact with others. It was really hands-on training for us.
After just one year of performing, Lee reached the point in her life where she had to make the big decision about what to study in college. She considered psychology a personal interest, as well as sports, due to her talent as a sprinter – she represented her state in the 100 meters in the Malaysian national championship. However, due to injuries and the surprisingly short careers of professional athletes, Lee decided it wasn’t for her.
“That’s when my dad came in and said, ‘You love singing so much and you have potential, so why don’t you focus on that? “” Thanks to this kind nudge from her father, Lee took her first steps in building a music career and graduated from the International College of Music in Kuala Lumpur with a bachelor’s degree in vocal music and arrangement. She then released an album in Malaysia in 2009 but, looking for a bigger stage to perform on, entered a Taiwanese singing contest, eventually deciding to come to Hong Kong to seek new opportunities.
With no family or friends here, Lee had to adapt to a different culture and learn a new language, not to mention learn to sing songs there. To say the least, the challenge was daunting; nevertheless, she has given herself three years to carve out a musical career here. “I thought I should at least give it a try,” she said. “If I did it, I did it. If I didn’t, I would go home.
Lee spent three months learning Cantonese, watching TV from morning to night, everything from Hong Kong dramas to the news. Finally able to converse in Cantonese, she began appearing on shows. “Sometimes the MC would talk so fast that I couldn’t understand. I had to pretend to know what was going on, so I nodded, said yes, and smiled a lot.
By 2014, his three years had passed and his contract with his record company had not been renewed. Calling it her “dark period”, Lee found herself at a crossroads – should she stay or go? “I waited almost a year and still didn’t have a new recording contract. I was really lost and scared. I started to doubt myself. Is it because I’m not good enough? And without work, I had no money for rent so I also really felt the pressure of everyday life… I didn’t tell my family and just decided to fend for myself.
“I was depressed and I cried every day. Crying as soon as it got dark and until the early morning. Then I would fall asleep, because I hadn’t had any the day before. I would start again the next day. It was depressing. No money, no job and no friends. It was horrible.”
The penny dropped when she realized that it had taken even longer for others to achieve their goals. “When they chased their dreams, it took them maybe 10 years to get recognition or see results. For me it was only three years, so why not keep going? If that’s what I really want do, I should keep trying, so I let go of all self-doubt and decided to go ahead and found the courage to approach different companies on my own.
That’s when Lee, who describes herself as passive and introverted, went into business mode. Learning how to negotiate deals, she prepared answers to questions record labels might ask her, gathering all the contractual terms and control she was looking for.
“I have grown a lot in a short time. I was overcoming my fears and doing things that didn’t come naturally to me. Looking back, I’m grateful for what happened. I now know what it feels like to be scared and helpless. But I was tougher than I thought.
“Now I feel able to say to others: you may be scared right now, but you have to have faith in yourself because there is nothing you cannot overcome.”
In 2014, Lee signed with Universal Music and went on to release multiple singles and albums, winning awards along the way and performing on her dream stage at the Hong Kong Coliseum. Now, after more than a decade in the Hong Kong music industry, she shares her thoughts on how the industry has evolved over the years.
“Back then, it was more about singing. Make albums and that’s it. People would buy CDs and listen to you. Now, being an artist is much more than singing, or how to sing well. Now you need to increase your perceived value, especially online and on social media. Your audience on social networks is now the indicator of your popularity.
And of course, Lee also had to learn how to play the social media game, take photos and edit videos to post online. “It’s a livelihood. You have to build your career and therefore learn. That said, I’m part of the generation that believes in having a solid foundation in music and singing. From there, you can build everything else. A lot are the other way around. They’re popular and then they learn to sing. You can do it, but I’d rather start by mastering the basics.
Slated for release in mid-July, Lee’s latest album features songs that span a variety of topics and genres, some of which have already been released. They include the powerful ballad “When the Sun Rises,” a duet with Hong Kong legend Jacky Cheung about letting go and moving on; his first official dance track “IDK”, which tackles the reggaeton genre through a mix of Caribbean and Latin rhythms; and her latest single, “Just Right,” a romantic R&B song with a positive message. “The song uses love to say, please keep believing good things are going to happen,” Lee says. “The right thing will happen or the right person will come at the right time.
“My next single will also be of a different genre – electronic rock. People will be able to experience different things on this album, different sides of me, different moods and different stories.
The French May, postponed this year to June, is also on its program. On June 24 and 25, Lee is performing at the Hong Kong Cultural Center Grand Theater with jazz singer Talie Monin as part of a Hong Kong-France cultural exchange led by composer Leon Ko. with French songs,” she explains. “So I will sing some of these French songs as well as classic Cantonese songs. I will also sing rearranged versions of my own songs for the full experience.
Highlight songs include “Tchin-Tchin”, the French version of Tsai Chin’s “The Forgotten Time” from the film Hellish Affairs and the Cantonese version of “La Vie en Rose” by Danny Chan. This extraordinary musical journey through popular local and French music, accompanied by a musical masterclass, is sponsored by the First Initiative Foundation (FIF), which supports and promotes the arts, music and education.
Lee, whose split from Universal Music was revealed last month, says she would love to explore acting. “In one of my last projects, I played one of the main characters in a mini-movie and I really enjoyed it. I watched a lot of dramas during the pandemic and I feel like ‘Being an actor is very meaningful, especially now that we’re spending more time at home, so I’d like to be there for people, to provide that entertainment.
She also has some words of wisdom for future singers. “I would advise spending more time perfecting the craft. Sure, gadgets can propel you and make you popular, but if you want to call yourself an artist and enjoy a long-term career, you need to spend time practicing, training, and perfecting your craft. In my opinion, there are not too many in Hong Kong with solid foundations in this field. We have hit songs and popular people, but if we talk about live singing, few of them have that high skill level.
“I love to sing and I want to master this craft,” says Lee after all this time in the business. “It’s my art. It’s what I want to do. And I want to do my best at it.