(Elvis x 20) + (Tom x 1)
All of the drawings in this body of work were made between 2016 and 2018 in Porthcawl, Seattle, London, Norwich and in the artist's studio in Suffolk. They were originally exhibited at The Fairhurst Gallery in Norwich, UK (7 December, 2018 - 2 February, 2019).
Stuart Pearson Wright in conversation with Paul Hyu
8 November 2018.
SPW It’s the 8th of November. I’m here with Paul Hyu, aka Chinese Elvis, and we’re going to do some drawing… (laughs) “we both fall silent”.
PH I’ve now run out of anything to say of any value or insight.
SPW So I’m going to start drawing.
PH For the Elvis Tribute Acts (ETAs) who haven’t come from a musical theatre background, performing as Elvis is their first entry into the world of being an entertainer, so they come with no idea of the snobbery that is felt towards them by other kinds of performers. In spite of this, it’s disappointing that they all fall into what I call the Elvis paradigm. I don’t know what the rules of the paradigm are, but they are very strict and the ETAs all follow these rules. Fans have invented the rules and the performers try to comply with them. My whole take on this is that Elvis himself was acknowledged to be a very creative artist. I have always argued that if you want to really do justice to Elvis, it’s less about impersonating his moves and his vocal idiosyncrasies but more about trying to follow his philosophies. For example, if you are a Christian you don’t have to grow a long beard and wear a robe: you follow the man’s ideas. The notion of “let’s all look like Elvis and do exactly what he did, and whoever is the most convincing, is the best Elvis”, is inherently stupid. Another similarity with Christianity is that - being an Elvis devotee is a form of religion.
SPW There are some very strong parallels aren’t there?
PH Yeah, I mean, A, in its fervour, B, in the idea of blasphemy: If you blaspheme against Elvis, there’s an Elvis fatwah put out on you. Yet if you were authentically following Elvis’s philosophy then the more creative you are with your interpretation of Elvis then the closer you are to Elvis as an artist. “I’m going to do the 1971 International Hotel Concert and I’m going to do it in the same order that Elvis did, I’m just going to copy everything”, I don’t think that approach is creative at all. There is skill and craftsmanship involved but it isn’t art.
SPW It’s interesting you say this because there are strong parallels with portrait painting. If you go to an exhibition like the BP Portrait Awards, which showcases all the up and coming and established portrait painters in the country, all vying for the top prize, you’ll see a very strong tendency that becomes more prevalent each year, where the portraits are about photo-realism and a kind of accuracy: it’s about getting the nose right and about getting the ear right and whilst I can admire an artist’s technical facility I’m turned off by that approach to portrait painting because what does it tell you, other than what an ear or nose look like? What do we learn about the sitter or the artist, or about the experience of the one painting the other?
PH You might as well take a fucking photo.
SPW Indeed. What does a portrait like that do that a photograph doesn’t? For me, portrait painting and drawing are about subjective interpretation.
PH I agree. Recently I’ve started saying to audiences: “Chinese Elvis is retiring” because I’m old or fat or whatever’s happened that night, “so I’m thinking of doing something else, so, Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight you have: Chinese Elton John” and I just sing an Elton John number and everyone sings along with it, then I’ll say: “Ladies and Gentlemen Chinese something else...” So it ends up, that I’m just doing a whole load of karaoke favourites of my choosing and saying that I’m the Chinese version of them. Because of the repetition, that in itself is funny. But I also like it because I’m not then stuck to the cannon of Elvis. What I’ve also started doing is songs that Elvis never sang, but should have, or would have, had he lived long enough.
PH Yeah, so I could do anything now but if you’re adhering to the strict Elvis paradigm, as I refer to it - then of course you can’t do songs Elvis never sung. And also, you can’t wear a combination of Elvis outfits from different periods: this is why I purposefully wear gold lame when I’m performing and combine it with a puffy shirt and a Vegas scarf and belt. In reality, Elvis never wore those things together at the same time.
SPW It’s like a distillation of different versions of Elvis.
PH Correct, that’s exactly it.
SPW …all filtered through your Chinese-ness.
PH Correct, or rather faux Chinese-ness: I am ethnically half Chinese, my Dad’s Chinese but he’s from Guyana in the West Indies and my mum’s white English. I actually look less Chinese now than I ever have, because I’m getting older and fatter and greyer. My Chinese-ness is wearing out. I don’t even look as Chinese as Michael McIntyre.
SPW Were you born here then?
