The Plum Blossom and Thistle: Piping and Drumming in Hong Kong
Fall 2008
Michael Macdonald, Celtic Life, Halifax, Canada

¡§...neither societies nor cultures should be seen as givens, integrated by some inner essence, organizational mainspring. Rather, cultural sets, and sets of sets, are continuously in construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, under the impact of multiple processes operative over wide fields of social and cultural connections¡¨ (Wolf 2001, p.313).

Celtic culture defies the notion of tradition as having some deep-seated nature or a prearranged organic coherence. It is rather a dynamic process, a configuration of ideas, symbols and communications always under the pressure of change driven by social, economic, political and ecological forces throughout history. Drawing attention to the role of Gaelic heritage in the wider fields of East Asian social interaction and cultural connections, the celebratory role of piping and drumming associated with Hong Kong emerges coherent.  

Sixteen members of the Mains of Fintry Pipe Band from Dundee, Scotland were selected by the Chinese Olympic Committee to represent not solely Great Britain, but the whole of Europe in the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. It may have been about something other than merely happenstance that this small band according to the British press ¡§...was spotted by Chinese officials when playing abroad last year and thought it was a joke when asked to play at the prestigious event.¡¨(Evening Standard¡X08/08/08)

Why, with all the variants in a Western musical tradition, would an ensemble of marching musicians dressed in traditional Highland regalia playing bagpipes and drums, attract those producing the Olympic Opening Ceremonies? Mustered in martial style, in what manner did the music of bucolic pipes and drums seen by four billion people around the world make a particular kind of appropriate statement for the Chinese?

Surely, Chinese peoples have weighty historical ties to multiple reed woodwinds well before the introduction of the Great Highland Bagpipe in association with the British colonial experience in Asia. It is not entirely remarkable that the classical music of ceˆwl mhˆur cultivated among rugged North Atlantic Celtic warrior societies finds much in common with the folk music played on ancient woodwinds from the sturdy, kin-based cultures of Asia. Listening to East Asian indigenous wind instruments such as the Chinese suoina and hulusi, experiencing the Shinto parade pageantry of melodious woodwinds and drums in Japan or even examining the similarities in musical structure with Indian ragas, the resemblance between the reverberations of the Gaelic bagpipe and the instruments of traditional music of South Asia and the Orient is definitive.  

Yet, clear distinctions do indeed exist between the two traditions. I have written elsewhere that much of Western classical music education focuses on the requirements for practice that consist mainly of reiterating melodic phrases incessantly, until incorrect notes are eliminated. The apprentice is trained to conform and compete, not to do something as essentially ¡¥dicey¡¦ as interpretation or improvisation. This clearly holds true for the bagpipe. By contrast, musical improvisation and interpretation, fundamental not only to jazz, but traditional music across Asia, even in South Asian cultures like India where performers are taught the technique as part of their studies.
Given the sonic similarities, yet distinct approaches to playing traditional folk or early music, why is Asian participation in piping, pipe bands and even the Gaelic arts so universal? East Asians easily represent the largest numbers of non-White Celtic performers worldwide. Specifically, why they continue to obtain principally among the more than seven million inhabitants of Hong Kong and its environs has not been examined in any systematic manner.

Surely, one can appreciate both similarities and distinctions with the bagpipe and drum between Eastern and Western music by simply examining the significance through a simple lens. However, this leaves only the scantiest understanding of the crossing point between these musical legacies. Ambiguous and sweeping generalities that mark off Eastern or Asian from Western or European musical traditions are often associated with crude understandings of civilization processes and even confusing notions referencing social race. Nor does it tell us about the Cathay trade on whose back, Gaelic bagpiping was first introduced into East Asia. Solely an offensive and revisionist history would grossly associate the introduction of that instrument in China with the ScottishTaipans who imported opium into Hong Kong.

