SCMP Thursday, March 15, 2001

Roman's empire


Wearing their Gucci uniforms, armed with Prada handbags, bunches of flowers and gift-boxes, impatient tai-tais elbow their way through the crowd, in a hurry for an important date. Has a new line of one of their favourite labels just arrived? Perhaps another anti-ageing facial product has just been launched?
No, they are struggling to get into the auditorium of the cruise ship Superstar Leo, where their idol, the flamboyant Canto superstar Roman Tam, is due on stage any minute.
Dressed in a ritzy black suit with a glittering leopard made from diamonds embroidered on to his left shoulder, Tam is making a rare solo performance and the tai-tais are among his most faithful fans.
The evergreen singer, who prefers not to reveal his age, is back on stage following a serious illness. In December, he suffered several blackouts and checks revealed he had a ruptured ulcer in his liver, forcing him to pull out of all the promotional events for his current album, Shanghai New York.
"I realised that my health is most important. If I was not healthy enough it would have taken a month instead of a week to recover from the sickness," says Tam, who now exercises for two hours every day.
The superstar officially retired from the stresses of showbiz three years ago, after 25 years in the limelight. But it is a selective retirement: he still performs when he feels like it and records an album if the music moves him.
Emerging in the 1970s, Tam earned his fame by singing theme songs for popular television drama series such as Changes Of A Family. His influence and songs have survived the passing of time and now even Canto-pop king of the 90s Jacky Cheung Hok-yau pays him lip service.
After melting the crowd with an energised mix of schmaltz and sensuality, Tam relaxes backstage in a casual black top and lurid red pants.
"I am so disappointed by the local media and the music scene here," he says, claiming it was the press who pushed him into quitting.
"If a singer is not around town for a few months, the media say that their career is going down the drain. But they could be working hard in Taiwan or the mainland," he adds, lighting a cigarette. "I especially hate the radio stations. They do not want to give me awards because I 'already have enough'. What kind of reason is that?" he spits. "If I have done a good job I deserve an award, don't I?"
Those radio stations always complain about not having good original music to play, I tell him.
"There is always high quality production around," he fires back. "But they classified my music as old and outdated."
While Tam has become a regular face on the rave scene, grinding it out on the dance floor in sequins and chiffon, he dismisses dance music as having "no life".
"Raves nowadays are no fun. Kids just get 'high' on drugs and lie down on the floor like injured soldiers," he says. "The type of electronic music dominating the local scene is not created by human beings but a box. The lyrics nowadays are meaningless too."
Tam misses the bygone era of Canto-pop, when the tunes and words were strong and uncomplicated and workmen could whistle the melody.
"Young people nowadays are so lazy," he says. "They do not learn any musical instruments. You are already an outstanding kid if you can play the guitar. Teenagers now consider learning certain musical instruments, such as the saxophone, old-fashioned."
Not long ago Tam harshly criticised hip-hop group LMF in the Chinese-language newspapers.
"I know about their music and the messages delivered in their songs, such as a song attacking the media, but saying f-words on stage is very insulting. I cannot accept that," he reiterates.
Born in Guangdong, Tam spent his childhood in Hong Kong (moving here permanently in 1962). "People called me tai luk tsai [mainland boy] and said that I swam all the way to Hong Kong from the mainland," he says.
Tam's passion for music came from his parents, both of whom went to English universities. "I was only allowed to watch Broadway musicals and cowboy movies as a child," he says.
In the late 60s, The Beatles, the most influential band in the history of pop music, inspired him to form his own "beat" group, Roman And The Four Steps. The teenage Tam played guitar and organ, honing his on-stage charisma in dingy nightclubs, over his family's objections.
His enthusiasm for Broadway musicals continues and he frequently travels to New York for the real thing. He has seen Fosse three times. Swing is another favourite.
"Real music should be sincere, with great melodies and lyrics. That is why I love the big band sound," he says.
"If I want to produce Broadway-style music, I could not do it in Hong Kong because we do not have the resources to support it."
He recorded Shanghai New York, a collection of Mandarin oldies loaded with Broadway oomph, in New York, where he worked with arrangers and musicians all experienced in stage musicals.
"If I asked Chinese musicians to do the arrangement, they would tend to follow the original version," Tam says.
Given the option, Tam names 80s pop queen Anita Mui Yim-fong as the singer he'd most like to work with. He recalls a duet they performed at one of her concerts.
"We were such perfect partners on stage. We almost did not need any rehearsal, but we looked like we had practised for a thousand times. I would really love to work with her again."
After all these years playing the showbiz game, Tam says he is now more optimistic and open-minded.
"I used to be a very demanding person and I would be upset if people failed to give me what I wanted. That was why people thought that I was a serious person," he says.
He revealed another side of himself on a commercial radio game show hosted by the Soft and Hardcore Kids (Jan Lamb Hoi-fung and Eric Kot Man-fai). His youthful attitude and cheeky sense of humour won over a new legion of fans.
"Never remind yourself how old you are and why you should not be hanging out with young people," Tam says. "Many youngsters are my good friends."
Ultimately, Tam says, he is now a happy person, one who lives by a quote from his favourite book, Gone With The Wind. "Why do we need to worry so much? Tomorrow is another day," he recites.