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City Weekend

Meet the first Hongkonger – and probably the last – to serve in the British army’s Grenadier Guards

David Wong joined the famed British army unit in 2014 because he held a British National Overseas passport; he is now a clarinet player in the band

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 4:00pm

David Wong Cheuk-ho began teaching himself how to play the clarinet at the tender age of 13.

Incredibly, the 37-year-old musician, the first Hong Kong-born member of the British army’s Grenadier Guards, did not begin taking formal music lessons until joined the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts at age 18.

Then in 2014, he became a lance corporal and clarinet player for the Guards, a 360-year-old regiment distinguished by its tall bearskin hats and bright red buttoned jackets. It’s a role he takes great pride in performing.

“I feel very privileged to be part of the band and very proud to be the first Hong Kong Chinese to join the regiment,” he says. “The part I enjoy the most is looking smart on the parade square. It is my job to present myself in front of the public. To be the best I can sound and the best I can look.”

Wong was able to join the band, which is about 300 years old, because he was born before the 1997 handover, so he holds a British National Overseas passport.

His unique situation means he may end up being the first and the last Hong Kong-born member of the band.

“First of all, I was attracted by the musical side of the band. I never thought I would become a soldier,” he says.

“When you become a soldier, you think you will have to kill people and fight in a war. But after the military training, I think I have the right attitude to serve in the army.”

Wong says he has never received a surprised reactions from tourists when they realise he is Chinese because his face is normally covered by his headgear.

“We wear bearskin, which covers your eyes, so people cannot really see there is a Chinese member of the band,” he says. “And my height is quite average so they cannot really tell there is a Chinese man on parade.”

Wong left Hong Kong for France aged 21, where he studied at the Conservatoire National Region de Nice. He returned to his home city for two years to work as a freelance teacher, but eventually ventured to London to study for a masters at the Royal College of Music.

The opportunity enabled him to play with major London orchestras. After graduating in 2008, he joined London’s Southbank Sinfonia. Six years later, he was headhunted for the Guards.

“On one occasion, I went to the UK to visit friends and was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the head of music for the British army,” he says.

“He advertised the job and tried to recruit me. I took some interest initially, but came back to Hong Kong.

“Eventually I saw the job advertised online and I decided to contact him. He very kindly passed on my contact details and they started recruiting me.”

Despite being headhunted, Wong failed the fitness test the first time around, and had his application deferred. He returned to Hong Kong to train in the gym for several months, before taking the test a second time, which he passed.

Musicians in the army band then go through 13 weeks of basic training.

Wong, who was previously only a classical musician, says he has since had to learn how to play a diverse range of musical styles, including pop and jazz.

But he says the marching involved in his job is still the element he finds most challenging, particularly for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Windsor Castle, or for Trooping of the Colour on the Queen’s official birthday in June.

“It does not come naturally,” he says. “It is quite difficult – like learning to ride a bike at an old age.

“To start with, the most difficult part is the drill movement – not the playing itself. With a group of musicians, if you miss one note, it doesn’t really matter, but if you miss a movement, the audience will easily pick up on this.

“When we do Changing of the Guard in Windsor Castle, it is really a killer. We have to march up from the barracks to the top of the hill – ten to 15 minutes of marching. I did not forsee that it would be so demanding physically.”

Wong last visited Hong Kong for a performance with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Students’ Union Orchestra on February 16.

He says he now considers London to be more of a home for him, and is starting to consider how he might extend his career in the Guards.

“I left Hong Kong when I was quite young, so I am very keen on living in Europe,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like London is more my home than Hong Kong after being gone for 10 years.

“I might stay in the army and play the clarinet, which I enjoy the most. But as I get older, I don’t really want to march up and down that often. I might go for more of the management side of the band. The other option is to become a band master, which would be more conducting as well as an administrative role.”