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Two Peas in a Pod! Double Act

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Piano virtuosos Stephanie Fung and Foster Henderson bring new meaning to the phrase ‘like mother, like son’.
Elizabeth Kerr reports
PHOTOS BY Richard Gordon – www.richardgordonphotography.com

Foster Henderson is not your usual nine-year-old. Not only does he regularly finish first at classical music competitions, he has zero interest in pop music and most other nine-year-old pursuits. On this afternoon at Pacific Coffee near the Discovery Bay ferry pier, he’s carrying a Spider-Man tote bag, which he chose because, “It came from Taobao and it was the… least horrible thing they had.” Okay. So not a Spider-Man kid.

“No,” he states flatly. A Marvel kid? “No.” DC? “No.” Does he watch TV? “Yes.” Okay, we’re getting somewhere. What do you like to watch? “Spy.”

When he’s not watching the box, practising piano and violin in school (at home), or hanging out with beach buddy Nicholas, Foster says he enjoys reading, particularly David Walliams. “Billionaire Boy. Code Name Bananas. Gangsta Granny. I’ve read that, like, six times,” he rattles off. “Oh, and The Long Walk to Freedom.” As in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. The passion for classical music is starting to make sense.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Foster has clearly got a mind of his own, much to the delight of his father, Toronto native Tim Henderson and Hongkonger mother Stephanie Fung, a concert pianist, judge, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) accompanist and private instructor. It’s just weeks since Foster was dubbed Grand Champion at the Gasca International Music Competition in Tokyo. With COVID mostly in the rear view, the field is once again open for live competitions. Tokyo was one of the first experiences like it for Foster, who was also one of only two competitors playing two instruments.

“I liked it very much,” he says. “I played Debussy’s Arabesque No. 2 for piano, and for violin I played Concerto No. 5, third movement by F. Seitz. I was first runner-up in piano and champion for violin. I won ¥40,000. I think I want to get an Apple Watch, but I still don’t know.”

That’s more like it. Sitting at a table by the window, Tim joins the conversation, refusing to be an outlier. A sporting goods and product development pro, he’s been living in Hong Kong for 25 years and moved to DB with Stephanie before Foster was born. The couple met online. “You don’t have to mention that,” Stephanie says before Tim dives into a proud tangent. “It’s been fantastic. I’m so lucky to have Stephy in my life…” he begins, when Stephanie cuts him off. “This part you can leave in,” she says with a laugh. The trio made a work detour to Nagano just before COVID, then rode out most of the pandemic in Thailand before resettling in DB in 2021. “It’s a great place for kids. It’s safe, it’s full of families and likeminded people,” says Tim. “Lots of people like to whine about any number of issues but all in all I can’t think of a better place to live in Hong Kong.”

MUSICAL PATHS

DB’s also perfect for the family because Tim can work from home, and Stephanie can continue teaching her large roster of local students (www.stephaniepiano.com) – like the twins who just got music scholarships to Eton, thanks in part to her.

After getting bitten by the piano bug as a kid Stephanie knew she wanted to play for life, but had no idea how to parlay her passion into a career. “I had no brain for science or math, and even my public exam results hinted that I should be in the music programme,” she recalls. Her traditional, business-minded parents were a hurdle, but fortunately an uncle and her grandparents rode to the rescue to support Stephanie’s music studies at Baptist University and then the HKAPA. She earned three scholarships to Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and since then has performed with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Edo de Waart) and with the legendary bandoneon player Walter Rios.

Foster’s musical path has been easier. He’s taking classes at the HKAPA as the family considers his musical education, and his taste for piano came by osmosis.

“When I heard mummy teach her students, I enjoyed the sound of the piano and I thought I might like to try it,” he says. “So I asked if she’d teach me.” The same thing happened with violin. Given the choice between going to a choir performance and a violin concert, Foster will choose violin but the piano is his first love. “I like piano because I find it the most challenging of the instruments I know,” he says. “I like to play Chopin on the piano and Vivaldi for violin.”

HOOKED ON CLASSICS

Foster’s been playing violin for about 18 months to the piano’s four years, and he only ever plays classical music. With his shaggy brown hair and big dark eyes, he looks a bit like a K-pop star. Say that and he throws down a first-rate side-eye. “I like classical,” he states firmly, which begs the question of parental brainwashing, but both mom and dad are quick to quash that idea. “I’ll listen to everything. I started listening to all kinds of music in high school and I still do,” says Stephanie. Tim adds, “Believe me, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guy. I love that ’60s and ’70s thing. I’m always trying to…”

“Manipulate me.” Foster cuts him off. That gets a chuckle but Foster stands his ground. He’s not kidding; he simply finds the repetition of pop – and rock, and jazz, and hip hop and country – un-engaging.

Next up for Foster is July’s AIMA International Music Competition in Taiwan, where he’ll play Debussy again. Stephanie will be tagging along with another one of her students competing in the same event. To the untrained, music competitions sound frivolous, but as Stephanie explains it, they’re a vital teaching tool.

“It’s just like sport. You play a match every week, you swap strategies, see how others play. It’s the same for music. When he competes, Foster’s able to see other kids from around the world, and understand there are plenty of great players his age out there. They show him how you need to keep working hard if you want to keep improving.”

At this stage the competitions are important for Foster because he’s nine years old, and he’s unsure if music is going to be his life. He’s looking forward to the summer break and a trip to Disneyland, but everything else is still to be decided, and neither Stephanie nor Tim are going to push. That said, Foster has admitted to being curious about the flute. He looks scandalised when told rap-pop superstar Lizzo plays flute – and includes it in her concert performances. That stops him in his tracks. “And Jethro Tull,” chimes in Tim. Okay, so maybe not the flute.

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