An Interview with Mr Peter Kam

#positiveengagement #positiveachievement #positiveemotions

Written by Chloe Shek and Tiffany Lee

If you’re a Hong Kong film aficionado, you’ve definitely, even if unknowingly, listened to Mr Peter Kam Pui Tat’s music. A lauded music composer, he has won eight Hong Kong Film Awards for his work in countless Chinese blockbusters such as Cold War, Sword Master, and Dragon.

And as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mr Kam’s success comes purely from his hard work, dedication, and boundless passion.

Growing up, his father worked as a nightclub pianist. His father discouraged him from entering the music industry— in his eyes, it was not a respectable position. In fact, he wouldn’t even let his son touch a piano.

But Mr Kam had always liked music. Although he didn’t know how to play the piano, he felt that he had an innate capacity for creating and composing. When he was 14, Mr Kam moved to the US. He would listen to the songs on the Top 40 chart every week. He learnt to appreciate music in a deeper way, studying the lyrics and their meaning. “As I started listening to the lyrics, slowly, bit by bit, I was impressed. I thought, ‘how do you do a love song in so many different ways?” he says. He immersed himself in music from different genres, taking a liking to the works of different musicians from all over the globe, from Stravinsky to Teresa Teng. He would write songs for his church, and while the congregation was doubtful of the quality of his work, he found himself improving.

Music had always been important to him— a hobby, but not a serious undertaking. It wasn’t until he saw a performance by a youth choir with his friends when he changed his mind. He was mesmerised by the singing and togetherness of the choir members. At that moment, he realised that music was his calling. It was something he wanted be a part of, something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

In high school, facing the challenge of picking electives that would determine his future, he took the plunge and chose music, a choice he was sure he wouldn’t regret. After he graduated, he decided to study music at San Francisco State University. His parents were surprised. In particular, his father disapproved, afraid that his son would not succeed as a musician.“My dad only knows about the life playing set compositions, so he doesn’t know a lot about the composing, or even talent management, the other part of the music business. So he didn’t want [me] to do this.” Mr Kam recalls. But in the end, his parents let him do what he wanted. For that, he is forever grateful. “A lot of Chinese parents are a lot more stringent about this; they just will not allow you to do it,” he says.

Mr Kam feels that passion can’t be forced, but there are some ways you can discover your talent. He suggests getting involved in different activities and trying new things. Once you participate in something, you can find out whether you like it or not, and decide if you should further pursue it. “One of the toughest things in life is to be objective about yourself,” Mr Kam says. “It means if you’re bad at something, you’re not afraid to admit it; but also it means if you’re half good at it, you’re not afraid to let yourself know ‘I’m not half bad at it’: it needs to be both ways. So I think, letting yourself be sensitive to how you react to certain things, and a little bit of planning, learning different kinds of things, and participating in them, it’s a combination of both. One day, the passion will find you.”

And when it does, Mr Kam stresses— never forget the moment when you first discovered your passion. “The first time is the most sincere feeling. It won’t be the same the second time… you never plan for it, you can’t pay for it, you can’t buy it, and it is the greatest feeling in the world because you felt connected, you felt like this was something you wanted to have.” When going through hardships, Mr. Kam would constantly look back to the moment that inspired him to pursue music, and that is what motivates him to go on.


In 1990, Mr Kam moved back to Hong Kong with high hopes of kickstarting his music career. He started off by writing pop songs, but he soon realised that his style was unpopular in Hong Kong, and so he settled for writing accompaniments, some of which were featured in MVs. Every day, he would wait for the phone to ring, anticipating new gigs. None of them led to his breakthrough. Slowly, he felt that he had lost his direction in life. At the lowest point, he shared a tiny flat with three people, lived off ten dollar meals in Sham Shui Po, and was unable to pay rent. He would occasionally stay with friends who worked in computer centres. Unsure of the stability of his own job, he considered joining them.

Looking back, Mr. Kam says that what he experienced shouldn’t be considered ‘hardships’. “When you’re younger, the world is comparatively smaller, and you only focus on yourself. When I came back to Hong Kong, I was already thirty. I heard about other people’s suffering, and the first thing I felt was, really, my hardships are nothing.”

“The first thing is to not get into self-pity mode, because that will only make the hardships harder. The second thing… hopefully by then you’ll have your dream sort of aligned already, and you don’t lose sight of what took you to this path in the first place.”


Even if you have a clear goal, you may be hesitant to pursue your passion because you fear that you won’t be successful. Maybe you dream of becoming an admirable actor, a talented musician, or an accomplished lawyer, but you fear that you won’t make it big.

Does fame really matter all that much, though? According to Mr Kam, it doesn’t. “In reality, what you do probably won’t affect [the world] a lot. Sometimes, you will curse the world for being too big. But you can change someone’s world.”

Mr. Kam fondly recollects an encounter he had with a fan. A couple of decades after he had written his first song, a young fan came up to him, asking him whether he was the composer of the song. When he answered that indeed, it was him, they told him that they were glad to have met him. Although Mr. Kam didn’t think very highly of the song, he was glad that someone resonated with his work. “As an artist, it feels good when someone else understands your work. It’s like a stamp of approval,” he says.

In the end, Mr Kam believes that true success is determined by how much you are able to engage with what you like. Even in the early days of his career, struggling and living on a pittance, he would be fulfilled just by dedicating his whole day to music. To him, the meaning of life is to find something you can immerse yourself in.

Mr Kam has accomplished more than what most musicians will probably have done in their lifetimes, rising up against countless challenges and climbing up the ranks of the Hong Kong music industry. Now, looking back to his childhood, he stills wonders whether his father would have approved of his career. “He’s gone now, but I like to think deep down inside he’s probably half proud of me. But you know… he’ll never say it. That’s just the way different generations operate, right?”