PH Yeah. I was born in London. My Dad had literally arrived from Guyana on a banana boat about three years previously. So culturally, I’m not what English people would understand as being Chinese, that is: coming from Hong Kong. Being West Indian Chinese means that, culturally, I’m Caribbean: I’m Guyanese not Chinese. So, when I originally started the Chinese Elvis act I didn’t manifest any of the stereotypes that people would associate with being Chinese. The idea of Chinese Elvis is a comic dichotomy, it’s two things that you put together that are inherently funny. Black Elvis isn’t that funny, and other diverse Elvis’s aren’t inherently funny: like lesbian Elvis. Although there are some good lesbian Elvis’s.
SPW Is there a lesbian Elvis?
PH Yeah. Elvis isn’t really a gay icon, but he is a lesbian icon. I went to see an Elvis show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002 by an Elvis Tribute Artist called Elvis The Girl. During her act, she didn’t even sing, she was just combing her hair and getting on a motorbike. They had the music playing but the act was just her styling herself.
SPW Being Elvis.
PH So it was odd, but that’s what gave me the idea of doing an actual show.
SPW That’s where the original idea for your show came from?
PH I thought: “could I do a whole show with no music?” But I failed because there were gaps when I just didn’t know what to do and so I ended up singing. The whole idea behind my own show was to try and subvert and question the paradigm that all Elvis shows are the same. If you see there is going to be an Elvis in town, I find it annoying that you know exactly what you are going to get: just Elvis songs and Elvis moves.
SPW You’re suggesting that approach is little more than an impersonation?
PH I didn’t have a problem with it when they called themselves Elvis impersonators but when they started claiming to be tribute artists, I felt that the word Artist means you’re giving something of yourself to the performance.
SPW How did Chinese Elvis arise? Where did the idea come from? What made you become Chinese Elvis?
PH The original idea of Chinese Elvis wasn’t mine. There was a guy called Paul Chan and he opened a restaurant in a really shitty part of New Cross in the 80s. He was very Hong Kong with a strong accent and although he didn’t have authentic suits, he did love Elvis. Despite the horrible location the restaurant was packed out! He made a fortune and became a bit of a legend.
SPW He performed in the restaurant?
PH Yeah, he’d just walk in and sing with a Chinese accent. People just loved it. I went to it in the mid 90s when the novelty was running out, but it was still doing ok. The food was really crap, but in spite of that I had a good time. This guy is obviously Chinese yet thinks he’s Elvis. That’s funny because Elvis has a very defined identity whereas Chinese has no identity. Certainly before 2010 the British had no fucking idea what Chinese was. If you had to write a Chinese joke it was very hard because there wasn’t a Chinese stereotype. Around that time, by coincidence, I acted in a play called Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis. After the run I asked if I could buy the Elvis costume: a padded jumpsuit. When I ended up getting my first gig it was for Angelina Jolie. I didn’t have any equipment apart from the fat suit, so I ended up having to borrow everything. I wasn’t worried because in a way, Chinese Elvis can’t fail. Pictures of me and Angelina Jolie were in US Weekly in a double page spread, I ended up getting a lot of work and becoming quite famous. I developed the act by going to Paul Chan’s restaurant and saying: “do you need a spare Chinese Elvis?” He did and so I performed there for four years. I quickly realised that people were coming to the restaurant to have a laugh, but they were laughing at me, and I didn’t like that. I decided to turn the tables and laugh at them, but that can only work if the audience are complicit. They have to enjoy laughing at themselves. So, I put in a lot of show stopping songs early to shut everyone up. “Who’s the best singer in this building?” So now when I pass the mic around I remain the boss.
SPW Did you pass the mic around?
PH You have to pass the mic around in an Elvis restaurant, but having established the hierarchy, I can start telling jokes about being Chinese, something like – “Ladies and Gentlemen it’s great fun to be here, as you know I’m a big star, but it wasn’t always like this, I was under a lot of pressure to be a doctor or a lawyer. Like most Asian parents, my Dad wanted me to be a professional, so you can imagine his face when I said to him I want to be a comedian. He looked at me and he said (shouts in a Chinese accent) ‘but people may laugh at you’!”
SPW Doing your Dad in an accent he never used! I like that.
PH Which he never used! So, with that kind of self-deprecating humour I had the audience on board: they were now laughing with me. Of course, some places don’t want to hire you for any of your banter, just your singing. That took me time to get used to, but I’m an actor. I’ll just sing, who gives a shit? As long as I was being paid. I do believe that if Elvis were to come back and judge the ETAs, when I told him about my career and what I did, he would anoint me as the number one tribute act.
SPW For keeping his spirit alive?
