Not many can claim 2020 was a good year, but if there is one person who saw a positive turn, it’s Coffee Lam.
The YouTube influencer, yoga teacher and former TVB actress’ early life was anything but charmed. She grew up in a stifling, sometimes violent household and become embroiled in a paparazzi-fuelled sex scandal in her early 20s, which resulted in such emotional turmoil she almost died from an autoimmune disease. But she is now one of Hong Kong’s most popular YouTubers, and in 2020 achieved the honour of becoming the first Cantonese-language content creator to amass more than a million followers.
“I grew up in a tiny home, with seven of us living in a subdivided flat little more than 100 square feet [9.3 square metres] in size,” she says. “My father was hard-working, but we were poor. Our family has links to Fujian [province in mainland China] and this is a culture that prizes sons over daughters, so I was often overlooked or asked to do things for my older brother.
“This really influenced how I developed and I became used to swallowing my own voice. My father didn’t think girls should have their own lives. Once when he found out I joined basketball [practice] at school, he punished me severely.”
An encounter with a talent manager brought Lam an opportunity to become an actress at local broadcaster TVB in 2008. She quit university in her first year to pursue acting, although at first she was only signed to one show and paid only HK$1,000 (US$130) a month.
“I [started to take on] so many shows because I needed the money to support my family. I played the roles that no one else wanted: mistress, promiscuous woman. I thought it was fine, because I loved acting. But I became stereotyped and at the time I didn’t even know it.”
The competitive environment at TVB exacerbated Lam’s existing confidence issues, driving her body to the brink. Afraid of losing shows, she once returned to a set immediately after undergoing invasive surgery, ignoring her doctor’s advice to take a month’s bed rest. She failed to inform her employers of her condition, but the situation soon revealed itself when she collapsed in a pool of blood.
It was then that she decided it was time to start taking better care of her body. She signed up for a yoga class and accidentally joined a session for advanced students.
“Afterwards, the teacher told me that I had promise, and that I should do more, because my body is built for yoga – although I know now that yoga is suitable for all body types. Before that, I had never received a compliment in my life.”
Lam took a chunk of her savings and put it towards studying for a yoga teaching qualification, a process a good deal more difficult than it is today, she says.
“It was tough,” she says. “I still stressed myself out by doing acting and yoga training concurrently, but I felt happy the whole time. Every day I did something that gave me so much satisfaction. I felt power.”
It was around that time, in 2014, that Lam discovered her long-term boyfriend was having an affair, and she ended their relationship.
“I started going out a lot and drinking to forget my pain, and that’s when ‘the incident’ happened,” she says, referring to a video clip showing Lam and a man, both under the influence, entering a disabled restroom at the IFC Mall, before emerging a reported 30 minutes later to a crowd of paparazzi. The video ignited a supposed sex scandal that became indelibly associated with her name.
“I know that I stood by my values, though I think about it now, and how I dealt with it… I was not mature, I did not deal with the situation in a way to mitigate it. What angers me now is that people thought that I staged this entire scene to get more famous. I swear on my son’s life, that is not something I would do. At the time, I had practically left TVB, and if I really wanted that fame, I would have done something like that earlier, not then, and not to let my family down like that.”
For years, Lam endured ridicule, including from her family, who cared little for the truth and focused more on the shame she had brought upon them. It came to a point when she was diagnosed with systemic sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that eats away at the body’s tissue, with a doctor telling her that once it reached her throat, she would die.
Lam went through painful, expensive treatments before finally giving up and deciding to live out her days by travelling with friends. Removed from the toxic hometown environment, her condition healed itself.
Slowly, she learned to address the whispers she would hear behind her with a laugh, and to focus on building her yoga practice. One day in 2014, a former TVB staffer called her about joining a YouTube production company.
Soon, Lam was editing and creating her own videos, which she still does today. She doesn’t feel her following grew quickly – it took a year or so of regular posts for a “death by abs workout” video to achieve a million hits. She is now one of Hong Kong’s top three YouTube content creators with 1.3 million subscribers.
Lam’s YouTube channel features weekly fitness and yoga tutorials, with workouts targeting specific body parts and postural issues from anterior pelvic tilt to hunched shoulders, along with personal vlogs and updates on her beauty regime, family life and aspects of motherhood.
“I’m still a bit lazy. I don’t film a video a day, I just want my YouTube channel to touch and help people. I’d rather do quality over quantity and I don’t want to forget my original intention. People tell me to create a premium membership, but I don’t want to lose people who can’t afford it. I’ve even cut YouTube ads that show up midway. I feel that the YouTube channel is my home, and I only want to bring in things that I love.”
Lam credits her husband with helping her find balance and sanity. The couple now have a two-year-old son and she has – for the first time in her life – found happiness.
“People say I should be thankful for that ‘incident’ because it brought me my fame. Maybe that’s true. But actually, it’s what took me to rock bottom. It was yoga that raised me back up. It was my own resilience and perseverance. Scandals happen to lots of people, and a lot of people disappear from the public eye. It was my choice to work hard and soldier on, because I didn’t have any other options. I was like a weed, I had to grow where I was left,” she says.
“The first half of my life was bitter, but now it is sweet. And without the bitter, I wouldn’t appreciate the sweet as much. My failures have made me who I am today, which is a positive person.”
Push will get a person almost anywhere- except through a door marked “pull.”