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The DBers in the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir sit down with Elizabeth Kerr for a much needed, socially distanced catch-up and to discuss plans for the holiday season
PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

In meeting up with the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir (HKWMVC) in early November a distinct sense of déjà vu descends. We meet in a Starbucks tucked away in a busy office tower again – this time at the Hopewell Centre in Wanchai, before the short walk to the choir’s rehearsal space, currently inside the Methodist International Church on Queen’s Road East.

In truth the similarity ends there, because this time de facto PR director Neil Juggins, in-house dispenser of amusingly dry anecdotes Dennis Wan, and one-time toy guru Richard Crosbie are joined by new members Simon Li and Gil De Clercq, Bernard Murphy, who missed the confab in 2018, and 33-year veteran John Walsh – an interloper who lives in Kowloon. The boys – and they’re buzzing like school kids, so boys it is – have commandeered the entire bench on the café’s left side and occupy four socially distanced tables for two. A girl could get used to having seven dudes demanding her attention.

But the members of the HKWMVC (www.hkwmvc.com) are perfect gentlemen, and for the first time in 18 months their rehearsals are working towards actual public performances for the Christmas season. Gigs already lined up include the tree lighting at Taiko Place on December 2, Light Up A Life concert to support hospice care at St John’s Cathedral on December 7 and a season-closing four shows at The Peninsula starting on December 18.

None of which precludes them acting like a bunch of kids hanging out after class. To be fair it has been 18 months of isolated Zoom rehearsals. The choir’s making up for lost time, but the camaraderie clearly hasn’t vanished. Conversation bobs and weaves and comes back around, and there’s a lot of joking.

Asked if he was nervous for his first performance in front of his wife and children, and Gil throws out a deadpan, “I was nervous they wouldn’t be quiet.” Bernard laments his poor second language skills, pointing at Simon with a vaguely accusing, “But at least he speaks Welsh!” To that, Simon comes back with a panicked, “I’ve got two thick books of songs to learn, just for the Christmas stuff.” For his part Richard is just happy that Gil and Simon “are helping to bring the average age of the choir down.”

At some point everyone pauses long enough for Dennis to launch into a twisty story about his uncle A-suk (a fellow choir member), his grandmother, a neighbour’s daughters and, ultimately, A-suk’s poor recruiting techniques. “My point is my uncle is the worst recruiter in the world; he’s the close the deal guy. The day after my first visit he’s going hard, calling, texting. ‘Are you joining?’ Which goes to another point: We are recruiting.”

Indeed they are. Things have changed since 2018. For starters long-time member Patrick Budden, and several others, left Hong Kong. “We’ve lost a lot of members for various reasons, and we are losing people because of the long quarantine,” laments Neil. He himself gave up equity analysis for education when his small bank’s business dried up due to COVID and his young son was learning online. After helping out, he decided to retrain as a [primary] teacher and is currently doing his PGCE. “I’m completely mad,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s exhausting. They never stop. But I am loving it.”

For his part Richard moved out of toy design – he had been working with Toys R Us in the US – and into art (watch this space). Dennis is taking a much-needed break from investment banking after two straight years of chaos.

But the news isn’t all grim. Richard claims the choir has made up the departures with new members, like Simon and Gil. Simon has been in Hong Kong 11 years and is one of the choir’s few actual Welsh speakers, which he admits came through ulterior motives. “This is a weird story,” he begins. “Another one!” Neil interjects, but Simon is uncowed. The UK-born filmmaker explains how a friend of his Welsh wife’s father invited them boating one day, and he and Simon’s future wife randomly broke out into a few Welsh songs. He was an HKWMVC member, and in an effort to be a good fiancé Simon contacted the choir and had about 40 show up at Pier 8 on their wedding day. “They sang for us before we got on a junk. She thought it was a rugby team. It was a great son-in-law flex.” All kidding aside, Simon’s enjoyed his first week in the HKWMVC. “I’m really struck by how welcoming everyone is,” he says.

Animal nutritionist Gil’s road to the HKWMVC isn’t as serendipitous. He followed his banker wife to Hong Kong from their home in Belgium, and it was she who saw the choir and suggested he look them up. That was almost four years ago when the couple relocated. “It took me two years to send an email to the committee. I was still travelling at that time, but this past year was a good time to start. I was here, and had the time to commit to practice,” he says.

Newcomer or veteran, the one commonality at all four tables is a genuine love of singing. Bernard came to Hong Kong in 1992 with the British army’s medical corps before he segued into law. A healthcare solicitor living in DB for 16 years and a choir member since 2014, Bernard’s connection came through John; both were previously in The Hong Kong Singers. “He told me he also sang in the Welsh choir and I should come along. So I put it in my diary and about 25 years later I finally turned up for a rehearsal. But it’s a delight, and I wish I had joined earlier,” Bernard says.


Neil et al’s arrival at the Methodist International Church brings the total number at practice to around 30. A-suk is here; Simon and Gil settle into their spots after some social milling about. English composer and former University of Warwick music director Colin Touchin is still conducting, and it’s a matter of seconds for him to make the schoolboy vibe evaporate.
The choir sounds remarkably clear though their masks as Colin puts them through their paces. “Baritones! Tenors! Let’s try that one more time,” and “Everyone stand, please.”

The HKWMVC runs through a couple of tunes from its Christmas programme – Deck the Hall, In the Bleak Midwinter and a rousing When a Child is Born. There’s no time for Abba these days. Bookings for performances are trickling back in as fast as possible given ongoing restrictions, and the boys in the band are already looking ahead to 2022. The Christmas slate adds new dates every few days, proving Hongkongers are looking forward to hearing Welsh voices at year’s end.

Dennis sums it up best. After missing two years of choir to work he found stepping into a performance at DB’s Three Sheets in October (the choir’s first show post-COVID) like riding a bike. “I was resistant. I hadn’t done this in two years. No way was it going to work. Oddly enough all the Welsh stuff just came flooding back. The English stuff? I had no clue. But the Welsh songs stuck,” he finishes. “Because they’re so beautiful.”

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