Pipes gain ground in Hong Kong
The Post - 'Handover' Decade
Mike Paterson, Piping Today, Glasgow, UK

THE hilly peninsula and group of more than 250 South China Sea islands that together constitute Hong Kong X Xianggang X are governed as a "special administrative region" of the People's Republic of China: an area of just over 1,000 square kilometres and nearly seven million people.

Its monsoon-belt climate gives it hot and humid summers, and cool, dry winters. Its deep-water port attracted the seagoing commerce that transformed the once quiet harbour town into a prosperously bustling and cosmopolitan hub of international economic activity in the Far East and a gateway to the vast Chinese hinterland and its rapidly expanding economy.

From 1841 until 1997, Hong Kong was under British rule, and it continues to have two official languages, Cantonese and English. The peaceful transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China, the "Handover", took place on 30 June, 1997.

At sunset on that day, as he watched the final beating of retreat at the British naval station, HMS Tamar, on his family's television at home, a young boy, Kieran Wan saw the Black Watch's Pipe Major, Steven Small, play a solo lament in the pouring rain, and decided he desperately wanted to play the Highland bagpipe.

Pipe Major Steven Small is now on the staff of the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming at Inchdrewer House, Edinburgh.

And Kieran Wan is an international business management student......

But Kieran Wan found that learning the pipes was not an easy option. Local music shops do not stock bagpipes or piping resources and few teachers were to be found.

"It was very difficult. You had to join a uniformed group, like a cadet-type youth organisation, some of which have pipe bands. It can be a beginning, and that is what I tried but it was not good for me. I had to play the snare drum because, in these bands, it's up to the band leader and what musicians the band requires. And I wanted to play the bagpipe.


"Finding a good teacher in Hong Kong is very difficult so we relied on resources available from Scotland. We began performing, people appreciated our music and our group began to grow," he said.

"Then, as there were too few bands we were able to join, we decided to form our own pipe band to promote piping and drumming. We could then play what we wanted and develop as we felt we should.

"Finding a secluded place to practise was very difficult: Hong Kong has a very high population density with a lot of high rise buildings. We now practise at a school, an academy that offered us a good place away from people's homes, and practise every Wednesday evening."


There is a ready local demand for pipe band performances, and the band has funded its own development by playing at parades, festivals, banquets, passing-out parades, street parades, graduations and commencements, and weddings. It also plays for a nominal fee or no charge for churches, voluntary groups, community events and charitable organisations.


"As well as piping and drumming, we are incorporating other elements to provide fresh and innovative performances. So, we are learning and promoting drum majoring, for example, not for leading the band but as a performance art. Our repertoire includes a drum salute and some Scottish dancing.

"And we perform several Chinese traditional folk songs specially arranged for the band," he said. "This helps to make piping more accessible for older Chinese people, when they hear the familiar tune. The Dance of Youth, a folksong from Xinjiang in north-west China, is a tune you find in the music book used by every primary school in China. Almost everyone knows this tune. Another tune we play, The Flower Drum Song, is a very popular folk song in Southern China. It was the regimental march of the colonial era Hong Kong Military Service Corps, played by their brass band."

Last summer, Kieran Wan visited Scotland for an intensive month of piping, beginning with his first formal piping lessons at the National Piping Centre.
"If I was to stay only in Hong Kong, I would not be able to progress," he said. "In Scotland, I did things I had never imagined doing and what I learned was extremely useful."

At the beginning of August, he went to see the Dundonald Highland Games in Ayrshire. "For the experience and to learn, I entered in the senior competition for march, strathspey and reel," he said. "It was a very valuable experience and I was given good, helpful advice by the judge there about my playing, to do with emphasising the pace and rhythm of the music. Working with the resources available in Hong Kong, that kind of advice is not so easy to come by.

"And, at the end of it, the piping co-ordinator asked me to play the lone pipes on the hillside of just beneath Dundonald Castle as I was the piper who had come from farthest away. It was a great honour for me to play where some very distinguished pipers have played.

"I also was persuaded to enter the grade 3 CLASP competition in Glasgow just a day before the contest. I had nothing prepared but I played, again for the experience, and placed third in both the slow air and 2/4 march events."

Kieran Wan said he had given up trying to learn piobaireachd in Hong Kong for want of a good teacher.

