Musician's two-wheel mission

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 July, 1999, 12:00am

The Chinnery Bar in the Mandarin has the kind of clubby atmosphere that is forever England. A perfect place to line up a few sausage-and-mash calories, and a good place to invite Hong Kong Philharmonic viola player Emma Ayres, who 'needs to eat as much as I can' before she sets off to cycle from Britain to Hong Kong to raise money for a local charity's music therapy programme.

After eight seasons with the orchestra, Ayres is packing up her viola, taking the trans-Siberian to Britain, and then heading off at the end of the summer for a nine-month bike journey back to Hong Kong, mostly on her own. She will pack a three-quarter size violin ('the biggest I can carry, and the smallest you can get a decent sound from') in her paniers, hoping that whatever dusty towns she ends up in after a day's cycling, she will be able to link up with other musicians, whether in France, Turkey or Pakistan.

The Chinnery offers vegetarian choices which, because they are from the grill, have astronomic prices. We toyed with the idea of blinis with green lentils and fromage frais (at caviar prices - $210), but settled on sharing the Middle Eastern plate of hummus, couscous, courgettes and a fabulous orange-coloured garlic dip.

Ayres timed her trip around crossing Turkey and Iran in winter, because 'that's when the Kurds are quietest' and it is the most practical time for cycling swathed from head to toe in the black burkah 'which my mother is sewing for me'.

The grilled vegetables and dips were impeccable, although at $195 we were spending a week's food budget on one dish. Ayres was vegetarian for years. 'But earlier this year I was playing rugby and using a lot of energy, and I started fantasising about meat.' I chose the fish casserole ($125), while she ordered lamb cutlets ($130).

'How would you like your lamb, sir?' asked the waiter.

'It's madam, not sir,' she pointed out. 'Look, I'm wearing a dress.' The waiter left, denying everything.

Tall, with cropped hair and a dragon tattoo wrapped around her right arm, Ayres said this often happened: 'I was touring with the Philharmonic in Beijing, and I was physically pushed out of the ladies' loos in the Palace Hotel.' The lamb was just as Madam had requested - 'succulent; perfect'. The fish, however, was not the object of fantasy that some fish pies can become. Some of the salmon was slightly undercooked and tended to the gelatinous, while the sauce, hidden underneath a good layer of excellent mash, was too floury.

'The menu reminds me of when I was young - my parents divorced and my mother was looking after four children, so she survived by a weekly routine of different dinners each night. If it was Thursday it was chicken liver.' It was her mother who turned her on to the violin: she had set her heart on the cello. 'She came back from school and I was excited and said did you sign me up for cello lessons? She said vaguely that no, my brother got the cello, and I got the violin.' By the age of 12, showing more talent than inclination for the violin, her music teacher recommended she try the viola 'which I loved - it was much deeper. I never liked the voice of the violin'.

After that, she was always going to have a music career, although she did give up the viola once briefly - the first violinist in a quartet she was playing with tried to commit suicide, and Ayres didn't have the heart to play any more. So she went to Regent's Park in London and applied for a job as gardener. 'The head gardener said I could work there, but on one condition: that I didn't give up the viola altogether.' This time she will be giving the instrument up again to study as a sound engineer in New York. But before that, a challenging journey across two continents, sponsored by individuals and by companies as diverse as the Luk Chi Fu Bone Setters, Stanley Photo Supplies, Pesticide Services and the Emperor Group. Bicycle World is sponsoring some equipment.

She decided to do the ride for a charity when she heard about local group Watchdog, which works with special needs children: 'They had been forced to give up their music therapy programme. That really spurred me to try and raise enough money to start it up again. I've seen what music can do for people with disabilities. I've seen how it can communicate to people who can't be reached in any other way.' Chinnery Bar, Mandarin Oriental, Tel: 2522 0111 For sponsorship, call Stella Wong at Watchdog, on 2521 7364