Throughout our chat Kelvin mentioned quite a few times, “Yeah, I/we were 「膽粗粗」” which loosely translates to – I/we didn’t have the fullest idea of how it was going to be, but I/we were bold and just went in anyway.
Like Matt Knights who mentioned that the room lights up when the creative juices get going in prototyping sessions, our chat with Kelvin definitely lit up when he was talking about the fun he had dancing, walking the “renovation streets” and being on one of the most rewarding tours that unexpectedly opened up a new line of work for him.
The tour influenced the passion I have towards my work and was certainly a telling test. It enabled me to build a new profession, and challenged me and showed me how committed I was and my patience. It was tough, the tour – travelling to different places, and physically it required a lot.Kelvin Lam on being part of Jacky Cheung’s world tour 2016-19
- When the going gets tough, the tough gets going
- Grow up! A major wake-up call
- Teach and evolve
- Art crossing over into design and vice versa
- Simply Bold
- Test of true colours. Two-year world tour
Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads:
Tell us about yourself. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Kelvin Lam: When I was a kid, when my dad read the newspaper, the images of floor plans from ads for new property releases really intrigued me. I remember I would imagine what I would do if I had that space. Where will the bed go? Where would the TV go? Just imaginary. I was probably around 11, 12 years old and at that time had no concept of what interior design is. But I liked imagining things.
Frankly, I didn’t have any major leanings or directions growing up so things just kind of happened.
Getting into APA (Academy of Performing Arts, Hong Kong) was really my first step into a direction/profession. So even when I got in, there was no inkling of this – as in it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I would be doing interior design as we speak now.
So how did you discover your direction?
Kelvin: Now I can speak of it freely, but I used to feel embarrassed talking about it.
When I was in Form 5, I actually tried out for the TVB International Chinese New Talent Singing Championship (TVB is Hong Kong’s local TV station).
I liked to perform. At school, I was a bit of a show-off and I was quite good with sports. I liked exploring things and participated in singing contests at school so I thought I wasn’t too shabby and for try-outs at the TV station. But then of course it requires a lot more professional talent and training than what I had. So although I didn’t get in, it got me wondering how else I could get into the entertainment industry.
Back then, to get in to the TVB artiste training program, you need to be at least 175cm tall and I was only 171cm. I found out that APA offered a pathway into the industry so I applied to that instead.
It was quite a miracle in a way because I applied for the dance department when I had zero background in dance.
Was it difficult to get into APA?
It’s hard to say. One of the first things they test you on is music theory, but nothing too complicated. Then we went through a class where the adjudicators observed us whilst we were in class. And that was my first dance class ever.
I remember it being really fun. We had live music in class – live piano or live percussion. That was how it was during the school year too. The live piano or live drums really add to the atmosphere and excitement of class. They taught us some basic combinations of movements for the audition.
Thinking back, I probably made it look decent, but the theory behind it wasn’t quite there. Technique-wise I was at zero. But it was a really fun class and I remembered all the moves. We did cross the floor moves – it was like play, a class of play. I really felt very happy in the class and felt how fun it was to dance with others.
After that, if you get called back, you perform a self-choreographed solo. I did get a call-back so that was a fun experience too. I took all we learnt in class and pieced together the moves and choreographed my own piece for the audition. It was quite a miracle.
After I performed, the teachers asked me how I came to learn to dance. I told them what I told you about my background.
“The only dance I watch is that of Aaron Kwok.” I had no clue who Michael Jackson was then! I just watched tapes and copied how back-up dancers moved on stage. And I had not gone to a single dance class.
After the my audition, the interviewers asked, “So why do you like to dance? What makes you want to apply to APA?”
Obviously, I wouldn’t tell them that I wanted to be a pop star!
I told them I had misunderstood what contemporary dance was and thought it meant the type of dance you see back-up dancers do behind pop singers, but I also told them that I felt contemporary dance was a lot of fun.
I was quite lucky. They accepted me. There were three guys in our class. My wife Flora too was one of my classmates.
Why were you able to do what you wanted to do? As in, were there concerns from your family?
With my family, we don’t really talk about what does or doesn’t make a living. Before going to APA, I had thought about studying overseas – like studying Accounting in Australia.
