In pursuit of family harmony

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am

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Philip Chu was reading music sheets and working with the best orchestras in Asia. But he has switched to balance sheets and now manages, from the heart of Mong Kok, more than 6,000 employees.

Once a promising musical talent in Australia and Asia, and one of the youngest conductors at this level, Chu gave it all up in the autumn of 2009 to return to Hong Kong and work in the garment-manufacturing company his father founded, Viva Knitwear Factory. The 30-year-old was not destined to become a musician in the first place, as his life had been laid out. As part of a family plan, in 1996 he was sent to Sydney to get a better education and improve his English, and then he would return to Hong Kong to study business.

In high school, he chose a music class out of curiosity. He was hooked instantly and learnt piano, violin and clarinet, but he switched to singing at university because he did not need to carry an instrument. He then did his Master's in conducting because he wanted to see 'what all the fuss was about'.

'There is always a mystique surrounding the conductor,' he said. 'I was fascinated by the craft and the responsibility to create a spectrum of sound.' He turned professional in 2004, only six years after his first formal music lessons.

'I think he was one of the most promising conductors,' said Hiroaki Yura, a Japanese violinist and founder of Sydney-based Eminence Symphony Orchestra.

The switch was difficult. 'If I said I did not regret it, I would be lying,' Chu said about his decision. 'The struggle is always there.'

He gained recognition as a chorus master for several choirs in Australia. He also worked as musical director and chief conductor for Eminence, an orchestra specialising in the live performance of video-game soundtracks such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy.

'Sometimes the audience knew in the first five seconds which game, which level we were playing. It was impressive,' he said. Japanese game companies such as Bandai and American movie studios like Fox started contacting Chu and the Eminence orchestra to conduct the music recordings for video games and movies.

As the new director of Viva Knitwear, the ever-cheerful Chu juggles his work between the office in Mong Kok and the factories in Guangdong. His schedule often involves meetings with his team all morning, frequent trips to the factories to get samples and solve the occasional problems in the afternoon and more meetings in the evening before he replies to e-mails.

Chu says he usually gets just three hours of sleep a night. 'I have a lot of pressure to pick up everything in such a short amount of time.'

He also said he was one of the lowest-paid employees at the company. 'When I got my first pay cheque, I thought it was not for the full month. Then my father said: 'What did you expect? You have no experience!''

Before he left his music career at the end of 2009, Chu performed with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. He says he turned down an offer to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an 18-month contract from a Hollywood film studio to be the music director of a new musical. He said he would have been the youngest and the first Asian to hold this position.

Chu says he left his artistic life behind to ease the workload on his ageing father's shoulders. 'Money was never a factor for me to come back - family was.' He did not want to see his father's lifetime achievement to fail or be sold, he said.

Viva Knitwear produces clothing for brands such as adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY. 'The choice has always been up to him,' his mother, Cindy, said. 'I was happy with everything.'

And Chu left an impression wherever his artistic career led him.

'His story is unique because he discovered music so late and fell in love with it,' said Alison Johnston, manager of Cantillation, a Sydney-based chamber choir where Chu sang and had been a conductor. 'Most people start learning an instrument when they are six years old.'

Chu also met singer Raff Wilson at Cantillation. 'He is a dedicated young conductor, he did a lot in Sydney to build his career and it takes that kind of proactivity and drive to do that,' said Wilson, who is now the director for artistic planning at the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

He said Chu still kept in touch, as much as he could, with his former life. Chu conducted the orchestra in March for a charity concert in Tung Chung.

After he decided he would return to Hong Kong, Chu organised in May 2009 a farewell concert at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The 'PhilCHUmonic' orchestra comprised about 320 friends and former colleagues who played and sang with him.

It helped Chu close a chapter of his life. 'It was one of the best concerts I have ever done. Everybody knew it was my last stand. It was a proud moment for me,' he said. They played a work by Gustav Mahler, one of Chu's favourite composers.

Chu is now reluctant to attend any concert in Hong Kong. 'I would like to, but it will make me sad.' He knows he traded a flourishing career for a business in a challenging economic environment. 'The cost of making garments in China has increased so rapidly, surviving has become the key. Sometimes I feel the garment industry is a dying industry.' The business newcomer has started production in Vietnam and is looking to relocate to cheaper mainland provinces like Guangxi .

'Maybe he likes to test his own abilities,' his mother said.

'I guess it is true,' Chu replied . 'I don't want to give up. I want to build something by myself.'

He said he tried to think positively and did not rule out the possibility that he may, one day, genuinely like business.

After all, he had changed his mind about music, too. When he was a child in Hong Kong, his aunt took him to a Tchaikovsky concert.

He fell asleep.