PH His spirit of creativity. That belief puts me at odds with every other ETA, who are all mortally offended by my approach. But now Chinese Elvis is definitely on the wane. I feel that the lifestyle is just too lonely: I don’t bring a girlfriend to my gigs. I just show up on my own, set up, perform, get paid and go home. I’m literally in it for the money. Quite a few ETAs have a jealous girlfriend whom they bring along, because the girlfriends know that there are going to be women in the audience he’s going to flirt with and they want to keep them at bay. Sometimes ETAs come with a whole band of course. That’s more sociable but I would hate to split my fee with a band. So, I find it lonely and also it’s undignified for a man of 50 plus to be all sweaty at the end of the night. “Why am I doing this?” Well, money is the answer. If I could knock it on the head I would. I’ve recently gone back to the theatre, after a decade-long hiatus to bring up my son. The main thing that’s good about theatre is that even if you’re doing a one-man show there’s a whole crew. It’s a sociable thing. That’s why I’m going off doing Elvis and wanting to get back into the theatre instead.
SPW Because it’s collaborative?
PH Yes. So Chinese Elvis is only going to make special appearances in the future. You know, I once received a letter from Elvis Presley Enterprises saying: “you can’t call yourself Chinese Elvis.”
SPW It was from the Elvis Estate?
PH Yeah. It turns out that Elvis Presley is a trade mark in America, but I published their email on my website and said: “fuck you Elvis Presley Enterprises, my name is Chinese Elvis, see you in the High Court”. Fortunately, I never heard from them again. You see I don’t think there are any other ETAs who have a story like that. I did it for sport, that’s all.
SPW If they had taken you to court that would only have worked in your favour. Particularly if you appeared in court as Chinese Elvis, in character. That would have been something like a Sacha Baron Cohen film.
Can you say a little bit about the process of becoming Elvis? To what extent do you - you could apply this generally too, because you’re an actor - transform into a character. I mean could you say something about that process?
PH In the last ten years I’ve worried less about that, but I used to psyche myself up: getting into character and running through the gags. The main thing I do is to warm the voice up, because if you’re doing 90 minutes, that’s 30 songs. You can really fuck your voice up. So, I warm up my voice, and try and remember the names or the occasion: the bride and groom or whatever it is. I now rely on my general charm, because I’m confident, and worry less about prepared material. But I still will have self-deprecating gags: “let’s get you up dancing. If you think you’re going to look ridiculous, just take a look at me”. I’m here to deflect the embarrassment. So, I just make that up as I go along now. Preparation these days is just making sure I sound good.
SPW Is that true of acting as well though? If you’re in a play do you have to take yourself off to a special place before?
PH In a recent production of Othello, in which I had a minor role, the actors who had the biggest parts were warming up and concentrating in the dressing room an hour before but, after the official half hour call, they were relaxed because all the preparation had been done. Because it was ten years ago that I was last on stage, despite the fact I’d done all the same preparation in the rehearsal room, I was petrified that I was going to forget my lines. I had this kind of paranoia. It’s something that comes with age.
PH No, fear. By the end of the run I realised that I knew the lines and even if I forgot them on stage, it’s not the end of the world.
SPW But, improvising Elizabethan English is quite tricky isn’t it? I saw Michael Gambon doing it once. It was Henry VI. In one scene he was struggling to get the lid off a bottle, and in the midst of it he said: “fucking bottle”, under his breath. Of course everyone heard it and it brought the house down.
PH “Forsooth, me thinks, I’ve lost all me words” - I could come up with that and then the other person would know just to jump in with the next line.
SPW I was in amateur dramatics when I was a teenager. I was in a play called Someone Waiting by Emlyn Williams: a murder mystery. There was a gun placed in a bureau and the guy was supposed to shoot himself at the end of the play to frame someone. But at the beginning of the second half, he took the gun out of the bureau and it went off and so did the exploding blood sack in his shirt as it was synched with the gun. So, he had suddenly shot himself in the chest and I mean, what do you do? He had to die on stage, but at the beginning of the second act instead of at the end. So, we then had to improvise the rest of the second act.
PH You’re joking!
SPW No, and I was only sixteen or seventeen. We just had to make it up: the whole second act. Then it was no longer the wife who’d set him up but the husband, or something like that. I can’t remember the actual plot, but we invented a new one.
PH I remember improvising a lot when I was a kid. When you have no fear and you’ve got nothing to lose.
SPW But, beyond the fear, can you say something about the process of actually becoming, essentially, another person? There are method actors of course, like Daniel Day-Lewis, who aim to merge their own identity with that of the character they’re playing. I guess there’s a sliding scale of the extent to which actors absorb their character.