Our family is not super well-off so I knew that to study overseas would be a strain on my parents. So we agreed after all that it wasn’t ideal so instead, I was given the freedom to explore whatever I wanted in Hong Kong.
I think my mother trusts that I am someone disciplined and methodological, so she wouldn’t worry that I would go “off-course.” She gave me the freedom to explore. So I was free to do so. They didn’t worry or seemed too concerned about how the job would or wouldn’t earn me a living.
1. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going
Fortunately, after graduation, I was able to teach soon after. It was a bit tough in the first half a year to a year or so but afterwards, I was able to support the family.
You have to get to the bottom of your heart and ask – are you here to show up at your job or are you here to dance? You need both, but when I’m here dancing on stage and I’m really enjoying it, I won’t be feeling that I am doing a job.Kelvin Lam
How was it tough in the beginning?
I suppose it’s the case for many dance graduates – you won’t necessarily be in a job or at teaching job after you graduate. You either have to apply for jobs or attach yourself to dance studios so people can get to know you and if they like what you do, they might invite you to teach there.
But you know what, Angela Hang, was one of our instructors for Jazz Funk, which was an elective. I took Jazz Funk and that was how I got to know Angela. (Karen: I had gone for dance lessons at Angela’s studio and that’s where I got to know Kelvin.)
We knew she taught at other studios at the time. Flora, myself and some classmates were really hooked so we took classes with Angela outside of APA also.
Angela at that point had yet to open her studio. But soon after, like in six months, she did – she she opened Ones To Watch in Tsim Sha Tsui – with High King and Sunny Chan. We took lessons there too when it first opened.
Looking back what were some people or experiences that influenced you?
Overall the teachers at APA has a great influence on my studies and even my approach in life.
At times I did try to take short cuts or let achievements get the better of me.
I applied for Grants and Loans while at APA and there were lots offered by the school and based on GPA I managed to get them. The first two-years was a Diploma Degree. After which you can continue on to a Degree or an Advanced Diploma.
I didn’t want to stay in school for so long and thought I would do an Advanced Diploma instead. By then I had one job experience under my belt and thought I might start making a living instead because honestly I didn’t have the funds to continue. To cover my living expenses, I was tutoring and found it a bit stressful.
What happened was we had advisory sessions with our faculty advisors every half year. I explained my situation to them and told them what I was intending. I didn’t ask them to help. However at graduation, the school, the teachers pulled together a year’s worth of funds to cover my tuition for the full year!
I felt I was on cloud nine.
But then I had a lesson – a very memorable lesson.
2. Grow up! A major wake-up call.
We had a school tour to Germany. On return, we had an advisory session again and it was like I was struck hard with a stick. I was told I was so careless and wasn’t concentrating in class whilst in Germany. It had a big impact. I felt really bad about my behaviour, especially when the teachers had put so much effort in me, I felt I really shouldn’t be so disrespectful. I cried and I cried.
That was really a turning point.
From then on, whether its with dance or in class, before I step into the studio, I prepare myself. I know what I am to do in class. Even with choreography, I prepare myself before going in so I don’t go in on a daze.
From that year on, my GPA improved. It wasn’t stellar because Flora’s is really good, but it was definitely up there. No more Cs. Everything was B and above to As.
What was the school tour in Germany about?
We were there for two weeks and collaborated with a few other schools. We performed a famous piece by Taiwan Cloud Gate Theatre’s Lin Hwai Min. It was a difficult piece. We were young and physically we weren’t super strong. Four schools participated – from Taiwan, US, Australia … and each school performed a quarter of the piece.
Maybe on the tour I was a bit impetuous and didn’t have a good attitude, as in I wasn’t professional enough when it came to the dance performance.
So that experience had a great impact.
How was schooling like at a performing arts school?
I really liked our teachers at APA because it felt like family. Because classes were small, teachers cared about how the students developed and we were close to the teachers so it felt like a family. We shared a lot with each other. They were really open-minded and very encouraging. It was very open and we could consider many dimensions and aspects on things. Three-quarters of the faculty were from overseas.
It was very different from the “force-feeding” type of learning in high school. They really gave us a tiny bit of guidelines and a lot of freedom in terms of choreography to create. In class, of course there was a curriculum and there was technique that we learn. But in terms of creation and creativity, we had a lot of freedom.
