There is no Elton
John, Melissa Etheridge, Erasure, or even Lance Bass in
Hong Kong, but there is Chet Lam. He’s penned songs
for mainstream Cantonese pop artists, opened for kd
lang, won awards, written collections of writing, and
even starred in a couple of Chinese queer indie films.
In a country and culture that still prefers its media icons
closeted, Lam’s sexuality doesn’t seem to be
ruffling any feathers. Even when he’s
performing the male-pronoun specific, “When He
Sings” (from the 2006 all-English cover album
Camping) or romantic ditties about, well, Bert
the most ambiguous gay couple in TV history, that’s
for sure,” says Lam. Sitting in
Manhattan’s Joe’s Café, a queer coffee
spot appropriately positioned on the corner of Gay
Street and Waverly, the 31-year-old Lam cuts a slight,
almost schoolboy figure in a striped button-down shirt
and tie. “They tell everyone they’re best
friends,” he continues. “Their pictures
hang on a wall in the same bedroom. And one of their
songs is called, ‘When Bert’s Not
Here,’ sung by Ernie. That is one of the most
touching love songs I’ve ever heard.” Lam
performed the song during an arts festival appearance,
an Ernie puppet literally on hand.
stricken with wanderlust and frequently mixing Cantonese and
English in his songs, Lam visited New York to finish writing
his next album, catch some concerts (including Damien
Rice), and have a sit-down with The Advocate.
When did you come out publicly, and what was the response? I came out in the very first interview I did
five years ago in Hong Kong because I didn’t
want to make it a big deal. Hong Kong people and Chinese
media like playing games with you and can be really mean.
But when you lay yourself out in front of them, with
no hidden agenda or anything, they will just stop
asking. And that’s what I wanted to do. No more
When did you come out as a person? I never came out because I was never in.
Travel and relationships play a big part in your
songs. Travelogue, Too’s
“CL411” deals with both.
What’s the story behind it? I grew up -- not poor, in Hong Kong you
can’t be too poor -- but we didn’t have
money at all, in a public housing estate less than 500
meters from the airport and my dad was working as a
maintenance guy in the engine department. I was
watching the planes go up and down every day, and I
really liked them and wanted to go away. Later it became a
habit, like getting away from things, from
relationships. I wrote "CL411" on the plane to San
Francisco in 2003. My debut album had come out and was
quite well received, and suddenly I got some money so I
could do what I wanted. So I was trying to escape from
someone…and I realized maybe I’m the one
whom I’ve been trying to escape.
And "Two Toothbrushes"? You know Bright Eyes? It was inspired by his
work "The First Day of My Life." I was so touched I
wanted my own version! Two toothbrushes in the same
glass in a bathroom together is bliss -- it’s
happiness, and I’m really content when I look
at them. This is a symbol, and I like using real
symbols and objects in my songs to make people understand
what I’m talking about.
While the Chinese media doesn’t ask about your
sexuality anymore, do they still touch on the issue when
discussing these relationship songs? They don’t pay attention to the words at
all. Camping, the English cover album I did for fun
(which includes ABBA and Madonna tunes) -- it’s
really gay right? They just don’t care about
words. There’s no room for music criticism.
It’s all about entertainment, melody, and beat,
but I’m a guy of words. What I’ve been
doing is out of the mainstream.
Your sister, who’s a bit of a tomboy, is in a
group called at 17. Is she also gay? Well, their business I don’t want to talk
about, but I can tell you I’m close to my
sister. I always call them the Hong Kong version of the
Indigo Girls -- or more like Tegan and Sara.
You do realize those artists are queer, right? Are they? Oops! Well, you can judge for
There’s a clip of you performing a cover of Kylie
Minogue’s “In Your Eyes” on
YouTube, from your Camping live show. You bring
quite a weight to the song. Yeah, it is heavy. Those songs [for
Camping], they speak something to me. When I
was choosing the songs, I really had to look at the
lyrics and retell the stories. But they don’t care
about [most of] the words I sing in Hong Kong -- only
the clever ones.
You use English words in a lot of your songs. Why? That’s how I grew up. There was English
taught in my school. We are supposed to be all
bilingual -- trilingual with Mandarin, Cantonese ,and
English -- but it really helps when you listen to a lot of
English songs and read the materials. Janice
Ian’s song "Light to Light" opened my world --
the line: "There’s wisdom in the teaching of the old
familiar songs, and there’s sorrow in repeating the
old familiar wrongs." When I started to listen to the
record, it started to grow inside me. That’s
what inspires me to focus on words first and maybe why
English words are thrown in here and there.
Have you ever been approached or pressured to sign
with a major label and go mainstream
Cantopop—complete with the glitzy costumes
and live shows? I cross over with those artists when I write
songs for them and sometimes we perform together. But
I never let them sign me. Even this year, right before
I came here, someone was asking me. But I always make my own
stand because people don’t like me doing
mainstream stuff like that by myself.
What is your love life like these days? My position is, "Don’t go to find them,
they will find you." Here and there they find me, but
I really have to concentrate on my career because I am
a one-man band. I have my own label, and I have to take care
of so many things.”
Being a traveler, you could have a ship in every
port, so to speak. No! Oh, no. Wow. I wish. Not the case.
It’s too time-consuming.