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Michael Lai, giant of film and TV music in Hong Kong, dies at 73

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6 days ago Oliver Chou
a man wearing a suit and tie: Lai won Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Rouge. Photo: SCMP Pictures © SCMP Pictures Lai won Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Rouge. Photo: SCMP Pictures
  • Born to a composer and a literary critic, he acted in films from age seven
  • His songs for movies and TV programmes were where he made his mark, culminating with Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1987

Hong Kong on Sunday lost a key protagonist in the elevation of local film and music since the 1970s.

Michael Lai Siu-tin, best remembered for award-winning lyrical tunes from TV and the big screen, died on Sunday at St Paul’s Hospital. He was 73.

“At 7.55 this morning, our good friend Siu Tin passed away peacefully with family members and good friends at his side,” Nancy Sit Ka-yin, Lai’s long-time TV co-host, said in a statement.

“Throughout the night, we were there singing his songs, one after another. Though his eyes were closed, we knew he was listening with fondness, and I couldn’t hold my tears,” she added.

a boy and girl posing for a photo: The young Michael Lai with renowned actress Xia Meng. Photo: SCMP Pictures © SCMP Pictures The young Michael Lai with renowned actress Xia Meng. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Lai had received treatment for pneumonia in May, and recovered to join Sit on the TV show Canto-pop at 50 in late July, in what would be his last public appearance.

He was born in 1946, in the British colony just returned from Japanese occupation, to parents active in the arts and literary circles. His composer father, Lai Cho-tin, was a music director for films, and his mother was a prolific cultural critic for Chinese media, and the pair had come back to the liberated city after getting married in mainland China.

Those connections helped land him movie roles, a screen debut coming in 1953 when he was just seven. A decade later, he had appeared in a total of 36 films.

When it came to music, Lai was trained to play the classical piano. But his heart was with Elvis Presley, a cultural calling which would cause some conflict at home.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Michael Lai (right) with long-time TV co-host Nancy Sit. Photo: SCMP Pictures © SCMP Pictures Michael Lai (right) with long-time TV co-host Nancy Sit. Photo: SCMP Pictures

“My father was very angry and he smashed the guitar Grandma bought me. I was heartbroken – three times, as he broke three,” he later told the makers of an oral history project.

In his late teens, Lai decided to leave the family to pursue his passion for pop music. He joined a band in a nightclub, playing guitar and conga. There, he met the bandleader Joseph Koo Ka-fai, the father of Canto-pop.

In 1973, Lai won third prize in his first songwriting contest. And the competition had been tough, Koo taking first place and James Wong, another iconic cultural figure, coming second.

With Ask Me, a song featured in the film Jumping Ash in 1976, Lai became a household name as a songwriter. He continued to compose for a series of TV dramas, which back then could attract up to a million viewers.

Lai excelled with his melodies for the big screen, and won Best Original Film Score at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on Rouge, a 1987 film starring Anita Mui Yim-fong and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing.

With more than 30 movies and 700 songs under his belt, the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong gave Lai the Hall of Fame Award in 2006.

Philip Chan, an actor who left his day job in the police force to become a producer on Jumping Ash, recalled Lai, his La Salle College schoolmate, came to his aid by composing the title song for the movie.

“I regret never praising him or thanking him enough for his friendship, his inspiration and his music. I think I know why. Michael is kind yet stern, humble yet bold,” Chan said on Sunday.

“As the saying goes, it is when the wind has stopped that you notice the stillness of the willow tree. Yes, Michael is the willow tree of our Hong Kong music industry,” he adds.

Lai is survived by his younger sister, Helen Lai, a master in contemporary dance.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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