Our teachers taught us different means of creation. Our classes were not only in the studio, we also went to the pool, open spaces out in nature. We were a motley crew of students really – probably one the quirkiest classes at APA – with people of different shapes, sizes and abilities. That may have made it harder on the teachers to find ways to inspire us.
How do you bring that to your teaching now?
It’s the passion I believe.
Dancing is a sport.
You go through an energy so others can feel your energy, or you use your own energy to “infect” others.
So it’s all very infectous in a way.
It makes me feel that it is something very real. It gives me have a strong sense of existence.
When you’re performing on stage, you emanating your energy and the feedback that comes back gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Through being a teacher, you continue to learn how you could teach better, and you also evolve and grow. So that’s why we took lessons overseas to improve and also open ourselves to more inspiration – be it in the quality of movement or the creative concept. So to enable ourselves to be more.
3. Teach and evolve
How long have you been teaching?
I entered APA in 1999, I started teaching in 2001. I started teaching properly when I graduated in 2003 at CCDC (City Contemporary Dance Company) – their evening classes. And also taught at Angela’s studio – studiodanz. And also electives at APA too.
So you’ve been teaching almost twenty years. How has it evolved?
Because the foundations of Jazz Funk is in jazz technique so the basics are very solid, and students can progress. The biggest change I feel is the creative style and the evolution of dance styles – from Jazz Funk to Hip Hop/Jazz to Urban Dance and now choreography. Changing with the times.
I guess in more recent years, the relationship with students have changed. You know, you teach a class and you don’t just leave. Aside from questions on technique, some students who you’ve gotten to know better might have questions on life, on how they think about dance, so there’s bound to be more sharing.
The sharing has evolved – it used to be more simplistic, like what are the benefits of dancing. Later it’s more like professors – you analyse with them according to their gifts and talents, what might be the options. What’s interesting though when I talk to the students – if there’s something they they really really want, no matter how you advise them, they will go for it.
Because sometimes I might tell some students, “Maybe you don’t need to go to APA because there’s a whole lot of theory and it might not suit you. If you just want to dance and perform, you can do that at studios.” But they might have a preconceived idea that APA is better or whatnot, so somehow I’ve surprisingly discovered that some of my students got into APA or showbiz project. (A program under studiodanz)
So what’s really gratifying to see is – when people believe they can be more, they challenge themselves to that.
What’s really gratifying is that over these 20 years, there has been many students and a number of them are now teaching dance also.
What do you feel you impart on your students?
An attitude/mindset. And also my take on artistic expression.
For me, with choreography, I look for the meaning and concept behind the creation. So students that come to me know I am a bit more strict and tend to approach dance through a creative concept, rather than simply moves. It might not be the easiest to handle. For newbies – it could take a little time to get a sense of the style. When they start to get a sense of it, then they start to understand, “Ah, that is the texture that Kelvin is driving at.”
4. Art crossing over into design and vice versa
With Art, when you’ve done it for some time, it’s not simply playing the notes to a piece. You start to get a sense of the essence within and that touches you in a different way. That’s something that I’ve always sought to explore. So I think that aspect would influence the students.
That relates to your interior design work, right? Because it’s not simply about how you move, but how you create the over-arching atmosphere.
You said you went for your interior design thing in 2016. Was there something that clicked that the time wis now?
So each year, I give myself a goal. Something for me to achieve. For example, one year, I want to take lessons in the US. Or another year, I want to delve into this aspect of dance. Yet another year, I want to learn about stage lighting. I give myself a task each year.
All the other tasks have been fulfilled and in 2016 I remembered that I have always been interested in interior design and thought perhaps I can give it a go.
So it wasn’t a long-time coming, and since it was not a full-time course, I was able to do it.
It’s interesting how both interior design and dance started for me.
The thing was – I wasn’t planning on making interior design a profession. It was simply something I was interested in and enjoyed, and wanted to experience it. So when you’ve put yourself in the experience, enjoyed the process, you realise that it may have given you a different sense of satisfaction and so you continue.
It resonates with what you said earlier – to follow your heart with what you feel would be fun.
5. Simply Bold
Was it after graduation that you realised you wanted to make this your profession?
Actually no because I was still dancing then. I took the course in 2016 before the tour. (The auditions were in June, rehearsals began in August). After graduation I was on tour so I wasn’t thinking so much about design.
