Melvis Kwok wears the sequin jumpsuit and famous pompadour hairstyle even when he’s not performing.
Elvis Presley might have died more than 40 years ago, but his spirit lives on in Hong Kong.
For nearly three decades, Melvis Kwok, a full-time Elvis impersonator, has been swiveling his hips in the city’s biggest night spots, where he plays for tips dressed as the King of Rock and Roll, with pompadour and all.
Despite his age—he is 67 this year—Kwok says he still performs seven nights a week.
He usually spends two hours in the city’s party districts of Lan Kwai Fong, Soho, and Wan Chai before returning home at around 11 pm. And he’s been doing this circuit for 28 years.
On one Friday night, he can be seen taking the ferry across Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor to Wan Chai. Dressed in a white jumpsuit dotted with rhinestones, he gets some odd looks from passengers. After all, it’s not every day that they see a Chinese man dressed fully as Elvis.
From there, it’s a short stroll to the bars of Wan Chai, which are full of customers welcoming the weekend with a beer. It’s noticeable that Melvis walks with a slight limp, but when asked if he is okay, he just smiles and waves away the concern. “It’s no problem,” he says.
By the time he arrives at his first stop, there’s no sign of his limp. Before long, Kwok is rattling off Elvis’ biggest hits—”Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
“I do this really because being Elvis makes me happy and it makes other people happy, too.”
“He has so much passion,” says Terry Li, a bar patron who sings along with Kwok. “His expertise is doing Elvis. My older brother first told me about this guy who dressed up as Elvis and sang around the bars. Finally I met him and I was impressed. He is a legend in Hong Kong.”
Alas for Li, his request for a Beatles song is swiftly turned down. “I don’t play Beatles songs,” says Kwok, who looks insulted at the thought. “Only Elvis.”
He finishes his last song with a flourish, swings his guitar toward the crowd, thrusts an arm in the air, and shouts, “Yeah, baby!”
How a Chinese kid from Jakarta became obsessed with Elvis
Kwok was born in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and moved with his family to Guiyang in southwestern China when he was 13 years old.
In 1974, he came to Hong Kong to look for work and got a job in an electronics factory. Three years later, Elvis died.
“I only found out about Elvis after his death in 1977,” Kwok says. “It was all over the television and newspapers here. When I lived in China, I did not know who he was and never had the chance to hear his music.”
After Elvis passed away, Kwok says he could hear his music everywhere in Hong Kong. “It was then I started to listen and learn his songs,” he says.
He got hold of a copy of the 1970 documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is and gathered together as much information on the King as he could. He learned the words to songs by reading them in books and listening to tracks on cassette tapes and CDs.
“Elvis is my hero.”
“I saw how he moved and dressed in videos,” he says. “Elvis is my hero. He really touched me. My favorite song of his is ‘It’s Now or Never.’ It’s beautiful.”
Kwok knew that if he was ever going to take to the stage and perform as his hero, it would also have to be “now or never.” He had his first proper Elvis suit made and went on to win local Elvis impersonator competitions in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong in 1981 and 1983.
The problem was that Chinese music lovers were not big fans of Elvis like he was. “When local Hong Kong people saw me, they thought I was one of the Beatles,” he recalls, “or sometimes Michael Jackson.”
Over the following years, he had limited success playing in Kowloon bars, but there just weren’t enough Elvis lovers. It was then that he came up with a plan: he would go where there were more fans of the King and play to them.
Becoming a full-time Elvis impersonator
In 1992, Kwok began trying his luck singing in Lan Kwai Fong, a bar district in Hong Kong popular with expats and tourists. It was a decision that would change everything.
Kwok soon made a name for himself singing regularly at Hardy’s, a bar in the nightlife district, where he was paid $12 per song. From there, he got a gig at Club 97, just around the corner.
“The foreigners liked me playing Elvis more than Chinese people did,” he says. “It was so much better than working in a factory. The work was not too hard. I just went around and sang songs.”
The income was good enough that he quit his factory job to work full-time as an Elvis impersonator.
“I wear my costume all the time. It makes me feel good. The only time I take it off is when I am at home.”
Along with his gigs at Hardy’s and Club 97, Kwok worked a circuit around expat bars playing for tips. He claims he has never missed a night performing, no matter how bad the weather.
And even when he’s not performing, Kwok still wears a sequin jumpsuit and maintains the singer’s iconic pompadour style. The spectacle of an Elvis impersonator doing his shopping dressed in a white jumpsuit is bound to draw a few funny looks from other customers in his local supermarket, but it doesn’t bother him at all.
Despite his flamboyant appearance, Kwok comes across as a shy, soft-spoken man in interviews. It is clear that dressing up as his hero gives him a sense of confidence and self-worth.
“I wear my costume all the time,” he says. “It makes me feel good. The only time I take it off is when I am at home.”
Kwok can make over a hundred dollars a night playing for tips, but he says that’s not the main reason he continues to perform.
“I do this really because being Elvis makes me happy and it makes other people happy, too,” he says. “I have two children in their 30s and they don’t like Elvis. They want me to stop, but I don’t want to retire. While I am still able to walk, I’ll keep going.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.