An augmented focus offers transparency in distinguishing the historically relevant factors in the garrisoning of regiments that influenced the music, performance arts and ethnic celebrations of South China with its distinctive Cantonese dialect and culture. Ultimately, the specific making of a performance identity associated with the avocation of pipes and drums among the people of Hong Kong can be scrutinized through candid interviews with local piob mhˆur musicians.

Pipe Bands of Hong Kong
There are about 25 government-sponsored, institutionally-associated and non- affiliated bagpipe bands in Hong Kong, a number that remarkably has grown since the departure of the last Highland regiment, the Royal 42nd ¡§Black Watch¡¨ in 1997. In the period prior to British political deletion, piping tuition and even competitions were frequent, if not commonplace. Since devolution, interest in piping has not ebbed. In spite of the ¡§piping culture¡¨ being depleted of its Scots instructors and guidance, it has continued to be enjoyed and sustained by a population that punctuates both Chinese ceremony and Celtic celebration to the sounds of the bagpipe band and Highland arts performance.  

On the whole, today, the majority of the ensembles could best be described as ¡§parade¡¨ bands detailed in tropical (white tunic) full dress uniforms. In this sense, the influence of the regiments is obvious. As full military dress pageantry among regimental pipe bands date to the Victorian era, their influence has had a pronounced effect on the regalia most used by Hong Kong government services and institutionally-affiliated bands today. The exception would be the Hong Kong Pipe Band and the Hong Kong St. Andrew¡¦s Pipe Band which uses the more reticent daywear attire; the major distinction being their non-affiliated status and selection of music. The latter perspective is geared primarily towards competition and concert.  According to Ron Abbott, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Piping Society, these are bands whose membership is ethnically diverse. ¡§There were also members of Her Majesty¡¦s Armed Forces who played the bagpipes and drums, but who did not serve in Scottish or Irish regiments, and were commissioned officers and could not play in their regimental pipes & drums; but who instead contributed to the pipe band scene by joining civilian bands such as the Hong Kong Pipe Band could have competed in Grade 3 in Scotland or North America in the late 1980s and early 1990s.¡¨

The predominance of large ceremonial bands is more culturally significant than simply the emulation of Highland regimental bands. The celebrated composer and Pipe Major, Bill Livingstone, of the famous Canadian Pipe Band, The Scottish Lion 78th Fraser Highlanders, has commented (in a published interview in Alberta) about there being something splendid and imposing about a pipe band. ¡§I think that pipe bands are big and will stay big because there is something majestic about 18 pipers and 10 snare drummers and 8 [tenors] in the mid-section playing music.¡¨  There may be something synergistic about combining the Hong Kong proclivity for pageantry and a sense of tradition even if it is not specifically about Chinese culture. The journalist, Phil Macdonald, writing for National Geographic (2006) about Hong Kong, argues that the cosmopolitan nature of the city ¡§...thanks to a tenacious determination to maintain [Chinese] tradition and ready acceptance of Western culture...¡¨ does not undermine Cantonese heritage (p.14).

The British proclivity for well-administered bureaus was significant in the fashioning of government services pipe bands that, today, have the largest and decidedly disciplined contingents. They are mirrored by institutionally affiliated bands in contrast to the alternative of non-affiliated bands representing the more discrete ¡§civilian¡¨ ensembles. It is notable that in a city of seven million with a rather diminutive Celtic population, there are approximately 25 pipe band entities; whereas New York, with eight million inhabitants and a considerable Celtic-American population of 500,000, can claim no more than fifteen, and of those, six are city services bands quite analogous to those found in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong piob mhˆur musicians habitually play in bands or even in multiple ensembles with only a minority claiming to be individual performers.  Bands such as the Hong Kong Auxiliary Police or the Scout Association may not be permitted to play at commercial or private sector promotional events, leaving individual band members the option of creating separate, non-affiliated ensembles to hire out for non-civic engagements or concerts. Nevertheless, there is an emergent interest in creating pipe bands associated with educational institutions. Grants can be solicited from the government¡¦s Quality Education Fund. It is reported that increasing numbers of musicians have, or propose to set up, non-affiliated ensembles to take advantage of the rise in popularity of piping and drumming. They are continuously in demand as musical stewards for weddings, community ceremonies, commercial exhibitions and promotions.