What happened though was I had to move house and had to renovate. My sister-in-law needed their place renovated also. And studiodanz too was moving to its current location in Tai Koo. So I ended up handling these three projects at the time.
Actually before then, when Kowloon studiodanz moved from Jordan to San Po Kong, Hong Boy and I oversaw the renovation. Really just being bold (膽粗粗) – I didn’t know a lot, and I just went into into it. Since Hong Boy had experience renovating a studio he shared with his crew in Kwun Tong, so we had that to go along with for the studiodanz renovations. We wanted to conserve renovation costs.
Those three projects just kind of appeared for you to try your hand in interior design!
So the design program was around six months.
What’s interesting is it utimately boils down to how much you want to learn. The course was a very general course to give us a sense of the workflows so what we learnt wasn’t in too much detail. Yet during the course, I was super interested in the subject so I walked through the ‘renovation streets” a LOT going into the material stores pretending I’m already a designer and asked for a lot of sample materials.
Because I was really interested in it, I went the extra mile. Even now, maybe my staff wouldn’t be as ‘crazy’ as I was. Sometimes I’d go online to see how people design, how they make certain things.
It’s kind of like, when you like dancing, you’ll naturally go online and look at dance videos to learn more. Same thing.
Five, six months is short, and not necessarily enough. But I put effort into learning more and to enrich my understanding of design.
What’s new as a business owner? Or you being your own brand so to speak?
When it was a one-man-band, I didn’t have a lot of experience communicating with the tradesmen. And I got cheated quite a bit in the beginning.
Yeah. They will cut corners. Things that don’t easily get noticed, they’ll do it the “easy way.“
So it’s through these challenges that you learn.
Because as a professional designer, there is a lot of information you would need to prepare for a renovation project.
And when you are servicing clients, you need to give them a more full-service solution. And I didn’t know what that ‘full-service’ entailed when I began.
I have been learning from each job. I review after each project, and I go online to look up how others might handle the workflow. It’s actually been a steep learning curve.
The learning has enriched me as a person and to be more grounded. So what we offer can be more professional and with that clients naturally have more trust in you.
How did you resolve those mistakes?
Well, by paying out of pocket! (laughs) Either the tradesmen have to redo the work because they’ve made the mistake. Or if I’ve purchased the wrong materials or miscalculated the quantity, then I’ll have to pay up. When it’s my mistake, I’ll have to bear the loss. So it was quite stressful. Especially in the beginning, I was really scared of making mistakes. Because when it involves money – and you weren’t charging big fees, it was quite stressful.
I guess overtime, you found your group of trustworthy partners and collaborators.
Yeah. Really – it wasn’t easy.
I feel that with partners – whether it’s in dance, or now for work – the tradesmen, contractors, or colleagues – it has to do with fate, and shared values and attitudes, whether we listen patiently and communicate open heartedly. There are many things that I am learning along the way.
I’ve gone through many collaborators to find the ones I work with now. I want to find good partners, that are responsible. So what I deliver to clients is up to standard and there is a reputation, good word of mouth.
Sometimes it’s hard having your own business – you have to bear the responsibility. You might feel guilty. You want to do better, which means you think about how you can enhance your service more. So you end up putting a lot of heart and effort in everything.
Do you pick your clients?
Yes somewhat. When you sense they are taking advantage of you or are going to be unreasonable, then it’s worth the time. Because now with my own company, I have staff to pay and such. So if the project can’t meet our minimum charge, then we’ll give the project a pass. We would also be honest with the client – that perhaps with the budget they have in mind, we won’t be able to deliver this kind of a thing. Generally, they understand.
What do you reckon is the uniqueness of your designs?
Our Chinese name is 點 恰。 My concept is to highlight one’s personal style, to bring out the natural beauty of one’s personal style. Because everybody has their own unique style and the home belongs to the people that live in it, right? Through my interactions with the client, I discover their likes and preferences, and with the creative design elements I sync with and express their character so to speak.
In a sense it’s like energy – coz you see not their look, but their energy so to speak.
The second part of the tagline – expresses my view of not going overboard, but striking a balance because some clients might go overboard and it departs from who they are I feel.
So these are the two ethos so to speak – it’s how I approach dance performance too.
