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Tuning In: Stephanie Cheng on two decades in music and the power of softness

This year marks Stephanie Cheng’s 19th as a professional singer. She has played a large part in the lives of Hong Kong kids who grew up in the early aughts — and vice versa. In this edition of Tuning In, she opens up about how she’s evolved over the years, what she thinks about becoming an “educational” singer and why there’s power in softness.

For those of us who frequented karaoke rooms during our teen years, Stephanie Cheng’s songs were there for a lot of our teenage milestones. One collective memory was blasting “Live Like 18” — right around when we turned 18 — and to this day, a night of K-buffet would not be complete without “紅綠燈 (Traffic Light)”.

It’s worth noting that the latter, a certified Cantopop classic, was covered in May by Hacken Lee and Bibi Zhou on a popular Chinese singing show, Infinity and Beyond (聲生不息). The astonishing performance brought up a lot of memories for fans and introduced Stephanie’s music — and the to a new audience. And for those who ever wondered what happened to that girl in the song, standing at the crossroads, waiting for her love interest to give her the “green light”, Stephanie released “安全駕駛 (Safe Driving)” this July to describe how the girl in the song, 13 years later, has grown up.

Cheng has grown up, too. With the release of her new record, we caught up with the singer to see how, now, nearly two decades into her career, she’s changed and what she’s learned along the road.

Tuning In: Stephanie Cheng, singer and artist

How do you describe yourself as a musician?

First and foremost, I am a Cantopop singer. While Hong Kong audiences separate most singers into those who sing ballads and those who dance, my fans think I fall into both categories, which is quite the compliment.

What’s the first track someone should listen to get introduced to your sound?

成人對待 (Adult Treatment)” — it was the first single and first MV I ever released. I was 18 then, fresh out of high school into the music industry, and this song represents my most authentic self. After being in entertainment for a while, it is easy to create songs to cater specifically to the market, so I will always treasure that song, which marks an important stage in my life. 

What was your first training with music? Did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?

Both of my parents work in traditional industries, but they love music and encouraged me to learn it as a kid; I used to play the violin, oboe and piano when I was young. I was very thankful that my parents were open-minded and gave me the space to pursue my interests outside of academics. My Dad had an extensive taste in music and collected vinyl. From Chinese opera and Vietnamese songs to classical Italian songs, I would always hear music from different languages in the house. Music has always been a part of my upbringing and I cannot imagine my life without it.

How did you first get into the music industry? 

I think it’s fate that I got into this industry. When I was graduating from high school, I came across my current boss, Mr. Stephen Chau, and had an opportunity to enter an audition. By then I was quite familiar with going to auditions because of my ballet training, but I still remember the excitement of going to the recording studio with professional equipment. Walking into the room, I heard a staff member scolding others and it suddenly felt very real to me that this is serious business.

How have different cultural influences in your life shaped you as a musician?

I used to listen to Sam Hui a lot when I was young, mostly because my Dad loves him. His lyrics were very fitting for that era in Hong Kong, encouraging the people, voicing out collective challenges and experiencing life with the city. They were not only catchy songs but also purposeful. A lot of Cantopop songs mark a certain era of what society was going through and I’m so blessed to be part of this culture in Hong Kong. 

Are there any specific meaning or purpose you want to give out with your songs?

Purpose and meaning are so important. If my performance and songs can add laughter and light into the audience’s life, that’s very sweet. I also hope that my songs can be like a friend to listeners who are sad or facing whatever challenges they’re going through. If my love songs can accompany those who feel lonely, that’s very heartwarming.

Are there any other artists in Hong Kong that you’ve been digging?

I’ve been enjoying Gareth Tong’s songs lately. He has a unique voice and the melodies are quite cool. His tunes are fun and spread local messages in a more westernised tone that feels very fresh and young.

Do you have any pre- and post-show rituals?

It is very important for me to be mentally prepared before a show. I need to stay collected while thirty different things are happening and changing at the same time. One thing that I do is meditate and create space for myself. Lately, I’ve picked up an exercise called Gyrotonic, a type of workout that focuses on rotational multidirectional movement. It’s quite life-changing for me. In fact, during the pandemic, I took an intensive course on it, which required a few hundred hours of practice and it was very rewarding. Another thing that relaxes me is scent, so I have a lot of scented candles and room mist around. I need to create a space that is as comfortable as possible.

How has your music changed and evolved throughout the years? 

A large part of my musical journey is about my personal growth. Me and my fans have been together throughout our 20s and 30s and I love to continue growing with my fans, like an unseen friendship. It’s so intimate and personal to touch each person’s heart.

What do you think of the “educational singer” title the public has given you? 

It wasn’t intentional to be “educational” when I released my songs “多喝水 (drink more water)”, “終身學習 (forever learning)” and “Health Education”, but I’m quite health conscious hence the more positive songs from my recent albums. My lyricist always knows what to write for me. I rarely or almost never request any specific messages because I trust and respect my lyricist so much. I love a simple message like taking things lightly. So my songs are also quite light, not crazily dramatic, with a lot of ups and downs. When you’re in your early 20s, you would feel that you want to rush and be more proactive. But when you go into your 30s, you tend to reflect and look deeper, so I want to share that softness also carries great power and the power comes from you being soft and kind to yourself.

What is one thing you would tell your younger self with the knowledge and experiences you have now? 

Don’t think, just do. I’m not saying to not plan, but there are a lot of things in life you cannot plan but to figure out bit by bit as you go through your journey. When I was still starting out and didn’t know anything, I would give myself space to learn in the process. You need to have the experiences in order to know what you need to learn and to get to know yourself on a deeper level. In each stage, we overcome certain challenges — either tangible or mental — that other people might not see. 

Anything coming up that you’re looking forward to?

I hope to have more live performances and chances to interact with my fans, especially my overseas audiences. These are the moments I will always treasure and I’m one of the lucky ones who really enjoy my work.

Keep up with Stephanie on Instagram and YouTube.

(Photos: Nathan Erickson)

Leanne Lam
After planning luxury events for more than 5 years, Leanne now shares lifestyle content, self-care tips and motivational quotes on Instagram. She is passionate in mental health awareness, female empowerment and the colour blue. She spends her downtime sitting by the beach with a book in hand.
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