A pillar of the local theatre scene, Gary Tam joined the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre after graduating from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), and won the award for outstanding actor for multiple times. Apart from making a name among the children audience by hosting the popular TV show, “Flash Fax”, and singing the sensational “Bai Shi Ling Park” and “The Bear Learns to Dance”, he has also starred in close to 100 theatre and TV productions. With years of experience on stage, Gary now devotes himself to grooming young talents in parallel to developing his own acting career. To him, the crucial quality of a successful actor is self-discipline.
Starring as the female lead in his first play
Born to perform, Gary would dance to the vinyl records at his father’s restaurant when he was a child. After watching “Grease” at the cinema with his parents, he became so obsessed with the movie that he would sing and dance whenever the tunes came on. “My parents would ask me to perform for our relatives during family gatherings. I enjoyed it so much and was then certain about my passion in performing arts.”
Gary went to the same school as his elder brother since kindergarten. From performing in theatre to starting a band, Gary was much influenced by his brother in building his hobbies. In Form One, he was recruited to join the drama club by his brother who was then the president. He also followed his brother’s footsteps to start a band when he was in Form Four only – that his brother sang in English while he sang in Cantonese. One of Gary’s most memorable experiences was being chosen by the teacher to play the leading female role in his first English theatre production – not an unusual feat given that the brothers went to the all-boys Wah Yan College Hong Kong.
Gary was quite an experienced actor even in secondary school. “When I was in Form Five, my brother’s band and mine took part in an interschool music event held at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium alongside Tat Ming Pair and Tai Chi. Not only did we share the same stage with these renowned, professional singers, but we were also interviewed by the editor-in-chief of Music Bus, a popular music magazine! It was a memorable and exhilarating experience and I was thrilled by the pleasure brought to the audience and ourselves via performing on stage.”
The most sensational graduating class at HKAPA
When HKAPA was established in 1984, Gary, a then Form Four student, learnt from a friend who was studying theatre technology there that the Academy offered singing, drama and dance classes. “I was so passionate about pursuing performing arts that I would have enrolled immediately if the prerequisite had not been passing the Form Five public exams.” After Form Five, Gary applied for HKAPA without consulting his parents. HKAPA sent their acceptance letters to students before the summer holiday – much earlier than other institutions. After three rounds of interviews against 3,000 applicants, Gary became one of the 24 admitted students selected for the four-year programme. “Fortunately, my parents understood my love for performing arts and paid for my expensive tuition so I could pursue my dream. I am truly grateful for their support.”
Gary shared the classroom with 23 brilliant performers such as Jim Chim, Olivia Yan, Alice Lau, Sunny Chan, Joey Leung, Alan Mak, Jerry Ku and so on. Most of them are still active in the industry today. In the first year alone, Gary took on Chinese opera, tumbling, stage movements, vocal techniques and dancing. In the second year, he majored in acting and got to learn from the famous King Sir and Fredric Mao. The former taught Gary the most important technique: wait. “King Sir said that an actor must learn to wait – whether it be waiting for job opportunities, call times, auditions or interviews. One must accept that waiting is part of the job; give up being an actor if you lack patience.”
Since 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak has dealt the performing arts industry a severe blow. Gary admits, “I would be lying if I said we were unaffected.” Yet, he quickly pulled himself together and taught himself video production. To stay connected with the audience during the pandemic, he even performed live from the confines of his home. “As actors, we must always stay active in bettering ourselves in order to seize opportunities that come our way.”
A life-changing role model
Gary has long been one of Leslie Cheung’s biggest fans. He played Leslie in the play “Encore” in 2006 and recently took part in the movie “Anita” as the vocal talent singing Leslie’s songs. In 2010, he launched Gor Gor Productions Limited and kickstarted the production “Together 2010” as the playwright, producer, director and actor, telling a story through a compilation of Leslie’s songs.
Gary was lucky enough to have a chance to work alongside Leslie when the latter was filming the sensational music special, “Sunset in Paris”with Maggie Cheung. Gary, who was studying at HKAPA, was selected to play a student role when the singer-actor filmed at the Academy. “When we were on break, I got up the courage to tell him how much I admired him, and how much I love singing and acting. He answered, ‘If you enjoy it so much, go for it!’ I will never forget what he said as it is what pushes me to go after my dream.” To Gary, Leslie is not just a celebrity, but a symbol of professionalism. His down-to-earth personality, kindness and self-discipline are evident in his attitude and performances. “After Leslie’s passing, I often covered his songs to keep his legacy alive. Thanks to him, I am self-disciplined while at the same time spare no effort in reminding young actors to cultivate the same professionalism.”
Hong Kong does not lack talent
Perhaps every theatre actor has dreamed of having his/her own stage where he/she could perform freely. Gary says, “Back when I was a student at HKAPA, King Sir mentioned his dream of building a theatre that could stage all kinds of performances in Hong Kong. I have watched the plays in Daehangno in South Korea; I hope the Hong Kong government can be as supportive of theatrical arts as the Korean government.
Gary plays the part of Ko Lap Yan in the musical “Our Journal of Springtime the Musical”. It turns out he has known the production’s director Tom Chan for a long time: “Tom invited me to be a part of his first play ‘Grease’ when he was only 16 years old. Although the play clashed with my schedule at the time, I treasure the opportunity of getting to know each other. Tom has kept in touch with me all along and would invite me every time he puts on a play. I really like the script, plot and lyrics of ‘Our Journal of Springtime the Musical’ as everyone can resonate with the themes about youth and the pursuit of dreams. I volunteered to play the part of Ko Lap Yan. In order to give my best in 300 shows in a row, I found it paramount to take care of my health and remain fit at all times.”
In the past, we had the chance of conducting up to 30 performances for each production. Nowadays, most government-owned venues only allow rentals for a full weekend. Even the mighty Dayo Wong can only host a maximum of 40 or 50 shows. It is a waste to have only a few days on stage as iteration is what allows a production to improve and grow. Plays in the west would rehearse and run previews for months just to create a perfect performance on stage.” Gary believes that Hong Kong has an abundance of talent; however, the biggest hurdle to theatrical development is the lack of funding and venues. “There might not be much young blood in the industry 30 years ago. After decades of cultivation, there are now many excellent actors with immense potential. What they lack are proper venues and funding to truly take off. Having our own stage to bring to life a locally produced play is a blessing for us actors.” To Gary, Tom Chan – the 24-year-old director who built the Boom Studio Theatre in Kwai Hing and took on the roles of playwright, director, composer and lyricist for “Our Journal of Springtime the Musical” – has definitely accomplished the dream of every theatre enthusiast.
Passing on his experience
Not only did Gary take on up to 300 performances of “Our Journal of Springtime the Musical” this year, but he is also the troupe’s training and development manager as well as the acting coach for new actors. He chuckles and says, “I am extremely stretched out by playing two roles: an actor and an acting coach! Apart from observing on the stage side, I would watch the play in the audience seating as the experience is drastically different – which is exactly why plays are so fun. I prepare pages of notes for the actors every night to help them get better at what they do. As long as they are willing to learn, I am always happy to share my insights.” Gary mentions his recent passion to pass his experiences to the next generation, especially theatre aficionados. It is common for performers to encounter career detours. We can help to pave a much smoother path for young actors by sharing our own experiences.”
Gary used to remind young actors to go the extra mile, but now he believes the most important virtue is self-discipline. “Even if you are willing to go beyond what is required, you will not succeed as an actor without self-discipline. Even with immense talent, great opportunities and unlimited resources, your acting career will not last without self-discipline and good behaviour. Self-discipline is paramount to those who truly want to make it in the show business.”