Even though with dance we have to perform or expand ourselves. Regardless of how large we expand, the nature or the attitude is rooted in that person, that person’s energy. And not a fake energy. So that’s the approach in design.
People who like our designs, my clients, friends, they experience that aspect I just mentioned. It’s not over the top. I wouldn’t want to create something that doesn’t come off as the owner.
Do you have any longer-term goals or dreams?
Projects abroad – because there is more space for the designer to play around with. Hong Kong is generally tight space-wise. It oftentimes boils down to actual needs – and that’s generally driven by practicality. With space constraints, there is less room for more unusual or out of this world-type design concepts.
I would like to do more designs of unusual contours and lines. But it also boils down to budget. So sometimes I experiment with paints. Anything extra, costs more. I could pay out of pocket, but I am not at that point where I can do that every time. I need to take into account of costs and make a living to provide for my family.
In the future, I would like to go overseas and explore. I particularly like Danish designs and Australian designs and would like to learn or even work there.
6. A test of true colours: Two-year world tour
Lastly. You mentioned that the tour made you realise you need to treat yourself better?
It was something that made a big impression on me because you could see that some people are really passionate about their profession.
You have to understand that especially for a long tour (Jacky Cheung’s world tour 2016 -2019), things can get routine or unthinking. Maybe there are times that you aren’t performing to the best of ability. Overtime, would the moves become robotic or monotonous?
When I see Flora (Kelvin’s wife also on tour) or Jacky Cheung (the singer) – they are uncompromising when it comes to delivering a professional performance. So sometimes they share how they keep the fire or passion going. Especially when you’re doing 200 plus shows, how do you keep yourself at the level where you are performing your best?
How much you love it really shows because you must love it enough that you’ll remind yourself each time going into a performance to do your best.
You have to get to the bottom of your heart and ask – are you here to show up at your job or are you here to dance? You need both, but when I’m here dancing on stage and I’m really enjoying it, I won’t be feeling that I am doing a job.
When you’re on stage, the audience feels your energy. Even though I am a back-up dancer, people can still tell if you’re there just to stand around or if you’re putting your heart into it.
So that experience gave me an opportunity to see the passion people have towards their profession, that really made an impression on me.
I also felt thankful because opportunities to be on a world tour performing for such a stretch of time doesn’t come around often. It’s a training and a test – to tell you how much do you actually love this. Because if for the stretch of time you’re still loving it, then it shows you you really do love it.
Because if the love wasn’t there, the passion would be fleeting. Maybe it lasts three months and after that you’re just showing up for work. It’s just really telling. It’s a big challenge.
All my life, most projects are shorter – concerts, performances, or even tours were much shorter. So this was a very important milestone for me to be on the Jacky Cheung tour. I am very thankful because the tour gave me many things – I saw the world, and we had break time on tour – I got to do my interior design stuff. Some people did other things. Some played video games.
It was during the tour that I grew my interior design work as I balanced the performance part and the design work. Because really, if it wasn’t for the tour, I am not sure I would be in this office space, operating in this manner and having a conversation with you now.
The tour influenced the passion I have towards my work and was certainly a telling test. It enabled me to build a new profession, and challenged me and showed me how committed I was and my patience. It was quite tough really the tour – travelling to different places, and physically it required a lot.
This probably was one of the concerts where I’ve danced the most – typically I would perform 8 dances per concert or less but for this one, I did 11 or 12 and each were full-length songs. So say 12 songs, and 5 minutes each – that’s a full hour of dancing on stage.
My wife, myself, and some colleagues would train at the gyms at the hotel or swim to keep up our physical fitness. After removing the makeup and back to the hotel, I tended to the interior design work. Sometimes till late.
It’s a test of endurance of how committed and passionate you are with your pursuit so to speak.
Looking back, it was really positive because you allowed yourself to go through a remarkable once-in-a lifetime type experience. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
Kelvin was one of my dance teachers. I didn’t really converse with him back in those days and am glad to find out more about him in this chat. One afternoon, as I wondered who I might invite for an interview, I saw on TV a walk-through of a pretty chic, yet practical (ie. plenty storage for a small space) apartment. And to my surprise, it was Kelvin being interviewed for his work as, one of many hats – designer.
All images are from Kelvin Lam unless otherwise noted.
Date of interview: 21 May, 2021 via video conferencing.
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