By Nicole Chan
Most people would find her outfit strange, perhaps even creepy. Her face is completely hidden behind her sunglasses and a black veil. Her full-length blue and white costume covers every inch of flesh, even in the summer heat, and is guaranteed to attract stares everywhere she goes.
She is Lung Siu-kwan, a former schoolteacher now turned professional singer.
Lung started out as an anonymous internet singer whose songs gathered a strong online following and ended up being signed to Golden Age Music, a music production company founded by actress Sandra Ng Kwan-yu and her brother.
Her real identity is a closely guarded secret. A record company staff member sat next to her during Varsity’s interview with Lung and shot her intense looks whenever she responded to sensitive questions which could reveal more about her background.
Lung says her insistence on hiding her face is based on a belief that, “music should be simple.” Audiences should appreciate a singer’s voice, instead of her appearance and figure.
She first dreamt of becoming a singer as a child but feared her dream would remain no more than just that. She recalls a judge’s criticism of her when she participated in a singing contest in 2009: “You sing quite well actually, but your size is plump so showmanship on stage is not good.”
Those words devastated Lung. She started to question if appearance meant everything for a singer.
At that time, Lung weighed over 90 kg and had health problems stemming from her weight. She developed sleep apnea and would pant even after a short walk. This made her determined to go on a diet. After a year, she managed to shed 45 kg. Lung says she had an inferiority complex starting from childhood. “I come from a lower class and a single-parent family. Besides, I was a fat girl since I was small,” she says. She remembers her peers often teased her about her weight and the negative feelings stayed in her mind.
“Fortunately, I met many nice teachers in my life who gave me encouragement. That’s why I chose to become a teacher,” she continues. After completing her degree, Lung started working as a full-time teacher in a secondary school.
In the classroom, Lung found students seemed to lack the initiative to learn. She wanted to find a way to get them more interested in their lessons. She thought songs would be perfect teaching tools because students love listening to pop music. They could help spread positive messages if the teenagers who listened to them learned the meanings of lyrics.
Last January, Lung shared her insight on her Facebook page. Dean Siu, her present manager, read the Facebook status and invited her to help rewrite lyrics of popular songs for him. Lung’s first attempt was to rework the lyrics to Canto-pop star Eason Chan Yik-shun’s Bitter Gourd.
The new version, Banana, was uploaded to YouTube. The singer’s name was given as Lung Siu-kwan. Explaining her stage-name, Lung says “Lung” symbolises the descendent of dragon, while “Kwan” means fungus in Chinese. “No matter how adverse the conditions are, I can persist and fight, like a fungus,” she says.
Lung Siu-kwan’s Banana track got more than 200,000 views in a short time and Lung received a lot of positive feedback. She decided to continue publishing songs on the internet as well as teaching. However the tight teaching schedule left little room for her to realise her ideas about education in class.
“The situation back then made me change my way of thinking. I hoped to continue my work in education using the lyrics I wrote,” she says. “I am an imaginative and creative person, so I decide to educate in another way.”
When a secondary school sent the internet singing sensation Lung Siu-kwan an invitation to perform in April, Lung felt she was ready for some changes and agreed. “I hoped I could sing in live shows and interact with audiences,” she recalls.
The only problem was Lung was still a full-time teacher and performing publicly would affect her job.
On the day before the show, a designer friend solved her worries. She made a fully sealed costume with a mask for Lung. It contained a small, hidden hole for breathing. Lung would be unrecognizable after she put it on. She prepared the whole afternoon in her friend’s workshop and headed to the show wearing her unique costume. Despite physical discomfort and the difficulty of singing in her cocoon, Lung has stuck steadfastly to her disguise ever since.
“I was nervous because it was my debut. I was afraid people would not accept my look since there was no precedent for it in Hong Kong,” says Lung. Fortunately, the enthusiastic reaction of the students gave her greater confidence and encouraged her to take her music to a wider audience. The following day, she gave her first street performance in Mongkok.
By October, Lung had performed 19 live shows on the street. She sees street performances as her training ground. “Similar to when a runner adds weights to his legs in training, every street show gives me a good opportunity to practice my singing skills,” says Lung.
Another turning point in Lung’s music career came when she joined a Taiwan rock music festival in the summer. There she met the boss of her current music company Ng Kwan-cheung. Ng was impressed by Lung’s enthusiasm about music and education and offered her a singer’s contract. Lung decided to quit her job and chase her dream.
Lung signed on two conditions. Firstly, she refuses to disclose her identity and show her face to the public. Secondly, she demands autonomy in choosing the style of her music. She says most pop songs nowadays only talk about romance, “There is no doubt that romance plays a crucial part in our lives. However, we should never forget elements like current affairs, families, or studies,” Lung says. She wants to compose songs that tell a wider variety of human stories.
With support from her company, Lung’s dream of releasing her own album can finally come true. Before she had a musical contract, she had come up with a novel way to achieve her goal – the presale of uncompleted CDs. When she was performing on the street, she collected pre-payments from audience members and passers-by. The money raised would be used to fund the production of her album and the buyers would receive the CD on its release. She raised about $HK110,000 in this way.
“I am grateful that people are willing to buy the CD from an ordinary person, who used to be a teacher. They supported me when I was at my lowest ebb,” Lung said.
The career of self-declared little fungus has blossomed since then. Lung held her first concert at the Kowloon Bay International Trade & Exhibition Centre in August. Six hundred people turned out to support her. She finally told her mum and sisters about her second identity before the concert.
“One day after dinner, I asked my mum if she would like to watch my concert,” Lung says. “She was not surprised, maybe because she knows I’ve always enjoyed singing from a young age.” Lung speculates that her sister had suspected she was leading a double life, but had not asked Lung about it.
Today, only Lung’s family members, colleagues from Golden Age Music and a few acquaintances know the real identity of this mysterious person. Lung is very careful in her daily life. She puts on her mask even when she goes to the lavatory at her company. Whenever Lung has to attend an event, she changes into her costume at her company offices before going out.
Lung now has three sets of costumes with similar designs, so that she can alternate. But she says she is not going to change the style of her costumes or add variety to her masks.
She is aware that some netizens have denigrated her image, using words like “terrorist” and “Taliban”. Other critics have said that her disguise is another way to play to the gallery. While she argues that she hides her identity because she wants the public to focus on her music, she cannot stop people from immediately thinking of her hidden identity or viewing it as gimmick.
Despite the criticism, Lung sees no need to reveal her identity now. “So what if you know who I am? I choose to sing in a mask and I hope the people who like my music will respect my choice,” Lung says. She is touched by her die-hard fans who appear at every show even though they never seen the real face of their idol.
For now, she enjoys her anonymity as it can guarantee her privacy and freedom. Unlike other artists, she can still go shopping in Mongkok unrecognised.
Lung is looking forward to a day when she can take off her mask. She says this day will come when the majority of people understand my intention of wearing this mask is not a gimmick. “I want to see the audience understand the messages conveyed behind the songs and appreciate the hard work of musicians,” she says.
From her job in the classroom to her role on the stage, Lung is motivated by the same principles. She asserts that singers shoulder an important responsibility. “If singers do something positive, teenagers will be influenced and receive positive messages, and vice versa,” she says.
Lung’s songs cover teenagers’ problems and concerns, like pressure in public exams and compensated dating. She also feels obliged to back up her words with actions. She says that is why she attended the anti-national education rally outside government headquarters in September.
“If we do not dare to express our views right now, we will lose the chance to do so in the future,” says Lung. She was even more eager to show up and share her views with youngsters after seeing some artists were being forced to shut up.
Behind the mask, the teacher and the singer share the same vision.