One man’s passion gives Hong Kong’s young musicians a lesson in multicultural creation

After 36 years in the civil service, Gordon Sui Kwing-chue founded the Music for Our Youth Foundation, which explores the orchestral possibilities of combining eastern and western influences with the city’s underprivileged youth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 2:14pm

Gordon Siu Kwing-chue has come full circle, picking up where he left off before his 36-year-long career in the civil service.

He was concertmaster at the Hong Kong Youth Orchestra in 1966, but by 1988 he was the city’s Postmaster General.

His career in the government continued to flourish over the years, first being promoted to the head of economic services, then transport, and, after the 1997 handover, Central Policy Unit. He was Secretary for Planning, Environment & Lands when he retired in 2002 at age 56. In retirement however, he has returned to his passion: music.

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“It’s almost like fate that has got me back to music after three decades,” Siu said.

Siu established the Music for Our Young Foundation (MOY) in 2009 and now spends his days leading and conducting the organisation’s two orchestras.

But it wasn’t out of chance that he found himself back in the music world after so many years with the civil service. Siu maintained his connection to the industry by performing with the Hong Kong Youth Orchestra and coaching youngsters under the management of Margaret Money, a dynamic music teacher and performer from Scotland.

In 1977, Siu was commissioned by then governor Sir Murray MacLehose to establish the Music Office – an institution with two orchestras, one with western and one with Chinese instruments, which produced top local musicians including conductor Yip Wing-sie and composer Dr Joshua Chan Kam-biu, just to name a few.

While his career has been long and diverse, Siu says the power of music within young people remains as strong today as it did when he was a boy.

“Kids are kids, and those I teach nowadays are no better or no worse than the ones my teachers taught. I was just as naughty and lazy as any of them. And I find myself shouting at them now in the same tone that I was shouted at when I was at school,” he said.

Today, Siu believes that Hong Kong’s multicultural character is its most valuable asset. And it is this distinguishing quality that helped inspire Siu’s latest music initiative, the MOY, which he built from scratch in 2009 to expose underprivileged youths to music and explore the orchestral possibilities of mixing eastern and western influences.

Q: How did Music For Our Young start and why is it located in Tin Shui Wai in 2009? A: There was a news story that year about three students who fainted at a school in Tin Shui Wai after taking drugs. As I read about it, my son called and asked if I could meet the principal of that school who, when we met, invited me to train his students in playing musical instruments.

I had taught many years at band one schools, but never band three and I doubted whether any student there would be interested at all. To my surprise, 50 came with their parents or guardians. But I felt there was something wrong. Instead of direct eye contact, the students had “shifty” eyes, creating a most unsettling atmosphere. So I told them, if they work hard enough, we will have an orchestra and I’d take them to tour in Beijing and Singapore.

At that moment, the principal tapped my arm and said, ‘Some of them have not even been to Central district’. So I stopped and said I would take all 50. Music would be my instrument and I’d teach them how to lift their heads high and look with self-confidence at future employers who they would encounter in just a few years’ time. Afterwards I told my friends about this new project and they all chipped in money. I applied for section 88 and registered the Foundation as a charity.

What made you take up that challenge? I just didn’t like the look in those eyes, that’s all. When the project was launched, I had no set idea, no plan, no vision. I just wanted to help one kid at a time and give them something to do, which hopefully would become their companion for life. Funding wasn’t an issue as donors were willing to match the money I put in for the initial three years. With that, I bought instruments, which were loaned to the students. I asked them to practice well so that they would come to perform with pride, not shame.

At first it was all trial and error and I had no confidence in whether it would work or not. I asked myself, ‘If I was to fail, so what?’ I might have influenced just one or two youngsters out of a hundred, but that would be money well-spent from my point of view.

Does your project show inadequacy in other music programmes, including the Music Office, which you founded? Not at all. You need to know institutions like the Music Office are run by public funds. So they have no option but to screen for talents. But I do it the other way and allocate my resources to those who don’t already have the talent. I am not training Lang Lang’s, and I hope my colleagues at the Music Office wake up one day to the fact that this world is made up of people with no talents.

By working with these young people, you see they give more care, and you build an audience.

Those whose talents have been nurtured probably come from a good background and going to a concert might not be a priority to them. So when you pump in millions of dollars to build a professional orchestra without some work to fertilise the ground, you get 10 trees in the desert and at the end you beg people to come to your concerts.

Did your civil service career facilitate your project in any way? In some intriguing way, yes. I always imagined a combined orchestra of Chinese and western instruments, so I went about looking for a venue for the Chinese band after settling the western orchestra in Tin Shui Wai. It was tough as the rent was high, especially on Hong Kong island.

One day I ran into a British tourist who lost his luggage on the airport bus. I volunteered and made a few phone calls. At the end I was directed to Kwan Chuk-fai of New World First Bus whom I knew when I was secretary for transport in the 1990s. Within five minutes, the luggage was located, and so was our Chinese band’s venue. New World Group was managing the new Youth Square in Chai Wan and Kwan and was looking for occupants. I asked him if it was the same Youth Square I that wrote in Tung Chee-hwa’s policy address? It was, and that was the beginning of the MOY Chinese orchestra.

What do you focus on teaching the young musicians? It’s all about team-building, getting along with people, appreciating the pluses and minuses of fellow workers, and camaraderie. You won’t get any of those by playing on your own piano. Teaming young people up to achieve a common goal conjures up the discipline needed to eventually lift their heads high with self-confidence and pride. Since 2009, the past students of the Music for Our Young musicians have now become an alumni group of 2000.

“I asked myself, ‘If I was to fail, so what?’ I might have influenced just one or two youngsters out of a hundred, but that would be money well-spent from my point of view.”
Gordon Siu Kwing-chue

From Tin Shui Wai and Chai Wan, they have gone beyond the Central district and indeed performed in Singapore and Beijing. Last month, they were on stage with the Hong Kong Police Band at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and many guests were moved to tears by what they heard from the young ones. Even world renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and beneficiary of El Sistema, the famous music programme for impoverished children in Venezuela, made a point to see MOY kids during last year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. I mentioned the Chinese orchestra to him and he was interested.

It is now our goal to go international. Hopefully in 15 years we’ll be established enough to travel to South America and perform under the baton of Dudamel.

How will you go about realising this grand plan?

In the next five years, I will be training the next generation of ‘multi-cultural’ coaches, including teachers, composers and arrangers, so that they can take up the training of future MOY musicians and perform new scores arranged for the East-West combined orchestra.

In 2018, Music for Our Young will host the inaugural festival of youth orchestras and teams from Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, America and of course the mainland will come.

How are you going to sustain this project into the future? I will very much rely on the MOY musicians who have experienced the foundation first-hand. There are two from the original 50 who are now my conducting assistants. But let’s be realistic, I don’t have the slightest hope that they will go full-time in their music careers. Life will probably dictate that they would look for a job after graduation, get married and have a family. So what I said to them was, ‘I am thinking of them in 50 years’ time. By then you would be my age, I hope you would remember the experience, and one day, when your children have grown, you just come back and help’.