Diaspora diaries

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am

'Conductor Thomas Beecham once said that only if your desire to become a musician is so strong that you would rather put your head in the oven than do anything else should you even consider pursuing a musical career,' says Sharon Choa, director of music at Britain's University of East Anglia. 'That desire came to me when I was 14.'

At the time, Choa was a student at Hong Kong's St Paul's Co-educational College. 'I had always been a science student but I took violin lessons from the music master at Diocesan Boys School. Later, ironically, I led the St Paul's Co-ed strings to defeat the DBS team at school competitions, two years in a row.

'When I went to London for university, I took up human biology as my major but that only lasted two weeks. I had an audition with Sidney Griller, the guru of string quartets at the Royal Academy of Music, and got accepted. That instantly changed my life.'

Choa's father, George - chairman of the Hong Kong Medical Association in the 1970s - was not upset with his daughter's decision, even though it drew her away from the family's medical tradition.

'Actually, my father discouraged me from a medical career because of the tough work he was all too familiar with. He didn't know it's even tougher to be a musician.'

Armed with a PhD in music from King's College, London, Choa stayed in Britain, a country she says she feels comfortable in.

'My family over the generations has had mixed blood; of Chinese, English, Parsee and Jewish extraction. My mother's father, Robert Kotewall [who was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1923 and after whom Kotewall Road in Mid-Levels is named] was half Chinese and half Parsee.

'Some faculty members from Asia have complained of racism in the UK but I really don't think about it. A reputable UK university was open-minded enough to accept me to lecture and to run the university orchestra.'

For the past 15 years, Choa has conducted both classical and modern repertories. A highlight for her was the 2004 BBC Proms, for which she conducted Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, sung in Cantonese, with the professional orchestra she founded, the Chamber Orchestra Anglia.

'My penchant for the violin is incidental, but conducting is something very natural for me. What got me serious were the summers I spent at Dartington [College of Arts, in Devon] and then in Prague [in the Czech Republic], studying under maestro Jiri Belohlavek.'

Choa has spent some of the summer in Hong Kong, practising tai chi in the early mornings near Kotewall Road.

'I speak to the groups in Cantonese,' she says, 'but they always answer me in English. I wonder why.'