There is also a small minority of individual pipers who prefer to not perform in bands at all. This includes novices as well as highly competent musicians. WAN Ka-Ming Kieran, the musical director of the Hong Kong St. Andrew¡¦s Pipe Band previously interviewed in Piping Today, argues that ¡§...there is no clear cut divide between an individual piper and a band player in my definition. Certainly a few of the pipers here are retired from band playing and only stick to piobaireachd [classical Gaelic piping] and some competition music. Piobaireachd generally requires verbal teaching; therefore around 10 players here can play a good piobaireachd.¡¨

In this regard, Abbott comments that ¡§Among the pipers of Chinese ethnicity, the vast majority would appear to either be happy playing in ¡¥street parade type¡¦ pipe bands, or if not, have little chance to improve their piping.  There are however a few local pipers who could easily compete on the boards at the Highland Games in Scotland or North America.  Several have traveled overseas to attend piping schools in Scotland and/or North America and have become very competent pipers.¡¨  One such piper that Ron Abbott advocates is FUNG Wing-Cheong (see the section ¡§Instructor and Tutoring Issues¡¨  below), who after receiving considerable training from top grade soloists including Angus J. MacLellan, now teaches a number of pupils in Hong Kong. One of his former pupils, initially self-taught, is LEE Cho-Lam, the piper who is profiled in the present issue. Both are unique for Hong Kong in having a passion for piobaireachd or ceˆwl mhˆur.

Rehearsal and Practice Venue Anxieties
Hong Kong is architecturally, a vertical city with the vast majority of its urban space devoted to apartment and condominium complexes leaving its public spaces to be heavily regulated in regard to public musical performance. The single most critical issue with non-affiliated bands is where to practice. Government and institutionally affiliated bands unmistakably have an edge, not only because of government-sponsored financial support, but because of access to institutional venues where musicians can be trained and rehearse. WAN Ka-Ming Kieran comments that ¡§Unfortunately, bagpipe music sounds to the casual local listener rather like the sort of traditional Chinese music played at Hong Kong funerals, so unsolicited performances may provoke complaints. Also, our public parks are beset by numerous rules and regulations, which usually include a ban on loud music. Uniformed groups may have the use of a parade ground; the rest of us have a problem. Even solo players may have to travel a long way to find a place to practice. Tim [Hamlett] can report that, according to the occupant of a flat near Tim's usual practice spot, the agent who showed the occupant around the premises told him that, not only did it have a view of the mountains, but on weekends, he would get mountain music.¡¨ (Tim Hamlett is band manager for Hong Kong St. Andrew¡¦s Pipe Band and a journalist at the South China Morning Post, the major English language newspaper in Hong Kong).

Instructor and Tutoring Issues
Most of the experienced players received piping instruction when the British army pipers were in Hong Kong and have a background of visiting Scotland or Canada to receive lessons. The more accomplished musicians who teach, such as FUNG Wing-Cheong, balance family responsibilities and work while struggling to conduct music sessions and often become quite ¡¥put off¡¦ or deterred by local band politics. The father of two young children and spouse to a former piper as well, he is also an instructor at a school for mentally challenged children. While tutoring pipers and acting as a volunteer band officer for more than a decade without remuneration, his love of playing and teaching creates serious obstacles; ¡§ son and daughter¡¦s schooling and extracurricular activity expenses are high.¡¨  Yet, he relates ¡§...I still teach them [band members] just because I have students and friends there; they enjoy playing with me...¡¨ and ¡§... I want to share the fun of piping with them.¡¨ At the same time, he feels culpable for being apart from his family for spending so much time when tutoring the band.

