Seventeen year-old Chun-kit (Andrew) Yu isn’t the only bagpiper in Hong Kong, but he might be the busiest. In 2006 he joined his first pipe band, Hong Kong Road Safety Patrol Pipe Band. Since then he has been studying with Christopher Lee, winning his first piping award in Singapore last year, and taking first place in the Southeast Asian Quintets competition at the 2012 Jakarta Highland Gathering. He shares his story here!
How long have you been piping?
I started piping when I was about 11 years old. I still remember getting my first bagpipes, made by Maccallum Bagpipes in 2006.
What inspired you to start?
It is very common to see teenagers join uniformed groups in Hong Kong (similar to the army cadet force in the UK), and I was no exception. I remember my first time hearing bagpipes on an inspection parade when I was 10. It was a very special experience for me since I had not seen such unique musical instrument before. I thought that the sound was quite… indescribable and it left me speechless. What I noticed most at that time was the noise. The pipe band was noisy but the melody was quite harmonious and in perfect unison. In addition, I was also attracted by pipers’ uniform. It was really charming and surprising, especially the kilt. I had no idea and never imagined that a man could wear a kilt (which I thought was a skirt, as I had never seen a kilt before). In fact, my dad is still not really happy whenever I wear kilt, as he cannot get the idea that it is not a woman’s skirt. Anyway, the parade taught me about bagpipes and I quickly looked for a place to learn bagpipes after the parade. I even placed a call to the band and asked them to enrol me in a class.
Are they the same reasons you continue to pipe today?
Today, I continue to play bagpipes because I still enjoy wearing the kilt uniform, but I also am actively pursuing a higher standard of piping. Piping is a very sophisticated art. It is quite challenging to tune the pipes well, play the pipes steadily, memorise the whole tune and play it without any mistake. It sounds crazy and impossible, but I think it is fun. Another reason I am still playing bagpipes today is to make friends around the world and broaden my horizons through competitions abroad. Just like last May when I flew to Jakarta and joined the Jakarta Highland Gathering which is the biggest and the only highland gathering in Asia. It was great fun as it was my first time to join such nice event, and I had an opportunity to see some outstanding pipers from Grade 1 and Grade 2 band in Australia, like Pipeband Club, St Mary Band Club and Ballarat Highlanders etc. I love competing as it is a good chance to see what I can do to improve. That is the reason why I am still playing bagpipes nowadays. (But my dad is still not really happy about me playing bagpipes as he thinks that I spend too much time piping.)
What kind of pipes do you play?
I now play on R G Hardie bagpipes which were bought in 2009. But I hope I can try to play small-pipes in my future. (Actually, I am saving money to buy a set of small-pipes.)
Are you a traditional piper in terms of style & sound?
Yes, I am a very traditional piper as I only focus on solo piping competitions. I always play something very ‘tedious’ like MSR and Hornpipe Jig. However, my Pibroch is awful and I do not really understand how to play it perfectly. Maybe I need to do more to improve upon it. Indeed, I want to set up a Celtic music band (something similar to Pipedown) and play some folk music. Yet it seems not really possible at this moment since Celtic music is not really popular in Hong Kong and it is quite difficult to find fiddlers and guitar players who are willing to play Celtic music.
Who were your piping influences, and what are you listening to now from that genre?
Probably is Chris Lee, my current teacher, who has taught me a lot about piping and helped me improve my piping a lot. I think my piping would really be terrible without him.
Do you listen to piping music? Who are your favourite pipers?
I like Gordon Walker. He is a significant piper in the world and I like his light music. His light music especially MSR has a very strong and heavy feeling, beat, rhythm. I have some of Gordon’s albums and I always listen to them.
What is the piping scene like in your part of the world?
As a former British colony, bagpipes are well known to former British subjects but not so for the new generation (i.e. people born after 1997) and immigrants from other countries. I still remember one woman from People’s Republic of China scared me while I was having a street performance in Central (a famous commercial hub and tourism area) on the New Year Eve of 2008. She was really unhappy with me and she said ‘Hong Kong is no longer British, you should not play bagpipes. You are a treasonous.’ It probably is my most unforgettable experience and the worst accusation given to me in my life. Hong Kong still has many pipe bands nowadays even though the British armed forces are no longer stationed in Hong Kong. Some pipe bands are government funded and some are privately owned. Michael Macdonald said that the amount of pipe band in Hong Kong was probably more than New York. Some pipe bands like Hong Kong Police Pipe Band (the only full time and professional pipe band in Asia), Hong Kong Pipe Band (renamed to Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club Pipe Band in 2012, the only band formed by foreign people) and Scouts 21st Islands Pipe Band are very noticeable, especially Hong Kong Pipe Band. Many top players are playing with the band like Iain Mowatt (former piper of British Caledonia Airways pipe band and current PM of Hong Kong Pipe Band), Chris Lee (in 78th Highlander Halifax and prize winner of Nicol-Brown Invitational 2010 and George Sherriff Invitational 2010) and Stuart Fung. Besides, John Angus-Smith and Lord Wilson of Tillyorn were also playing with the band when they were in Hong Kong. However, I think the remaining bands are simply not up to standard, and might be best compared with the bands from Pakistan. It is unfortunate to see many pipe bands in Hong Kong are profit-making pipe band. Those bands are set up only for getting some commercial jobs and earning money, not for seeking a higher standard of piping music. Most pipers from these bands are not willing to learn or improve their piping skills; their only aim is making profit through getting some piping performances. I think most of the pipers in Hong Kong are arrogant as they always think that they are the best in the city. In fact, the situation is not just happening in Hong Kong’s piping world, but also within other parts of our musical community. Hong Kong people are ‘down to earth’; they learn musical instruments for taking exams, getting a certification from ABRSM and so that they can find a place in the best schools easily. In my opinion, one of the cause of this problem is that Hong Kong has no piping competition or Highland Games since Hong Kong was handed over to PR China. Pipers in Hong Kong lack an opportunity to compete with others and see what their true level is, it also made the pipers lack the motivation and enthusiasm for improving their piping skills since they no longer need to compete. Hong Kong had a very large annual Highland Games held in Stanley Fort from 80s to 1997, all the pipe bands including civilian bands and military bands would gather and have a competition. However the games are no longer held since British armed forces and many Scottish businessmen left Hong Kong, so there is no sponsorship or place to hold the games. If pipers want to compete, they have to go to Japan, Singapore, Jakarta, or even further away places like Canada, Australia, and the USA. I prefer Jakarta since it only takes me 5 hours to go there by aeroplane, I only need to pay a very low cost but I can compete with some very nice pipers from Australia. Anyway, I hope St Andrew Society will organize the games again so that I need not go abroad for competitions. Some British companies like HSBC and Jardine Matheson could support and sponsor the event. Especially Jardine Matheson, which is still the biggest Scottish company and employer in Hong Kong, should have ample funds to support a big event. Scottish people should support Scottish culture worldwide, right?
How are you involved with the piping community there?
I do not get too involved with the Hong Kong piping community because most pipe bands in Hong Kong are… not up to standard. But I joined Hong Kong Pipe Band in 2012 since I think this band will have a bright future.
What are your piping plans for the months and years ahead?
This year I have had to stop piping in order to prepare for the public exam since it is my last year in high school. Only 18% students can be admitted to into a university in Hong Kong, so I have to work hard. But, I am planning to go to Jakarta again for competition after the exams. Recently, I have also joined Jori Chisholm’s online piping competition; I hope I can be on the prize list since it is my first time playing in grade 1.