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Simon Clennell and Gabriel Tse of the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir, which is heading to Wales to perform at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. Photo: Juliette Wu

Wales debut for multicultural Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod

  • The choir celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and the members have never sung in Wales before
  • Its members come from various nationalities and cultures, and will perform songs in Chinese at the festival
Juliette Wu

On a recent Sunday morning, the Li Hall near St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong was suffused with lush, four-part harmonies as the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir practised Ar Hyd Y Nos.

The traditional song is a staple at music festivals in Wales, including the upcoming Llangollen International Eisteddfod, at which the choir is scheduled to perform from July 2 to July 6 in celebration of its 40th anniversary.

Simon Clennell, the choir’s tour organiser and a long-time member, believes the participation in the Llangollen festival – a major international music event held every summer in the Welsh town since 1947 – will be a landmark event for the group.

“We wanted to do something special and different for the 40th anniversary,” he says. “We’ve never sung in Wales before.”

The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir in front of the Royal Albert Hall in London; their last visit to the UK was in 2016.

Founded in 1978 by expatriate Welshmen following an impromptu gathering around a piano at the St David’s Society Welsh Ball, the choir is today made up of members of various nationalities and cultures. This increasingly cross-cultural personality is reflected in its musical repertoire and programme for the upcoming Llangollen festival.

“We’ve now broadened in every respect,” says Clennell, who is originally from London but has made Hong Kong his home for more than 50 years.

The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir perform in 1984. Photo: C.Y. Yu

“We don’t just do Welsh songs, we do all sorts of other things. It’s interesting; we’ll actually be performing two Chinese songs. [At Llangollen,] they want to hear not just Welsh songs, they want to hear songs in our ‘native languages’.”

The two songs they have picked for the festival are the popular The Moon Represents my Heart in Mandarin and Below the Lion Rock in Cantonese.

Hongkonger Gabriel Tse explains the role local members play in the expansion of the choir’s cultural focus: “The [Welsh] basis is still there … but for us to diverge – and we’d have to do it carefully – we will have to have a local kind of element to [our] attention, to make it attractive to the local audience.”

The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir staged an impromptu performance at the Great Wall in Beijing in 2009.

To this end, Tse and other Hong Kong singers provide important linguistic and cultural knowledge to help the troupe combine Chinese pop with Western music.

Even when it comes to Western music, the choir bristles with novelty. Whereas other choirs of the genre are content with performing traditional songs, the Hong Kong troupe has modernised to the point of including Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody alongside the more conventional song Cwm Rhondda in the same programme.

In the past, it has also rendered Abba’s Take a Chance on Me, Bette Midler’s The Rose, and other pop hits in this hymnal style. To hear Chinese music sung this way is a treat.

We don’t just do Welsh songs, we do all sorts of other things. It’s interesting; we’ll actually be performing two Chinese songs
Simon Clennell, Hong Kong Welsh Male Choir

The interplay between tenor and bass voices, triumphant major chords, sustained notes, and tangy polyphony together produce the sound and ethereal quality of male voice choir performances. The Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir is no exception.

Veteran choristers Tse and Clennell, who have witnessed the evolution of the choir, believe hearing the troupe balancing such distinctive Asian-Western, modern-traditional counterpoints will be a highlight for audiences at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Male choir right on song for multilingual debut at Welsh festival