Ryan Cheung

Live review from Swiftly Rising:
The Risk of Driving
Either Way
Settle Down
Thin Ice

Doctor by day, musician by night, final performer Ryan Cheung showed up with a brand of rock and blues that is medicine for the kindred. In both composition and performance style, Inspired heavily by John Mayer (he himself mentioned Mayer several times), alongside D’Angelo, Eloise and Erica Badu, Ryan’s music is a little more on the 80s and 90s classic rock and RnB side. His lyrics are personal, his music mature, if a little on the expected side.

The first few songs The Risk of Driving, Stockton and Vancouver were dominated by backing tracks that overpowered most of the performance. My notes on the spot were not very flattering. Driven by both confusion and a slight personal vendetta (which I will get to later), I wrote – “Why is he the only one who gets to bring a full band to an acoustic show?” and “this is not a f***ing karaoke bar”. However, in every song there was something that pierced through the wall of needlessly glossy synthesizers. While his lyrics and themes were largely expected (love ballads, breakup ballads and the like), his guitar solos were smooth and ethereal. As his performance continued on, the quips about f***king karaoke turned into “great solo – why doesn’t he just f***ing play?” Case in point – Stockton, told from the perspective of someone outside the titular bar on Wyndham Street, lyrically felt like a song you’d listen to when feeling like you want to text your ex but when the solo came, felt like you were crying over your ex’s lost love.

A piece of advice he gave for budding songwriters is to think about whether something benefits the song, as opposed to benefits you as a performer wanting to show off – a cardinal sin for many young performers ardent for desperate glory. His first half committed this sin but the latter half of his set, largely acoustic, was far more pure and powerful, letting his personality, stories and music take the stage. Settle Down for instance was told from the perspective of his ex-girlfriend who had asked him to, as the title implies, settle down instead of trying to ‘make it’ in music when he already has a full time medical job. Despite a few cliches, the audience were as teary eyed as he was by the end of the song. His final song Thin Ice was for me the most touching. Written about falling in love with someone emotionally unavailable, the tempo and textures were complex, moving from fast to slow, from thin to thick, reflecting the tumultuous chaos of the lyrics. His guitar tone was like an icy glacier rising up, filling the room with a soft white, blue glow, mesmerising but cold yet beautiful. The atmosphere became suddenly more intimate, quiet and meditative.

Fun fact – the name of the song was inspired by how he was always told by his high school teachers that he was on “thin ice”. Which is where the personal vendetta comes in – turns out Ryan is not just an alum of my high school, but my house captain. And suddenly a lot of his backstory made sense.

Despite Ryan being the least musically advanced of the three performers, he is perhaps, for the average Hong Konger the greatest inspiration. In a city where one is pushed to do a ‘proper job’, have a ‘safe career’ and then build a family and settle down, doing anything creative seems not just like a pipe dream but sometimes something morally ‘wrong’. His heartfelt stories have told us exactly that. Yet, he plays, continues to play, and inspires others to play.

“It’s pure gratitude for me to be here”, he said. As a doctor in intensive care, Ryan has seen more suffering than many will in their lifetimes. He doesn’t say ditch your career to follow an ‘unrealistic’ dream, something he is very aware of noting that “statistically speaking, not many people ‘make it’”. But in true house captain end-of-year-assembly fashion, he continues with a question “so I had to ask myself – what’s my definition of ‘making it’?”. Good question – I hadn’t thought about that. “I just do a little every day to make myself happy”, he mused.

His music is not yet perfect. It needs more clarity and his control of tech and production needs work, especially if he’s going to do more solo shows where he needs to control his own sound mixing. But that’s no reason to stop moving.
There is more to life than suits, stocks and stethoscopes. The benefits of music and art is not simply to make money, or maybe in some cases not to earn at all, but to experience something different and deeper.

And so to end the night off, there is now a photo on someone’s phone of the house captain, the house music captain (who came to see the show not expecting either myself nor Ryan to be there) and the guy who was told he could be neither by the teachers. But the theme of the night is growth, development and change; none of us are the same as we were then and perhaps the thing that draws us all together, including Vaun, Keisha and everyone else at Terrible Baby, is the love for music and learning to use it to express something important and personal for the world to see and hear.
– Cyril Ma

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Performances by Ryan Cheung: