Classical music

How Asian Youth Orchestra changed a Hong Kong refugee's life

As the orchestra celebrates 25 years of making music, Allyson Chiu talks to Khac-Uyen Nguyen, whose 'fire of passion' for music was stoked by his time with the troupe while a refugee in Hong Kong, and helped him fulfil his dream of making it his career

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 1:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 2:44pm

A little over 25 years ago, Khac-Uyen Nguyen arrived in Hong Kong with his violin and a wish to make music his career. But as a Vietnamese refugee living in a camp, that dream seemed impossible – until the then 20-year-old auditioned for the Asian Youth Orchestra and was accepted.

“Before arriving [in] Hong Kong I had only ever been to two cities and those were in Vietnam. I had never met a foreigner,” says Nguyen, who is a founder and music director of Verdandi Camerata, a London-based orchestra that focuses providing a platform for recent music college graduates.

“Suddenly there I was, wearing an AYO T-shirt travelling, playing music and making friends with people from all over Asia.”

Despite the negative views of Vietnamese refugees at that time, Nguyen says he felt like he was “adopted” and “spoiled” by the troupe. Founded in 1990 as East Asia's counterpart to European youth orchestras, the Asian Youth Orchestra accepts around 100 aspiring musicians in their mid-teens to mid-20s each year following auditions in their home countries. They rehearse together before giving a series of concerts around the region over the summer.

“I was the first ever to represent Vietnam and that year I was the only one,” says Nguyen. “What I remember most vividly is how the music bonded us together despite the obvious differences, and many of us remain good friends until now.”

Following his time with the AYO, Nguyen went on to study music in both Britain and Norway. He worked with various European orchestras before founding Verdandi Camerata in 2003. As music director, he says his goal for the orchestra is inspired by one of the AYO’s main beliefs.

“I learnt from my time at AYO about the importance of music and how it is the most effective medium that bridges understanding,” says Nguyen. "My vision for Verdandi Camerata was to bridge the widening gaps between composers, musicians, and the audience.”

As the Asian Youth Orchestra celebrates 25 years of success in uniting East Asia through music and preparing youngsters to flourish in the world of music, Nguyen is living proof that it is more than just an orchestra.

“After AYO I never doubted what I wanted to do in life,” says Nguyen. “Music has always run in my family, but the commitment and devotion needed had to come from myself. The AYO stoked that fire of passion that still burns strongly today and influenced by [my] strong belief that music should be played with joy, love and a humble understanding between fellow people.”