Alan and Hakken: Live!

Given my long-standing concerns over Hong Kong's Cantoculture, it was with fear and trembling I approached the Hong Kong Coliseum on a recent Friday evening. Mrs Tall, in a burst of nostalgia for her teenage pop-idol-worshipping years, had obtained tickets to a joint Alan Tam/Hakken Lee concert.

I expected the worst, and I was thoroughly disappointed: I had a great time.

How can this be, since all the most easily-mocked elements of Cantoculture were present in profusion?

The stars wore silly, over-the-top outfits, and changed them over and over. Just to give you one example: Hakken Lee made his entrance wearing a fire-engine red, floor-length fur coat with see-through panels. Under this, onion-like, he wore a red coat with tails, a short red jacket, and a red waistcoat. He had on a red hat, topped not just by a plume of red feathers, but by a complete red bird. His trousers, if it must be said, were red. His boots . . . okay, I'll just stop.

There was a troupe of dancers whose outfits were even worse (although they did come out for a long sequence wearing faux-cheerleader getups, which certainly wasn't all bad), and whose performance testified to long hours of banal, repetitious choreography.

The staging and effects were corny: dry ice was enthusiastically employed.

Most of the songs the two performed were Cantopop chestnuts. Alan Tam, who's been on the scene for nearly three decades, provided a particularly formidable arsenal.

And yet, I enjoyed the whole show. Three reasons for this:

First, Tam and Lee are anomalies amongst Cantopop stars in that they made their names on more than pretty faces. Tam's voice was not in its best form; he sounded grainy at times, but he still carried off his songs, and he didn't back down from the tough notes. Hakken Lee can just flat-out sing. He's got a powerful, well-trained voice, and a showman's flair in using it. Both men are also competent musicians; there was none of the flailing about for pitch or long-lost tempos typical of many Cantopop stars. Many of the songs had passages arranged in tight harmony, and these were executed with style and confidence.

Second, both men were willing to take the piss out of themselves all night long. A good example: about midway through the show, the two freely discussed their long-standing and much-publicized problems with dancing. Then each of them performed an elaborate dance number: Tam a Flamenco-inspired stompfest; Lee a leather-and-jackboots toughguy routine. Both were hilarious.

Third, I've never seen celebrities work harder at pleasing their audience. The stage was set up in a big X, with long runways going deep into the Coliseum seats. Tam and Lee worked these areas again and again, shaking hands and high-fiving and greeting the hundreds of fans who rushed to the front. The concert was also nearly three hours long, and Tam and/or Lee were onstage almost constantly. There was no warm-up act. I didn't count, but they must have sung nearly 50 songs -- and this was the fifth consecutive night they'd put on this show, with several more days of performances to go, including a two-show Saturday the next day.

So kudos to Alan Tam and Hakken Lee, and allow me to encourage you non-Cantonese readers to give a Cantopop concert a chance. Choose carefully (in addition to Tam and Lee, I can recommend Jackie Cheung and Sally Yip amongst the 'older generation' of stars) but don't write off the whole scene. You'll most likely have some fun, and you'll certainly gain some insight into Hong Kong culture.