This past November, homegrown hitmaker Gareth Tong, also known as Gareth.T, held his first solo concert, November Rain, over three sold-out dates at KITEC’s Star Hall. For Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong‘s Digital Cover 002, we talked to the artist and several others about his journey home, the meaning of November Rain and what comes after.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: NATHAN ERICKSON
STYLING: JERRY HAHA, JENNIE WONG
SPECIAL THANKS: RYAN PUTRANTO, CHARMAINE NG, LEANNE LAM, MADELEINE MAK
Coming home wasn’t part of the plan.
At least not for Hong Kong born-and-raised Gareth Tong, then a student at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, a budding singer-songwriter-producer who had devoted himself to the ins and outs of not just music and theory, but what makes a hit, a hit. It was knowledge and a skillset, paired with his own well-honed talents after years of violin, of piano, of making beats in his bedroom on Apple’s GarageBand, that he expected to take with him to New York, to Los Angeles, to the studios where some of the biggest hitmakers who’ve ever lived — from Michael Jackson to Marshall Mathers — did exactly that.
So, nah, coming home wasn’t part of the plan.
“There’s a weird thing in America where you see all of your friends go to LA and New York and Nashville, it’s almost like that is the career path — meeting famous people and having house parties. So that was the goal when I was at Berklee with my friends,” says Tong.
A certain pandemic you may have heard about had other plans, and the artist presently known as Gareth.T returned to finish his schooling remotely in Hong Kong, where he’s remained ever since. But it gave this son of Tsing Yi a chance to see his city in a new light.
“I came back to Hong Kong and I’m like, ‘Damn, this place could be cool again’,” says Tong. “I mean, it is cool. And I feel like that’s the premise of the whole concert.”
When we meet, we’re 72 hours out from November Rain, Tong’s first solo concert in Hong Kong. Spanning three nights this past November at KITEC’s Star Hall, the full run of tickets sold out in just a few hours. The massive venue has played host to internationally celebrated acts from Bob Dylan to the Backstreet Boys, and now, it was welcoming one of its own, representing a new chapter in Hong Kong’s cultural history — and one unlike any the city has produced before.
For starters, here in the home of Cantopop, Tong is doing most of his singing in English.
“One unexpected thing I think is just people coming to my concert without knowing English,” he says. “I feel like a lot of my songs just fly through people’s heads, like they don’t really get what I’m saying — we’re talking in Cantonese on my Telegram group! — but they vibe with it, and you know, they listen to it.”
Tong has the numbers to prove it: his breakout single with Warner Music Hong Kong, “boyfriend material“, a poppy, tongue-in-cheek ode to the pitfalls of dating and romance at “barely 5’7”, has over 14 million spins on Spotify, with another 3 million views on YouTube. It features on his debut solo album to be honest, a collection of intimate songs about life and love and hopes and fears released earlier this year.
Nicholas Cheung, Regional Director of Hip Hop & R&B for Warner Music Hong Kong, signed Tong shortly after discovering his music on the recommendation of another local musician, Tommy Grooves.
“I’m always searching for talent; I’ll find artists who are fifty, sixty per cent there, and it’s just hard to find someone who has most of it together. Gareth was the first artist that gave me that impression,” says Cheung. “I make music too, and when you do, you understand what’s difficult to do, like some people practice for years but never get there. Someone like Gareth, he’s just a very strong potential talent.”
Tong wasted no time putting that potential into action, and the proof is in the star-studded lineup of guest artists joining him onstage for concert — many of whom he met by introducing himself over Instagram, colloquially known as a “DM slide.”
Fellow Hong Kong star Tyson Yoshi, who also frequently raps and sings in English, was one recipient of those DMs.
“I met him and he’s pretty awkward, basically,” laughs Yoshi. “But I guess I’m kind of awkward as well.” That meeting led to the two working together on Yoshi’s hit “Something” and their dual collaboration for “December“, a celebration of the success that both artists found in 2021.
Tong’s quick transition from songwriter and producer to fellow artist was no surprise for Yoshi, who saw it coming from the very beginning of their relationship. “I’m proud. I mean, it’s Gareth, you know? But I didn’t know he was gonna make it in Hong Kong. Maybe the States, somewhere English speaking. Then, bam, the first Cantonese song is an instant hit, too. That’s the thing I wasn’t expecting,” says Yoshi. “He’s a musical genius.”
Local guitar hero Teddy Fan — who also met Tong through Instagram — agrees.
“I’d actually heard of Gareth before he approached me. I listened to his songs and thought he was talented. So when he asked me to work together I thought, ‘Why not?’,” says Fan, who has worked with Tong on songwriting and accompaniment, as well as production. “‘Dinner in Bed’ was special because Gareth was very picky about the lyrics; he would change the melody to fit the words, not the other way around. I was very impressed.”
