Picture yourself onstage, in front of an audience waiting to hear you interpret the lyrics of the song that you are about to sing. Then picture yourself a few hours later in a conference room working with clients to solve their intellectual property needs.
May Chan, special counsel at Spruson & Ferguson, successfully juggles her passion for singing alongside a successful career as an IP lawyer.
Born into a musical family, including a mother who was a music teacher and cousins who have won cash awards for their music on top of releasing a CD, and family gatherings that involve making music, it is not surprising that Chan is also musically inclined.
Chan began her solo singing career over ten years ago, and most recently gave a concert in November last year. In addition to performing in concerts both big and small, Chan also sings in the choruses of operatic productions put on by Opera Hong Kong and Musica Viva.
These involve tours allowing her to have a better understanding of the international classical music scene, with rehearsals also a good opportunity to learn from international opera singers. “I don’t have to pay to hear them sing the most famous opera arias and I always get the best seat in the house, which is literally the stage,” she said.
Out of her numerous performances, a mezzo-soprano operatic debut and a performance with the University of Hong Kong (HKU)’s law alumni association stand out to Chan.
The operatic debut was the role of Prince Orlovsky in the Opera Society of Hong Kong’s 2018 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. The performance, which was held in Hong Kong’s City Hall, marked an important milestone in Chan’s singing career.
The performance with the HKU Law Alumni Association, also in 2018, involved a big choir of at least forty people and an orchestra, mostly if not all, from the legal profession. Chan belted out Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for her latest performance with the Association, having performed solos three or four times with them in the past.
Another performance that stands out in Chan’s memory is her London debut, which took place at the Guild Church of St Dunstan-in-the-West in February 2020. The free performance also involved a clarinetist and pianist from Chan’s circle of musician friends.
Chan admits that she does not practice that often, “maybe once a week on top of weekday rehearsals with various music groups.” Her neighbors “put up with my at-home singing practice, or ‘controlled screaming’ as it has been described by a musically capable friend.” They have even attended some of her concerts. “I have not done any work in particular to promote singing in Hong Kong, but I suppose that I inspire people through sharing my passion for singing via posts on my personal social media accounts,” she added.
Chan also took singing lessons from voice teachers and music coaches, both in Hong Kong and in London. To further her craft, she earned a Bachelor of Music degree with First Class Honours from Kingston University London in 2016, as well as diplomas in singing from the Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music and the Licentiate of Trinity College.
In spite of her accomplishments, Chan believes that “everyone can sing” and suggests that aspiring singers start by joining a choir. “It’s a lot of fun yet challenging at the same time. You make many friends, maybe even your spouse, and other lifelong friends,” she said.
With lyrics playing a vital role in a song, Chan has also been studying diction to better understand not just the pronunciation, but also the stress in the syllables, grammar, and nuances in the lyrics in order to render the rendition of an art song more convincingly.
The French that she picked up during her teen years helps Chan “get by” when singing French melodies by composers such as Gabriel Fauré and Francis Poulenc. Lessons at the Goethe Institut throughout the past few years have also helped Chan master songs in German, the dominant language in Western classical music. “I love singing the lieder of composers such as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf,” she said.
It is important to Chan that she understands what she is singing and conveys that meaning to the audience. Language skills are also important for lawyers, and alongside comprehension and analytical skills, are transferable to musicians and singers. Other skills that are transferable include working under pressure and the art of getting along with an ensemble. Many lawyers, as well as doctors, do music on the side, she noted.
Another activity that is surprisingly popular with lawyers is ballet. Chan also takes adult beginners ballet classes one to two times a week to improve her posture, adding elegance and confidence to her posture and movements onstage. She knows of seven lawyer ballerinas, including herself.
Chan was introduced to Korean operatic tenor Alfred Kim’s music during a trip to Korea a few years ago and fell in love with it immediately. Other genres of music that make it to her playlist include K-pop and rock. She also enjoys singing karaoke, or ‘sing k’ as it is known in Hong Kong, with her musical family and friends.
One of Chan’s two mottos is “play seriously”, which fits her description of herself as ‘slightly’ gifted, very outgoing, and very extroverted. She is an entertainer with the ESFP, or extraverted, observant, feeling and prospecting, personality type on the Myers Brigg test. She also scores a 6, or loyalist/7, or enthusiast, on the Enneagram personality test.
The protests that took place in Hong Kong in the second half of 2019, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have severely limited Chan’s avenues to sing live as Hong Kong is currently battling a fourth wave of the virus, and some of her friends have taken their performances online to livestreaming platforms.
The second of Chan’s two mottos is “opportunities are only for those who are prepared”, and she is preparing herself to be ready to go when performance venues can open again.
Although this motto gives her an incentive to work, Chan recently had to hit pause on her singing lessons with a lady in her 80s who studied at the Shenyang Conservatory of Music. Although the teacher is based in Hong Kong, “singing lessons over an online medium are difficult vis-à-vis lessons done in person,” Chan said.
Locally educated at the University of Hong Kong, Chan obtained both a Bachelor of Laws and a Postgraduate Certificate in Laws from the institution. She was then admitted as a solicitor of the High Court of Hong Kong and as a Legal Practitioner in Australia in the states of New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. In addition, Chan is also on the Roll of Solicitors in the U.K. and is a Notary Public.
“IP found me,” Chan says, who worked for Wilkinson & Grist, working with fashion brands and other brands before making a switch from contentious to non-contentious IP. At Spruson & Ferguson, she is currently involved in trademark prosecution, opposition and invalidation proceedings in China, Hong Kong, Macau and other Asian regions including Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
With days involving over 100 deadlines running simultaneously, a lot of firm management and looking after her client’s portfolio, Chan has learnt the art of spacing out and prioritizing her work. “There is urgency to get the work done, but not at the fire-engine level, which gives me more time for singing rehearsals,” she said.
In order to strike a balance between work and play, Chan “works hard but plays harder.” Although her passion necessitates the occasional days off work, most rehearsals take place in the evenings after working hours.
The opportunity to perform has clashed with work obligations in the past. Chan wistfully recalled one occasion where an opportunity to perform in Hong Kong clashed with an annual work conference in the U.S. that she was obligated to attend. “There was no way that I could make all the rehearsals and be ready to perform on time,” she said.
A member of the Hong Kong Law Society, Chan has participated in some extracurricular activities offered in the past such as using the band room where members could jam to music. She was keen to join the tennis lessons on offer but could not find the time.
On a professional front, Chan participated in providing pro-bono legal advice a few years ago and took continuing professional development courses when they were offered by the society. “HKLS is a good platform for fellow practitioners to meet,” she said.
In keeping with her two mottos, Chan continues to seek new adventures and challenges. She does not rule out the possibility of learning Cantonese opera.
However, music will always hold a special place in Chan’s heart. “Singing makes me happy, which is apparently backed by science although I can’t give you a citation! I can easily go on a natural high after just a little singing,” she said.
Lady in white: May Chan performs in one of many recitals
May Chan in full singing mode during the same recital