City Weekend

The musician putting Hong Kong’s ethnic minority children in tune with their dreams

Manik Lal Shah says the ability to play an instrument can transform young lives; so now he dreams of opening a low-cost music school

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 2:00pm

When Manik Lal Shah moved to Hong Kong seven years ago he was shocked to discover dejected ethnic minority children struggling with social, economic and family pressures.

“Parents work 12 hours [a day] here. Parents and children have no conversations; they don’t discuss the future or anything ... this is a big problem in Hong Kong,” he said.

“And rent is a big problem too, no one can afford it. So it got me thinking: I feel very sad. I want to do something.”

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A professional musician himself, Shah, 48, with help from his wife, Joanne Chan Ka-yee, and a local NGO she works for, established a music programme for ethnic minority children one year later.

He also taught music in his native India, with some of his former students becoming well-known artists, such as percussionist Darpan Dua.

Sadib Paudel, 19, started learning music with Shah when the programme started in 2011. Since then he has learned to play the guitar, formed his own band and is working to make music his career.

Shah’s wife, a ministry officer at Mission to New Arrivals, which helps newly-arrived immigrants, low-income families and ethnic minorities – said the programme gave parents peace of mind.

Shah believes that a love of music and the ability to play an instrument helps childrenachieve more than what they feel they are destined for. He tells City Weekend how he uses music to help young people tune their goals in life.

What sparked your passion for music?

When I was around 10 years old I became very crazy about music. At school I saw people playing the drums, and when I came home I wanted to learn to play. But my parents would say: ‘What are you doing? You’re disturbing everyone. Why don’t you study?’

But for me it was just, music, music, music all the time. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was very hard to learn music in India because there were not a lot of musicians. Then a few years later, my friend – who played music professionally – taught me guitar, drums, congas and bongos and I picked it up really fast.

After I learned, I started being asked to play at functions, plays, schools, and was being paid 20, 30 rupees – which was big money for me as a child and made me want to get better. But my parents were not happy.

How did you continue your music while not making your parents angry?

They were angry all the time. I wasn’t very good at studies because I wanted to learn music. But as I continued to learn music, my parents slowly started to understand that this is what I wanted.

Then after that they started supporting me. So then I went to Delhi and started a career as a back-up vocalist for many famous singers. I also got to travel all over the world playing for [expatriate] Indians.

What were you doing in India before you came to Hong Kong?

I started an export company with my friend who taught me everything. It was a side business. We did international exhibitions showcasing [Indian handicrafts and clothing] and came to Hong Kong for an exhibition.

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One day I met a friend here and went to an Indian restaurant and they were playing music. I asked if I could play and sing one song on stage. Everyone was very happy and was asked to come back the next day and play again. So every time I came to Hong Kong I would do this. Then one day my friend took me to church and that’s where I met Joanne.

Could you describe your first encounter with your wife?

She was tutoring at the church and I said “hi” to her and I gave her my business card, but I had to go back to India. We kept in touch afterwards. When I came back to Hong Kong we met up again, it was a fast love. We got married a year later. Everyone I knew was shocked.

Compared to India, what was different about teaching music in Hong Kong?

I had no idea that Hong Kong was so expensive for music classes. I was approached by some parents in a restaurant I was playing at in Tsim Sha Tsui and was asked to teach their kids how to play the guitar. And they asked how much I charged. I had no idea and asked them to tell me. They said, average in the city was HK$350.

I was very shocked. My goodness, HK$350 for one hour? Very expensive. I told them just give me HK$200 and that's enough.

Ultimately, what do you want to achieve through teaching music in Hong Kong?

Actually, I’m always thinking that Hong Kong is very expensive. I’m always thinking, if someone can support [me] – a school or NGO – I can open a low-cost music school so anybody can learn music.