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Songbird: Tung Chung’s Mogi Amarjargal talks opera singing and Abbey Road studios

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Lantau resident and opera singer Mogi Amarjargal’s road to Tung Chung took the long way round, and included a stop at Abbey Road Studio. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Mongolians do things very late. We’re not very timely as you can see,” says Munkhjargal – Mogi – Amarjargal with a laugh as she strides into a coffee shop in the Hopewell Centre just a couple of minutes overdue. Mogi looks for all the world like a typical Hong Kong professional, though it’s obvious there’s a more generous soul lurking beneath the surface. Not that Hongkongers are entirely self-absorbed, but good luck finding one who didn’t have an email address at 20 years old. Or a mobile phone. In 2005. Scandalous.

Lack of a phone might as well be Armageddon in Hong Kong, but for Mogi, a native of Mongolia, it was the least of her concerns. In 2005, she was still adjusting to life in a rapidly changing post-communist country, and she was a university student who didn’t speak a lick of English, embarking on a globetrotting romance with a Scot.

Now 33, Mogi’s one of the roughly 500,000 Mongolians living overseas. Married with two children, she chatters away in fluent, ever so delicately accented English. Did I mention she’s a trained opera singer who recorded a song for the Dalai Lama? Yeah, there’s that.

Diva in the wings

Mogi looks unassuming with her easy smile and sparkling eyes, but she’s led a life that would be suitable for documentation in, well, an opera.

Raised outside Zuunmod by her grandmother, 40 minutes from Ulaanbaatar, Mogi has a firm handle on where she’s from, recalling the changes that wracked Mongolia – which is not part of China (she has to correct that a lot). “After 1990, we switched from a communist country to a democracy,” she explains. “It gave us more freedom but it was difficult. Before that we had 100% employment. People started losing jobs, including my mum and dad, and we all had to find our way in a private market.”

Her climatologist mother and insurance-executive father were nonetheless fine with her choice of music as a university major, and  probably not all that surprised. Mogi’s great uncle, G. Khaidav, is known as the ‘godfather of opera’ in Mongolia, and his niece was one of his first mentees – she had already developed a penchant for performing for the family at age six.

“Mongolians love to sing, and it has been a large part of our culture for thousands of years,” she says. “I think the recent success of Mongolian singers [in competitions like BBC Cardiff Singer of the World] is down to natural talent, and the way we sing from the heart.”

It was the summer of 2005 when Mogi met her eventual husband Michael at a kids’ camp, where she taught music. Long story short: inspired by Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round travel series – “any TV programme with Mongolia in it has the wild country, the blue sky, horses everywhere…” quips Mogi – Michael wound up volunteering at the same camp.

A long-distance romance ensued by old-fashioned post – she still didn’t have an email address – repeated trips to Mongolia for him, phone calls aided by matching English-Mongolian dictionaries, a stint studying English in the UK for her, and finally a 2010 wedding in Edinburgh.

Mogi Amarjargal

Recording at Abbey Road Studios

Living in the UK, Mogi’s passion for opera continued to grow. “Mongolian classical music comes from the Russian tradition, it’s very strong. The technique is quite different in English, so I wanted to learn that too,” she recalls.

Somewhere along the way (2010), Mogi found herself in none other than Abbey Road Studios recording a song for the Dalai Lama. This came about because of a chance encounter, one that proves that the world is indeed tiny. “I met a Tibetan guy in a Mongolian pub in London,” Mogi says. “He heard me singing and offered me a chance to sing on an album commemorating the Dalai Lama’s 70th birthday.”

The location for the recording meant nothing to Mogi, and its significance only became clear when she filled Michael in on the details. “He asked what kind of studio and I said some studio called Abbey something. Michael was totally baffled because bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd used to record there. He asked me if I was joking,” she recalls with a hearty laugh.

While the album – Multi National Tribute Album for His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama – wasn’t distributed widely, it was presented to the Dalai Lama himself. He kept seven CDs and signed five, one of which is in the Mongolian Embassy in London. “It was made by Buddhist cultural singers, and there was a Mongolian singer (me), an Indian singer, one from Nepal, one from Bhutan and one British singer,” Mogi says. “I’ll never forget the experience.

“Mongolians have a very close connection with Tibet,” she adds. “Although Shamanism was the traditional religion practiced in ancient times, Buddhism has been a part of Mongolian culture since the 13th century, and in particular a Tibetan sect of Buddhism.It is said that ‘Dalai’ (meaning ocean), in the name Dalai Lama, was bestowed by a Mongolian king, Altan Khan, in the 1500s.”

Vocational dreams

Now in Hong Kong nearly four years, Mogi with a British supply chain firm and Michael in IT, the family lived in Discovery Bay before relocating to Tung Chung. The move was largely motivated by schooling options for the kids.

“We applied to the schools in DB and the waiting lists were very long,” Mogi explains. “Discovery Mind Primary School had a space for Sara in Tung Chung, so we decided to move. My son, Leo, will be going to a local kindergarten in September.” Now based in the Caribbean Coast, Lantau life suits the family.“We didn’t want to be in Central, not with two kids,” Mogi says. “We got lucky and found a new building with great facilities and outside space. Hiking is right there, there’s boating, the MTR is close. It’s perfect.”

Now that the kids are that little bit older, Mogi is keen to get back into singing. “I saw the Hong Kong Women’s Choir perform at the MTR in Central over Christmas, and I did some research on them. I think I’ll apply,” she says. “I really come alive when I perform, so it would be good to be able to do that with a choir… not just at karaoke parties.”

Chance encounters and random connections – you’ll remember the Tibetan guy in the London pub – have served Mogi well, and she’s not shy to express gratitude and give praise. In fact, that’s what separates her from many a Hongkonger. She describes her mother-in-law as “an amazing woman, a role model: strong, powerful, kind, patient,” and her grandmother, who raised nine children all of whom went to university, as “the most powerful woman in the world.”

Michael, meanwhile, is regularly referred to as “sweet” and “endlessly supportive.” Even the SAR gets its due, as a place where “there’s so much opportunity, in any job, in any industry.

“Hong Kong is still so new for us, it’s international and exciting, and living here means Mongolia is closer,” Mogi finishes. “I can see my friends and family, and it puts me a few steps closer to my dream. I would like to help Mongolian children, who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had, get a musical education. I believe that people who grow up with music are joyful; they have respect for others and love life.”

Images: Andrew Spires

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