"But in Scotland I met Malcolm McRae and he is now my teacher. We exchange tapes regularly and, although my progress is slow, I can at least still learn piobaireachd. This was one of the greatest things I took back from Scotland. He is an excellent teacher. He is keen for me to play piobaireachd in Hong Kong and that is something I would like to do, and the pipers in my band will have an opportunity to hear piobaireachd."

He also said that he had learned a lot from seeing how bands performed and competed at the World Pipe Band Championships. "We are still a long way from this kind of performance," he said.

"My view had been circumscribed by what I had experienced in Hong Kong. In Scotland I saw a much larger world and realised I have lots to learn. I stayed for almost a month in Scotland about half of that time in Glasgow, taking lessons at the National Piping Centre. I saw four of the concerts at the Piping Live! Festival and traveled around Scotland.

"I thank God that I have been given good fingers and good health.

"I think pipers in Hong Kong need to come to Scotland and see how local Scots enjoy the piping season, and try their hand at competing. There is a lot to learn from this experience. A few service pipers from Hong Kong have attended the Army School of Piping and Drumming but it is unusual for a Chinese national to come to Scotland as an individual."

He is unlikely to be the last. Piping interest is growing in Hong Kong and, in a small way, beginning to find an audience in Mainland China. "On the Mainland, people appreciate bagpipe music but it is different from Hong Kong because the music is much less familiar to people there," said Kieran Wan.

"In 2005, I was asked to help establish a pipe band at a new theme park in Zhuhai, Guandong Province, by the park's entertainment director and we saw this as a good opportunity to begin promoting pipe music in Mainland China.

"The learners were six full time professional musicians, music graduates from northwest China, so they knew a lot about Chinese music and their own instruments but they did not know Scottish music or anything about bagpipes. The only drone instrument I know of in China is the hulusi (an instrument involving three free-reeded bamboo pipes mounted in a gourd as an air reservoir). It is a minority instrument from the Yunan province, related to the sheng, and not very widely played.

"So the company bought instruments from Scotland and we had just a month, July-August; it was very hot and we were teaching in the midst of a construction site, without air conditioning, refrigerators, computers, radio or television: it was a challenge for us and we did our best.

"Since the theme park opened, the Zhuhai pipe band has played there every day and I have been back for a few short visits to see how it is going. The music is being well received. They have basic skills and about 20 simple tunes, mostly two-part strathspeys, reels and so on. Because they are full time musicians, it helps. It is the first time for something like this.

"Mainland Chinese people tend to appreciate foreign culture by going to such theme parks. More recently, I have heard that other amusement parks in Guangdong want pipers to play at their events, and some have contracted Westerners as part-time pipers."


"Things like this show that piping is considered a potential attraction in the Mainland."

And in Hong Kong, there are now more than 10 pipe bands and a number of strong individual players.

"The nearest Highland gathering is in Djakarta in Indonesia and bands in Hong Kong have not gone to Indonesia since 1997, and I can't see that changing.

"But we do need a grading system and, to help develop that, we need a certified body."

Kieran Wan sees a very strong potential demand for piping tuition that is backed by formal qualifications. "People here are willing to pay money to gain internationally recognised qualifications," he said. "The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music practical and theory examinations have quite a long history in Hong Kong. In 2005 and 2006, about 90,000 people in Hong Kong took Board examinations. They accounted for 25-30 per cent of the total number of examinees worldwide.

"I found in Scotland that many young pipers were less interested in gaining Piping and Drumming Qualifications Board certificates. But Hong Kong people are keen to gain recognition for education and academic performance, and parents encourage their children to get any certifications for which they can qualify.

"If parents know that their children can learn piping from a qualified teacher and that the quality can be assured, they will allow and encourage their children to learn. And, if they can get a qualification that is equivalent to a grade in the Associated Board exams, and internationally recognised, many will take up piping.

"We need a certified body in Hong Kong to administer a qualifications system. We systems for Western classical music and the Chinese orchestra, but we have nothing for piping. In the Far East, we see the growing piping interest in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Bangkok, IndonesiaK and I have a student learning bagpipes in Taiwan, but there is no system or organisation for them. It is time to establish a piping organisation in the Far East."

While an English-speaking piping teacher could work in Hong Kong, he or she would find it difficult to teach in Mainland China. "I have to speak Mandarin in the Mainland," said Kieran Wan. "Language is a difficulty there when it comes to learning the pipes. And there are no bagpipes suppliers, so people there seek information through Hong Kong and we do not have enough teachers.

"But I am sure you can imagine the potential here."

***Download the music "Dance of Youth", please go to our "Music" page.***

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