Singing next step for joker Dayo

1999.10.15 | SCMP

Philosopher and stand-up comedian Dayo Wong is taking his foray into music seriously.

Life can be funny. When Dayo Wong Chi-wa started out, he was armed with a degree in philosophy. He wound up as a stand-up comedian, but there might be some balance in that, as it allows him to philosophise a lot on life – socially and politically.

But it is not Wong the comedian I have come to speak to, but Wong the newcomer to Hong Kong’s music industry – for him, another step into the unknown.

Wong does not claim to have the world’s greatest voice: “My singing isn’t that good but that’s the thing about Hong Kong showbusiness, isn’t it? A person does not really have to be the best to get into the business,” he says with a cynical smile.

“What gives me the courage to do this is that other people have been able to; maybe I can, too.”

Wong is better known as the man who introduced stand-up comedy to Hong Kong audiences – or vice versa, depending on how you look at it. He began his career in performance as an actor with the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre. Later he went into radio, as a disc jockey who “talked more than he played music” .

Bored, he decided to take a chance and lead Hong Kong into the age of stand-up comedy, dabbling also in films and television work.

When he held his first Hong Kong stand-up comedy show in 1990, he was understandably nervous. “I asked myself if this was the right way to go. Hong Kong has never had that genre before. I didn’t even know if people had the culture or habit, or if they knew how to laugh at the jokes. Were they sensitive enough to language – because that is what stand-up comedy is about – and could it be done in Cantonese?” he recalls asking.

The answer was yes: his shows have given him a decade of financial and artistic independence and the freedom to choose his projects.

Wong’s latest is, of course, his new extended-play record (EP). His recording label wants to make him the ‘Weird Al Yankovic of Hong Kong’, although he does not necessarily share that vision. He remains undeterred, as he gets the chance to indulge himself, and that is enough for him.

“I don’t worry about whether it’s commercial enough or if it will make money. It’s just a personal interest; as long as I am doing something fun and interesting, I’m quite happy,” says the thirtysomething who used to play the guitar.

The idea of branching out into music germinated when Wong was approached by a production company. He turned them down, because he wanted to do his own music but was unable to set aside time.

Then, he mentioned it to a musician friend, Wing Lo, who encouraged him to take up the idea and offered to be his producer. Eventually Warner Music offered him a distribution deal.

“I don’t worry about whether it will make money. It’s an interest”

His musical debut, Old Kwan, is an EP of five songs, and Wong is already gathering material for his next album, which is to be a full LP of 10 songs.

Ask Wong what he wants to achieve in music, besides indulge in a personal interest, and he observes that Hong Kong lacks its own music. Probably the last time it could boast original music with lyrics reflecting Hong Kong life were the days when Sam Hui wrote ditties for the working man.

“There is a lot of popular music in Hong Kong but it has been a long time since we’ve seen any Hong Kong popular music. So we wanted to do Hong Kong pop with special lyrics and steer clear of the generic love ballads,” Wong says.

Many who have caught any of Wong’s stand-up comedy shows in the past decade may be expecting some satirical, socio-political commentaries penned by the comedian himself. In that case, Old Kwan would probably come as a surprise.

The tunes include the title track, about the God of War – Kwan Kung – to whom both the triads and the police pray for protection, You’re The Boss, which drops names such as Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang and windsurfing champion Lee Lai-shan, and a love song with a difference, I Love You For A Lifetime.

Most of the songs carry a retro rock ‘n’ roll feel but what makes them different is their more colloquial lyrics, written by actor-writer Peter Lai Pei-tak, who Wong met when they both worked on a television series together.

“I was confident that we could achieve what we wanted to as far as the music was concerned, because I have a group of talented musician friends who supported this. But lyrically, I was not quite sure that we could, so I suggested Peter. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many lyricists working in Hong Kong,” he says.

Wong offers ‘lack of time’ as the reason for not doing his own writing (he was busy preparing for a series of stand-up shows), but later admits to being ‘a bit lazy’.

“In my other work, like the stand-up shows, I have to do everything, including the writing. So this was perfect for me. With music, I wanted to try working with stuff written by other people.”

“But I was consulted a lot in the process. I think the people I work with expect a certain degree of participation from me. Maybe in the next album I will try writing one or two songs.”

Unlike musicians who insist that all their songs make personal statements, Wong says he is not too particular about those that the record company chooses for him – as long as he has one or two that he enjoys.

“Maybe I feel I don’t have the right to judge what songs are good. They have so much more experience in the business, so they probably know better,” he says.

“Each song is such an individual package, anyway… With films or dramas, when you don’t like something about it, you would end up not liking the whole product. In an album the 10 songs can be separated into 10 different entities.”

As for personal statements, Wong says music’s relevance to him is that it relaxes him. “I’m very envious of Woody Allen. He makes his movies and in his free time he plays the clarinet. He just enjoys himself performing with friends. Singing is a little like that for me.”