The shared melodies of “勁浪漫 超溫馨” and “Dinner in Bed” might be Tong’s strongest nod to the city’s Cantopop scene, with the video for the former evoking Hong Kong comedies in the vein of The Romancing Star, while the latter pays homage to R&B superstar D’Angelo’s legendary video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)“, eventually breaking the initial tension in a way that would make Stephen Chow proud.
Another important DM slide recipient is the singer Moon Tang, who would go on to become both a Warner labelmate and, famously, Gareth’s girlfriend.
“The first time we met we argued right away,” says Tang. “He showed me his demos and I had suggestions for him, but he didn’t agree with me.” Nevertheless, the pair teamed up for “honest“, a dreamy, acoustic jam that tackles the realities of chasing fame with the knowledge that it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.
Tang beams with pride over her boyfriend’s sense of determination, which gives him the focus he needs to make his artistry shine. “He’ll set himself some goals, like getting one million listens on Spotify, and he’ll achieve it. Another time he set a goal to write a song for Keung To, and a few months later he really did. Once he decides he wants to do something, he always comes through.”
For November Rain, that included Tong starting — and sticking to — a routine well in advance of the weekend’s shows.
“I try to do it like a fight camp,” says Tong. “You know how fighters have six weeks or eight weeks of training? When the show was announced, I think that was at the six or seven week [out] mark. So it was like a routine, where I danced two days a week, I boxed two days a week, I sang two days a week. And every day I’ll just play piano and violin in the morning.”
Tong’s firm dedication to routine has also helped in another area: the nerves. The pre-show jitters. To hear him tell it, there aren’t any. “You know how you spend your whole week prepping for a presentation and you finally get to do it in front of everybody? I’m here to present, do the job well and dip out, then do it for two more days. I’m just trying to hand in my homework, but pass with flying colours.”
Hearing Tong say “homework” is a stark reminder that the artist is still 22, and literally fresh out of the gate into his career. But just shy of his Jordan year (23), Tong carries himself through the pre-show preparations with the control and confidence of a seasoned industry vet. Right up until showtime, every detail has been meticulously accounted for and commented upon, often by the artist himself, from lighting, to set design, to the tone with which his violinists attack each note.
“He is very certain of himself,” adds Justin Chan, label executive at Warner Music Hong Kong. “He has a very unique vision to music, to the music scene. Not a lot of people understand or will share the same view, but he really stands by it and puts the action to make stuff happen.”
Zain Ali, also part of Gareth’s management team at Warner, agrees. “He wants to change the music scene in Hong Kong. He pushes himself into trying new things, and you can see it from the concert.”
While “November Rain” is the title of a song Tong wrote mourning the loss of his grandfather, even this earns a reinterpretation and evolution through the concert — an autobiographical trip through the musical journey of a rising homegrown star, pairing theatrical red curtains and an intermission with R&B, hip hop, electronic music, even his classically trained piano and violin skills get their moment to shine. It’s his story, for certain. But it’s also a reminder of the artistry, the talent, the sauce lying just below the surface in Hong Kong — what was there before, and what can be again.
“‘November Rain’ represents a cloud in your heart that you’ve been through some trauma — no matter what you go through, sometimes you still think back and those memories still kind of haunt you a little bit. But in the grand scheme of things, me and my high school friend used to talk about how, you know, Hong Kong is this cultural desert. Music wasn’t popping off. Entertainment wasn’t popping off. Things were on the decline. So with November Rain, I’m trying to make it so flowers could grow from this desert,” says Tong.
Which brings us back to the plan — making Hong Kong, well, cool again. What’s missing?
“I think it’s not missing anything; the way to improve it is to have people connect to each other. Creatives meeting musicians and designers; for everybody to join hands and work. Even though Hong Kong is a small city, it doesn’t happen that often,” says Tong. “This show is me bringing the band I like the most, the sound guys I like the most, [my stylist] Jerry Haha, inviting different rappers and singers and designers that came through — it’s like this shower of rain.”
For Tong, November Rain has gone from a painful reminder of loss to a rallying cry of what could be: A new golden age for the culture in the city he calls home.
“Hong Kong could be what it used to be back in the ’80s or ’90s. That’s what November Rain means to me: It’s a storm that might change the future. And I wish it’s for the better. Everybody’s gonna be drenched after this. Everybody gonna be like, damn, he made me wet,” he says with a laugh.
“So I’m just trying to live in the moment; live every move I make, every lyric I sing. I’m not gonna let this fly by and look back like, ‘Oh I could’ve done that better.’”
“I’m gonna make sure we give it our all.”
Warner Music and Lifestyle Asia have partnered for a short film documenting Gareth Tong’s November Rain show. Stay tuned for more.