The impressive number of youth organization pipe bands certainly succeed in bringing Celtic light music to the people of Hong Kong with performances scheduled throughout the year. It can be fine beginnings for young people who are afforded the opportunity to learn the basics of piping and drumming, with instruments and uniforms provided, but apparently not a characteristic way to advance beyond the basics since the numbers of qualified tutors are seriously wanting. As a result, audiences are sometimes limited solely to those who are mostly interested in events that focus on amateur youth performance.

This has some sobering consequences as Hong Kong lacks an association or society to which bands and individuals are offered membership. Without organizational grading of bands or pipers, it is difficult to rent facilities or hold recitals and sponsor events. It also impedes attempts to create an interest in piping and drumming schools. In the past, competitions were organized by the St. Andrew¡¦s Society in hosting the Hong Kong Highland Gathering. According to Ron Abbott, ¡§This excellent event, which was supported each year by the St. Andrew¡¦s Society of Hong Kong, by various commercial companies in Hong Kong and by Her Majesty¡¦s Armed Forces, died a death in 1996.  Not only did bands from within Hong Kong compete, but on occasions, bands from overseas would also travel to Hong Kong to compete. Top judges were brought out to Hong Kong, including the likes of Major John Allan (Director of Army Bagpipe Music), Peter Snaddon (ex-51 Highland Volunteers) and John Abbott (ex-City of Edinburgh Police Pipe Band). The Gathering spurred the local pipe bands to practice and to have something to aim for each year. Indeed, Maj. Jock Allan wrote the tune ¡§The Hong Kong Highland Gathering¡¨ after attending one such Gathering.¡¨ (Ron Abbott has provided a profile of the outstanding Scots and ¡¥Expatriate¡¦ musicians who have been solicitous with the piping culture in Hong Kong that is accessible at       

It is obvious that Hong Kong has an impressive, well-established piper and pipe band milieu. However, much of its formidability resides in an institutionalized setting that obtains organization and the articulation of a musical genus elaborated during the British colonial experience when pipe bands were integrated with military brass (silver) and fife ensembles. The exceptional influence of Scots piper and drummer tuition created an ambiance for highly disciplined parade performance and pageantry for the pleasure of the Hong Kong community. This was complemented by an extensive history of Highland gatherings, Scottish celebrations and St. Andrew¡¦s Society functions.

This, nevertheless, changed after devolution when experienced instructors generally became scarce and private tutoring was insufficient to serve a continuing development of competent bagpipe bands that are not part of the larger brass band contingents. Such combined ensembles cause bagpipe chanters to ¡§sound flat in harmonizing with brass¡¨ according to LEE Cho-Lam.  Further, without a piping society or association, competition, ranking and evaluation of bands and individuals is in the hands of those who ascertain competent performance in terms of the local musical aesthetic.

This is not disparaging to Hong Kong society.  Popular demand for pipe bands at non-affiliated events and celebrations has created a performance market that is on the rise for small ensembles. Hong Kong society has integrated the light music of bagpipe bands in leading and shaping public rituals, which often cannot occur without them. Their special position within Cantonese culture grants them influence to validate particular affirmations of local Chinese society (at least one band plays popular Chinese folk songs).

A Hong Kong perception of the piper variously shapes the pageantry of events and the majestic enactment of local heritage beliefs. For journalist Tim Hamlett, ¡§bagpipes in Hong Kong are part of a Hong Kong culture and local rituals involving Scottish music are not regarded as an alien import. I suppose this needs to be distinguished from the places where the pipes are seen as a lifeline connecting exile communities to their Celtic origins. Of course, the one thing that everyone in Hong Kong knows about the bagpipes is that they came from Scotland, but that does not mean use of the pipes in local ceremonies is a manifestation of Scottish culture, any more than the use of guitars in a rock concert is a part of Spanish culture.¡¨  Hong Kong society authors its own transmission of tradition and the bagpipe and drum are fundamental to cosmopolitan Cantonese heritage.   

Macdonald, Phil 2006. Hong Kong. Washington, D.C: National Geographic.
Wolf, Eric R. 2001. Pathways to Power: Building an Anthropology of the Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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