City Weekend

No divas allowed: Hong Kong women’s choir celebrates 20th birthday

Group, comprising locals and expats of many nationalities, aims to be as inclusive as possible

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 2:00pm

You need a strong set of pipes to make it in the Hong Kong Women’s Choir – but its members insist there are no divas allowed.

The group started in 1997 as a small number of singers performing in living rooms and has since gone on to become a well-known player on the city’s music scene, staging shows at the likes of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and Government House.

American Helen Bannigan joined the choir four years ago when she moved to the city from Europe with her family. The 52-year-old marketing and communications specialist, who grew up listening to her grandmother singing her lullabies in Mandarin, said joining a choir was one of her first priorities when she got here.

She said that while she had noticed some “friendly competition” for solos, she has found all members to be co-operative and hardworking, with no one vying for Beyoncé style fame.

“We are very supportive of each other,” Bannigan said. “I’d say we get along very well. It is much more harmonious than any other choir I have been in during my 25 years as an expat.

“Maybe that is part of the region we are living in. I looked at a lot of choirs when I got here, but I liked this one because it gives back to the community. There is always the opportunity to do solos. It is lovely to see some women learn to express themselves creatively who never have before.”

Carol Cam, 49, a part-time physiotherapist from Glossop, England, who joined the choir in 2009, agreed there was good camaraderie amongst the members.

“People never get too competitive; I wouldn’t go if it was like that,” she said.

Each season, between 60 and 70 singers – a mix of foreigners and locals – sign up for the choir. Members can also choose to join a smaller a capella sub-group, Grace Notes. Singers perform in a variety of languages including Cantonese, Putonghua, Spanish, French and English.

They sing regularly at community events and do the occasional private gig for occasions such as weddings and birthdays.

Six or seven people might leave every season, but the core group remains consistent for long periods. Most of the founding members, however, have left.

One of the remaining founders, Canadian Jennifer Saran, started the group as an extension of the American Women’s Association.

She said the choir began as about 30 people, mainly Americans, rehearsing casually at members’ homes.

“I do not know anyone who has sung the variety of music we have,” she said. “We have gone all over the map.”

Saran, a director for a telecommunications business, said she had worked hard to make the choir as inclusive as possible.

“We have a variety of different nationalities,” she said. “We give everyone a chance.”

Choir members are not expected to be able to read music, but it certainly helps, its core members said. Rehearsals take place twice weekly, but singers are expected to work on their parts between sessions.

Bannigan, who has been singing since she was a child, said the choir was very open to embracing less confident singers, adding that they often worked harder to contribute to the group.

“Some choirs are very rigid and strict. But we just say you have to be able to hold a tune. I am always amazed when people come in with a timid little voice and by the end they are belting it out,” she said.

“People do not realise that singing is good for your well-being; it is cheaper than going to the gym.”

Cam, who lives with her husband and nine-year-old daughter in Tai Po, said she was partly inspired to get back into singing after watching Gareth Malone’s BBC television series The Choir.

She said she remembered her school choir being perceived as “a bit nerdy”, but soon found the Hong Kong Women’s Choir to be “a new and trendy thing to do”.

“I think it’s great because you meet people from all walks of life,” she said.

Cam, who relocated to Hong Kong for her husband’s job, said singing with the group had significantly boosted her social life.

“You meet doctors, lawyers, business leaders; it is anybody and everybody, with a good mix of ages,” she said.

The choir, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the run-up to Christmas, also remains committed to supporting local charities.

This year they are fundraising for literacy charity Bring Me a Book Hong Kong and Catholic charity Sisters of the Good Shepherd, which campaigns for the welfare of women and girls.

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Bannigan said she was particularly proud of the choir’s commitment to charity initiatives.

“I really like the community service element of our choir,” she said. “I am really trying to instil that in my children. The choir has brought joy into my life.”

The choir experiments with a variety of musical styles, such as classical, jazz and soul. Sometimes they throw a pop song or two into the mix – two years ago they performed Beyoncé’s Single Ladies during a flash mob at Central MTR station.

Bannigan cites Mercy by British pop soulstress Duffy as a personal favourite.

“We combine everything with fun,” she said. “We make it a show and it encourages us to be a little silly. This element makes us unique. We just have a blast. We decided the important thing is to enjoy ourselves.”