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Music

Since losing an arm in a car accident, this Hong Kong man has learned to play badminton, taken up cycling and run a triathlon – next step is playing the violin

Shum Hang-fu lost the lower half of his arm in an accident 15 years ago, but he never let that stop him from achieving one of his childhood dreams

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 10:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 3:52pm

Shum Hang-fu lost the lower half of his arm in an accident 15 years ago, but he never let that stop him from achieving one of his childhood dreams.

Always envious of good musicians, the 37-year-old can now count himself among their number.

A week after receiving a custom-built artificial limb from a team from Chinese University and Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin, he is playing his favourite Canto-pop classic Under the Lion Rock and music by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi on the violin.

It is quite an achievement for Shum, who had not picked up any musical instrument before his accident, and marks serious progress from several years ago, when the sound he made with the violin – using an earlier prosthetic – was comparable to the noise of a “chicken being slaughtered”.

Shum’s accident happened while he was working as a delivery man. The van he was travelling in rear-ended another car on a Yuen Long highway, and the passenger door crushed his arm.

The damage was so severe that doctors had no choice but to amputate. And that was a serious blow to one of Shum’s long-term ambitions.

“Ever since I was young I have been very envious of those who know music,” said Shum, who is now married with a young daughter and working as an activity assistant.

He did not act on his dream until he met a fellow amputee, a woman who had lost part of her arm but was nonetheless learning to play the violin. It inspired Shum to do the same.

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Three years ago, with the help of the Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital in Tai Po, he got a special prosthetic with a simple aluminium attachment and clip, with which he held the bow.

There were still several obstacles to overcome, not least that Shum is right-handed, and had to learn to use the bow with his left arm. His prosthetic also limited how much of the bow he could use.

“While most people can use the entire bow, I can only use a third of it as, beyond that, it would touch the bridge or fingerboard, making the sound quality not so good,” he said. 

But he continued to practise, hoping to turn the scratchy sounds into something more melodic.

Having heard Shum’s story, a team from Chinese University’s department of mechanical and automation engineering teamed up with the prosthetics-orthotic department at Prince of Wales Hospital to make a limb that would help him play the violin. 

Assistant professor Darwin Lau Tat-ming, who led the project team, said the group was charged with designing and making an effective attachment to a socket, with a clip to hold the bow.

The device was 3D-printed using polylactic acid, a type of plastic. To make the attachment lighter but still unlikely to crack, the team made it thicker than its predecessor, but with a honeycomb interior. They used three screws instead of one, to allow Shum to hold the bow more steadily, improving sound quality.

Prince of Wales Hospital was in charge of making the socket, which is composed of high-temperature thermoplastic and fibre resin, making it durable. 

The new design also affords Shum use of two-thirds of the bow in the area between the bridge and fingerboard, giving him a wider repertoire. 

Kenny Yip Kwan-yi, a Year Four student from the university, said the project had been challenging, so much so that he briefly thought of giving up. But he said Shum’s perseverance inspired him to press on. 

With Yip and university colleague Samuel Chan Sau-kin not knowing how to play the violin themselves, they had to take a lot of photos and videos of Shum playing to adjust the design, as well as watching videos of other violinists. 

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Shum has come a long way since he wore long-sleeved clothes even in summer, so shy was he of letting people see his affected arm. In fact, he has compiled quite a list of achievements since his accident, including learning to play badminton and table tennis, taking up cycling and competing in triathlons.

Playing the violin, he said, has given him confidence. And he said he hoped he could be an inspiration to his 2½-year-old daughter. 

“I believe that future technology will allow me to use even more of the bow to play the violin,” he said.