PH I think you’re exactly right.
SPW Where are you on that scale?
PH Daniel Day-Lewis played Hamlet at the National Theatre about 25 years ago, but because of his process, when he saw Hamlet’s father as a ghost he saw his own father. It traumatised him so much, he couldn’t go on stage. I don’t see the value in that. I think that during rehearsals you do become your character at certain times. What you have to do is remember that time and how you felt: remember your intentions, how you received the lines and how you delivered them. It doesn’t mean you’re going to deliver them in the same way each time, but because the intention is the same, it’ll be coming from the same place and then it’s kind of like auto pilot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you profoundly feel the emotions each time.
SPW Does the repetition of the performance and the lines trigger the emotional equivalent of a kind of muscle memory?
PH That’s exactly it. Trying to deconstruct what’s happening when you’re acting is difficult. Every actor has their own approach that works best for them: Some actors work from the outside in, and some from the inside out. I don’t use any specific method, but you’ve got to believe you’re the character, that’s what it boils down to.
SPW Would you like to see the drawing so far? It’s in its very early stages. You’re quite an animated subject.
PH So, it’s hard is it?
SPW It is. You haven’t got a mouth yet but that’s because you’ve been talking. Anyway I’ll show it to you. You look a bit like Ken Livingstone, but I will change that. I’m not sure you even look particularly Chinese yet.
PH I don’t. Well I don’t look Chinese, even my Mum said I don’t.
SPW But, it will change a lot.
PH (laughs) I like it. It is definitely me I’d say.
SPW So, when do you think we will see Chinese Othello? Is that coming our way soon?
PH I doubt it. I’ve actually got a nice niche: ethnic actor who plays parents and willing to do relatively small parts at the National or the Globe.
SPW Curiously enough there’s a play on at the National Theatre at the moment in which there’s a character based on me.
SPW It’s a play called Stories by Nina Raine. It’s autobiographical: about her search for a sperm donor. We have a mutual friend and since I was conceived by donor insemination, Nina wanted to meet me to ask what it was like to be conceived in that way. I told her it was utterly shit and that I had a huge hole in my identity. My response made her change her plans completely and those scenes between her and I, and her subsequent actions, are acted out in the play. It was intensely surreal seeing my own words, remembered by Nina, and being spoken by an actor. I had a kind of out of body experience in the theatre. It was intensely bizarre to reflect that if we hadn’t had that conversation not only would she have had a different baby by another father in reality, but the play would have had a different ending as well, as a consequence. For a moment my existence felt real, that it had substance. I had proof that I was here: I was watching it on the stage!
Do you ever dye your hair when turning into Elvis?
PH The one thing I haven’t done, in preparation for this sitting, is to blacken my hair. As long as you sing the songs well, Elvis fans will accept anything: black Elvis, gay Elvis, lesbian Elvis, fat Elvis but they don’t like grey Elvis. I would normally spray it black, but I thought “I’m just going to go with this.”
SPW Well why not? It puts another spin on it. For me the whole purpose of this project is to explore how different people appropriate or manifest the identity of Elvis Presley. I’m interested in identity and how it can be a fluid entity. That’s why I’m interested in actors and the process of a person becoming someone else. That’s what fascinates me about the phenomenon of Elvis tribute acts: What is it about the man that people choose to temporarily subsume their own identity to become this very particular person with a hugely specific identity? I want to understand what motivates them to do that. You suggested that some men want to become Elvis because they believe it will make them sexually attractive to women and that is very true. I have seen the effect that even my drawings of a beautiful man dressed up as Elvis have had upon my own wife. Elvis manifests a kind of intense male sexual power that must be very appealing to want to share in or partake of, even in a drastically diluted form. But people must decide to become an ETA for a whole host of other reasons.
PH That’s true.
SPW It’s been interesting hearing about your own story.
PH Well that whole idea of Chinese and Elvis, that is all to do with identity. As I said earlier, I don’t think the Chinese have a strong identity in this country, certainly one that’s difficult to stereotype.
SPW You talk about the lack of stereotype, yet ironically, if there is a Chinese stereotype in Britain it’s probably that they are quite self-contained, as a community. They don’t seem to have a particularly loud voice in the big collective consciousness.
PH But, I wouldn’t say that’s a stereotype, I think that’s just a trait: being unremarkable. Is having no stereotypical features, a stereotype? that’s the question that you’ve just asked, I think.
SPW Um, I’m wondering if I can use your facilities actually? Then I’ve got to try and stop you looking like Ken Livingstone.