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Dr David Lee Ka-yan, of Siu Ming Visits Guangzhou fame, ascribes his success to Buddhist philosophy

Reporters: Raymond Tse

It is another busy day for Dr. Lee Ka-yan in his clinic. After a morning of consultations, the paediatrician is carefully applying make-up to his face; foundation to smooth out the complexion and blusher to provide some contouring.

Since becoming an unlikely internet sensation, Lee is used to being photographed and interviewed by the media. He is clearly enjoying every minute of his fame and wants to appear his best for Varsity’s photoshoot. “It is normal for people to make themselves look good,” he says.

Lee, with his oval shaped glasses, blue physician’s garb and a stethoscope hanging around his neck, looks like a friendly avuncular doctor. But there is no mistaking his sense of drama as he poses and gestures for the camera.

Although he has been singing children’s songs on TVB shows for 17 years, Lee’s breakout moment came when his song Siu Ming Visits Guangzhou and its accompanying music video became a YouTube hit at the end of 2010.

The song is about a boy called Siu Ming, who many suspect is Lee’s alter ego, who takes a trip to visit his relatives in Guangzhou. The video shows Lee taking a high-speed train, visiting famous Guangzhou landmarks, tucking into dim sum and rapping Cantonese tongue-twisters. Lee says that through the Siu Ming series, he wants people, especially young people, to learn more about the mainland.

The song has spawned many spoofs, including one by famous local stand-up comic Jim Chim and an X-rated version by some members of the Hong Kong Golden Forum online discussion site. In the comments beneath the video of Lee’s version on YouTube there are messages of appreciation as well as posts mocking Lee and poking fun at him. Not that such ridicule and send-ups of his work are likely to bother Lee.

Lee’s life philosophy is influenced by the Buddhist ideas of karma and fate. Everything happens for a reason, from a complex web of causes and conditions. For his part, Lee believes in going along with fate and not thinking too much about the future. “Nobody knows how long Siu Ming will be famous for,” he says. “The important thing is to produce work from the heart.”

This attitude has helped him to weather the disappointments in life. One unforgettable disappointment was failing his music examination in Form One because he did not know how to read the score. Perhaps the most impressive failure happened in his last year at university. He failed his final examination and had to defer his graduation for a year.

His academic life was not all a series of disappointments. Lee enjoyed his school years at St. Paul’s Co-Educational School. He was always ranked sixth or seventh place in his class but he never pushed himself to be top of the class. Since he knew that everyone has their limits, his results did not bother him.

As for medicine, he came to the profession via a process of elimination. Lee says he disliked mathematics because he hates numbers and logical thinking. He did not want to study arts and pure sciences either, because he was not interested in them.

Likewise, Lee did not choose paediatrics out of interest but through another process of elimination. He did not want to perform surgery. Obstetrics would be too stressful as doctors have to be on call 24-hours a day. He did not want to specialise in internal medicine because there would be too many elderly patients with problems other than medical ones. For instance, their children might not want to look after them, or they may have to face the loss of a partner or family crises.

So he chose to study paediatrics with the hope of bringing joy to patients. In addition, “there were no worries about not having enough patients at that time,” he says with laugh. With hindsight, he says dermatology might have been an easier choice, “There are no emergency calls. If (the patient) has an itch, you give them some ointment. You don’t need to get up at midnight. You get midnight calls in paediatrics.”

Lee worked in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for 10 years before entering private practice in 1987. Unlike his academic and professional choices, Lee pursued his singing career with single-minded purpose. In the late 1980s, he was invited to give some medical advice on a daytime television show on TVB. He befriended the show’s director and pleaded for a chance to sing.

David Lee Ka-yan is overjoyed that children recognise him.

Explaining why he chose to perform children’s songs rather than pop songs or love ballads, Lee  says, “Only children’s songs can give me a chance to make music videos.”

Lee has loved singing since he was a child. He enjoys performing in front of people and has always dreamt of becoming an artiste. Even as a child, he tried to make his dream come true.

He entered the Sing Tao Amateur Singing Contest in 1968 but was eliminated in the first round. “If I had made it to the finals of the competition, I would obviously have become a singer and not a doctor,” he jokes. “This is what you might call going with fate.”

Fate has made Lee popular twice. In March 26, 2001, he became known because of the song Siu Ming Chor Fo Che (Siu Ming Riding on the Train). With the help of the internet and social networking sites, Siu Ming Visits Guangzhou helped Lee to reach another crest in his music career. “I will remember December 8, 2010, which is the date that I became famous,” he says.

Although Lee does not make a point of distinguishing Siu Ming from David Lee Ka-yan the man, he is keen to draw a line between the artiste and the doctor, “Dr. Lee Ka-yan is a doctor; he should not be a singer. He should spend all his time looking after his patient,” Lee says.

His fame has not brought more patients to the clinic and those who do come say they do so because he is reliable and professional. Regina Tso, who brought her fourth-month old child to visit Lee, says she did so not because of Lee’s popularity, but his expertise in paediatrics.

That is not to say Lee’s TV appearances have gone unnoticed among his patients. Lee says one child began to hit the TV when he saw Lee on the screen, because he was scared of seeing the doctor. Lee is also amused by the case of a three-year-old patient who wanted to talk about Siu Ming during a consultation.

When the parent asked him where Siu Ming was going to, the child answered “Guangzhou”. “This is quite fun and enjoyable,” Lee says.

Although Lee is basking in his popularity, he jokes that there are downsides to fame, “I cannot meet young girls and older ladies in public places because the media can create stories like ‘Lee Ka-yan’s new girlfriend’ or ‘Lee ka-yan loves rich woman’,” he says laughing. “I haven’t eaten fish-balls at street stalls for several years. This is the cost of fame.”

None of this deters Lee from singing. He pays for all the song arrangements, recordings, music video production and CD releases himself, and has no intention of stopping. “Singing is really what I like to do,” he says.

Lee believes everyone should do their best and persist when they have found their interest. Even if they do not achieve success, it is still worth the pursuit, “Don’t think too far ahead, as there are too many unpredictable factors,” Lee explains.

Persistence can also bring unpredictable rewards. For instance, Lee’s relationship with his 17-year-old son has grown closer since he released Siu Ming Visits Guangzhou. Lee says that his son is proud of the positive response his dad has got from the song. Lee extends his easy-going view of fate to his parenting style. “I won’t force him to do anything,” he says when asked whether he has any hopes for his son’s future career.

He may not be the one to decide his son’s future but he does play a decisive role in the future of Siu Ming. He says more Siu Ming songs are in the pipeline although he is not announcing Siu Ming’s coming itinerary. He does mention London and Australia, and more mainland destinations are likely. One thing he will confirm is that Siu Ming will remain an innocent. “Siu Ming is not going to date anyone, he is not going to lead kids astray, he is not going to take ketamine.”

Beyond China, Lee also wants to reach an international market and has already produced an English version of Siu Ming Visits Guangzhou. He promises to publish a CD as soon as possible. Siu Ming’s trip to Guangzhou may just be the beginning of a long journey.