From protest to pandemic, Hong Kong has experienced its fair share of heartbreak and turmoil this past year. Amidst it all, Isaac Chan—a 24-year-old musician—is using his lyrics and melodies to bring hope to the darkest days.
On an afternoon in late June, Chan sat down with Coconuts Hong Kong in his cosy music studio. The 200-square feet space is tucked in an industrial building in Fo Tan, away from the bustle of the city.
As he plays the keyboard to the tune of one of his original songs, his tattoo—a sketch of the Victoria Harbor skyline—peeks out from under his t-shirt sleeve.
“I believe songwriting has the power to heal,” Chan says. “Music can bring healing into our lives and help us appreciate all the emotions we’re feeling.”
Describing his songs as indie-folk, Chan counts artists like Bon Iver, Novo Amor and Gregory Alan among his inspirations.
“[Indie-folk] music isn’t overcomplicated, and it paints a picture very clearly. I love good stories, and in folk music the lyrics are written so beautifully,” he explains.
At his day job, Chan collaborates with local artists as a recording engineer and producer. In his spare time, he works on his own music.
Last month, the Hong Kong-based singer-songwriter released his first single, “I Was.” The acoustic ballad, which Chan plays the guitar on, tells a story about the loss of innocence during one’s coming of age.
“The [first] lyric, ‘I was a boy who dreamed,’ just suddenly popped up in my mind,” Chan says as he recalled noodling on his guitar after weeks of struggling with writer’s block. “And the rest of it was ready in 15 minutes.”
On July 24, Chan released his new EP, “Somewhere Along”—a title symbolic of the emotional journey he hopes to send listeners on.
With “I Was” as the first track, the four-song EP “starts in a place of brokenness,” Chan says, and ends on a song about finding peace and redemption. In many ways, the EP embodies the process of overcoming adversity and emerging on the other side.
“[The songs] help me acknowledge my hurt and my vulnerabilities,” he says.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Chan realized a love for music at an early age. As a child, he took piano lessons. The classical training prompted his interest in popular music, and when he was 11, he taught himself how to play the guitar—mostly by strumming along to tutorials on YouTube.
After finishing high school, he moved to the United States and lasted three months in a liberal arts college in California.
“I had no real motivation there because I wasn’t passionate [about the courses I was studying.] I was getting really sad, as I was spending extended period of time away from music, which is what I really wanted to do,” he says.
He left and transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he learnt about the ins and outs of the music industry and collaborated with fellow student-musicians.
His plan upon graduating was to return to Hong Kong, work in the music industry here and then move back to the US.
That changed when the protests began shortly after his return. Chan, who went to an international school in Hong Kong, admits that he didn’t feel a strong attachment to the city growing up. But just like for many young Hongkongers, the movement was an awakening that triggered an attachment for his home—a feeling he had never quite known before.
“Being able to witness my city unite for a cause was something I was very proud of,” Chan, who also joined the marches last year, says.
For now, the musician says, Hong Kong is still home. Here, he’ll continue balancing his job as a music producer with his own writing. But eventually he hopes to develop a full-time career as a singer-songwriter.
“I would love to play at one of Hong Kong’s music festivals, hopefully Clockenflap. I also really want to write music for independent films,” he adds.