The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir gets a little help from Discovery Bay’s most melodic residents to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen 20 professional men willingly sing Abba. It’s not a karaoke bar, there are no spouses or kids raging at a wedding. It’s not an out of control office party. It’s the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir (HKWMVC) rehearsing on a balmy evening.
They’re not messing around either. Each vocal section goes over a few lines again and again until the evening’s conductor thinks they’re Dynion o gân getting it. Abba may not have bothered with perfect harmony, but the HKWMVC certainly does.
Ninety minutes earlier, Neil Juggins, Dennis Wan and Patrick Budden piled into a Central Starbucks after work, ready to sing (no pun intended) the praises of the choir. They seemed more like a bunch friends planning a knees-up in McSorley’s than 10% of the HKWMVC, and 60% of its Discovery Bay-based members. But they are indeed choirboys. Or ‘choirgentlemen.’
Men of Song
Hong Kong native and banker Dennis has dropped in to lend some media support, but he’s ducking out of practice. “This is actually the first rehearsal I’ve skipped all year,” he says. “I was very proud of that, but family pulls me away tonight.” Dennis’ lament prompts recollections about how each of the men got into the choir, and why they stayed. Dennis notes singing for him was mostly karaoke prior to the HKWMVC, and diving into a heavily Welsh repertoire early on was a bit manic.
“I’ll admit it was a steep learning curve. I didn’t know what fourpart harmony was. I didn’t know the definition of bass and tenor. I couldn’t read Welsh; I can’t read music. I was almost totally illequipped to be in a Hong Kong Welsh male choir,” he says drily. “Though I am male. And from Hong Kong.”
British equity analyst Neil joined three-and-a half years ago, with compatriot Patrick, a retired human resources pro who has been in Hong Kong since 1969. “I went along for a session and enjoyed what I heard and ultimately stayed on,” recalls Patrick of a colleague’s invitation. “I always enjoyed singing, though I never thought I was very good at it.” Neil was an old choir hand, and simply wanted to keep at it.
Founded by a group of Welshmen back in the 1970s, the HKWMVC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Chaired by Tim Davis, the choir was fortunate to hire English conductor, composer and former music director at the University of Warwick Colin Touchin to act as conductor and kick the choir up to another level. Hopefully, they’ll make it to the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales, next year, and perform Welsh songs for a Welsh audience for the first time ever.
Not that the HKWMVC doesn’t get around already. The non-profit choir, operating on a member subscription basis, has had the privilege of performing at the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Albert Hall, on the Bund and on the Great Wall. The season winds down as choir members scatter for summer, but regular performances restart in autumn, peaking at Christmas.
Shows with Discovery College Choir and Unsung Heroes are regular calendar appearances in DB, and a St David’s Day performance at St John’s Cathedral is a musthear. The choir also sponsors the Daffodil Prize scholarship at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts for two students, who are invited to perform at annual concerts.
Only Men Aloud
Eventually, an actual Welshman, toy designer Richard Crosbie, shows up and quickly usurps Patrick’s seniority. In DB since 2002 and the choir since 2004, Richard arrived in Hong Kong from his native Trethomas, near Caerphilly, in the Rhymney Valley, in 1996. He stumbled upon the choir while seeking a harpist for his wedding.
“I got to [St John’s] early, and I saw this big room with a bunch of chairs, and someone told me to take a seat at the back. Gradually the room filled up with men and before I know it I was in the middle of a choir rehearsal. When someone asked me where I was from it was, ‘Alright you’re in.’ Three months later I had failed to find a harpist, but a surprise Welsh choir turned up at my wedding. I’ve been there ever since.”
Neil, Dennis and Patrick agree that the choir got in their blood and became something to look forward to, but Richard sums it up best. “I think everyone joins on a whim but the reasons they stay is that you end up creating something with a bunch of guys that’s really powerful, that you’re proud of. And you feel the reverence of the material. It’s quite moving. You’ve created art. I don’t profess to be the greatest singer by any means but, by being part of a group, you get to create something better than you could on your own… it’s really something.”
It takes dedication too, particularly if travelling to and from DB. None would have it any other way though. Eight-year resident Neil calls DB the closest thing to Singapore you’ll get in Hong Kong, while Richard admits, “It was either Lamma or Lantau because they were the two most affordable places in Hong Kong at the time. I love living in DB now, and I would live there by choice rather than by necessity.”
Patrick is a DB newbie at two years, having moved in after retiring. He and his wife think it’s great. “Previously I tended to think of it as a rather artificial place for Europeans, but it’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s peaceful. We don’t have the madding crowds. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised.” Dennis, also with two years under his belt, says simply, “It’s lovely there.”
Outdoing Anni and Agnetha
Back over at The Li Hall beside St John’s, about 20 of the choir’s 50 members prepare for rehearsal. It’s an amiable gathering that, while thin on Welshman, has, according to Patrick, a huge cross-section of Hong Kongers. “We’ve got judges, lawyers, teachers; we’ve got Germans, Americans, Canadians and local Chinese members.”
There’s some milling about and gossip before everyone displays enough discipline to sit in their assigned sections. In Colin Touchin’s absence William Chong steps in, and it’s amazing how quickly he whips them into shape in run-throughs of Panis Angelicus – yes, from St Thomas Aquinas’s Sacris solemniis – and Abba’s Take a Chance on Me.
Everyone has his favourites: Patrick is partial to I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables, Neil likes the chord progressions and harmonies of traditional Welsh songs, like Men of Harlech. All admit crowd-pleasers in Cantonese, Tagalog and Mandarin, like Teresa Tang’s classic The Moon Represents My Heart, are vital for reaching new audiences. The eminently singable Bohemian Rhapsody is a favourite. Is the HKWMVC getting ready to eclipse the late, great Freddie Mercury? A chorus of “No!” and denials ring out.
“We want to sing crowd-pleasers, and that always gets a great response,” finishes Neil, before adding with utmost gravity, “That’s absolutely done with deference.” Abba’s coming along nicely too.
• Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir, visit www.hkwmvc.com
Photo by Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.comTags: welsh male choir, 40th anniversary, neil juggins, dennis wan, patrick budden