How does Alex To still look so young and fresh-faced at 53? It has been 30 years since he won the 1985 Hong Kong New Talent Singing Awards on his way to becoming Cantopop’s King Of Dance, but today, he still looks as fit as ever.
“I have a song called Tuo Diao (Take It Off), so of course I need to make sure I look good and fit enough to ‘take it off!’” he joked during a one-on-one interview recently.
“I think the secret is to always stay young at heart. My daddy was a very optimistic person, full of humour. He taught me to always maintain a very light-hearted personality and to let nothing get me down.”
To will be performing at the Arena Of Stars, Genting Highlands on Dec 5 as part of his My Virtual Planet Tour Part II Concert, in conjunction with Genting’s 50th Anniversary celebrations.
Born Alejandro Delfino in Hong Kong in 1962, To’s parents were Filipino musician Ollie Delfino, and famed Chinese singer Chang Loo.
To said that he always wanted to be a singer but his father was adamant that he had some sort of backup plan before getting into show business.
“When I was a kid, I asked my dad to let me learn the piano but he said, ‘No, kid. You have to study what you are supposed to study FIRST, and then learn music!’. When I got older I just picked up the guitar and started playing.”
Considering the environment he grew up in, there was probably no way that he would NOT have become a singer.
“When I was a kid, my mum and dad used to bring me to all their performances. Our home even had a rehearsal room filled with instruments, and I’d sit there and listen to them play,” To recalled. “While other kids were out playing in the street or school, I’d be sitting there listening to music.”
To left Hong Kong for Canada when he was 18 to study commercial design. He returned in 1985 and worked as an art director. That year, he took his first step towards superstardom when he entered – and won – the New Talent Singing Awards.
His debut Cantonese album Ji Xiong Lau Har (Only Want To Stay) was released in 1986, and he went on to record over 30 full-length albums in three languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.
Although his biggest hits have been dance numbers – including the Mandarin hit Tuo Diao (Take It Off) as well as Sun Zi Gei (Believe in Yourself), a Cantonese cover of Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do (Without You) in which he performed with Sally Yeh – To was also well-known for his repertoire of love ballads such as Zhong Ai Yi Sheng (Love For A Lifetime) and Wu Xin Shang Hai (Didn’t Mean To Hurt You).
Creating something different
The singer is also one of the first few artistes to incorporate R&B, soul, and funk elements into his music, which he said was influenced by his time in Canada.
“I immigrated to Canada when I was 19. I lived there for four years, and I had many African-American friends who taught me about their music and culture,” he said, adding that upon his return to Hong Kong, he wanted to do that sort of music.
“I tried that, but it was hard. No one understood what I was singing, and what I went through. That sort of music to me is not just pop music. It is a feeling – something I feel very close to.”
It took To four years to “shove the idea into the marketing people and record companies”.
“When I finally got to add these funk and soul elements in my music, people dug it. Maybe it’s because the performance looks good on stage, and I was lucky to find the right audience,” he said.
Still, that part of his music didn’t really bloom until he entered the Taiwanese market and signed a contract with Rock Records.
“The population is so much bigger there, the music industry was craving for something new. I bumped into Xiao Chong (Johnny Chen), a great producer who could do all sorts of music, and everything just came together – the dance music, the R&B music, the soul, the pop …” he recalled.
It took them about three years to get a sound they were happy with. This new style suited To and he eventually made it big with the song Tian Zhen (Innocent) in 1995.
“That was the song that really hit the market with the R&B feel. I didn’t just do it in a pure R&B style, I mingled my mum’s Mandarin music style, and it became OUR R&B, for the Asian Chinese-speaking people. We had a good time creating something different,” he said.
In 2004, however, To decided that 20 years of hard work, churning out album after album and doing the same thing over and over again year after year was enough, and after releasing Tuo Diao that year, he decided to take an extended break from the industry.
“After 20 years of working so hard, I was really exhausted. I didn’t know what to do, what sort of music to make, what sort of trend to follow, or whether I should create something new instead.
“So I thought it was time to take a break until I get some idea of what to do,” he said. “When I record an album I have to feel alive, I need to understand what I am doing and really love what I am doing. So I rested for quite a bit, like eight years!”
In those eight years, To did not release any new music, but he kept himself busy by acting in several Chinese TV series and films. He also found time to get married to his girlfriend, short-film director Ice Lee, in 2012. His best men included Hong Kong A-listers such as Kenny Bee, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and David Lui Fong.
To finally made his comeback in 2013 with a new Mandarin album called Hao Yang (Good Look) and started staging concerts. Performing live again after such a long break was hard for To initially, but he likened it to riding a bicycle – you never really forget how to do it.
“As soon as I realised I was going to do another concert, all these things kept coming back, and I thought, hey, I’m home,” he said.
“I’ve also been lucky, because I’ve known my choreographer, Nick Yu, since he was a kid. His mother was one of our costume designers, and he used to sit in and watch our rehearsals!
“Later on he became one of our dancers, and then a choreographer, and now he is MY choreographer.
“Nick knows me so well. He knows all my songs and signature moves by heart, and I am confident enough to put myself in his hands for this concert.”
So, what would the Alex To now tell the Alex To of 30 years ago?
“I would tell him that no matter what, whether the market goes up or down, always have fun. You have to live in the now – when you do music, find something that you like. It doesn’t matter if you get a big hit or not, at least have fun making and creating it.
“I would also pat him on the back and say, ‘You’re doing the right thing, bro! Keep doing it!’” he finished with a laugh.
The Alex To My Virtual Planet Tour Part II concert will be held on Dec 5 at 8.30pm at the Arena Of Stars, Genting Highlands. Tickets are priced from RM100. Call 03-2718 1118 or visit www.rwgenting.com for more info.