Songwriter behind popular McDull film blends Canto-pop with classical music to captivate Hong Kong audiences
Father who started by making up creative lullabies for his three children has turned it into a craft
For Steve Ho Sung-chi, the man who penned the songs to the popular animated film My Life as McDull – starring the beloved titular piglet – with creator Brian Tse Lap-man, his love of music came early and quite by chance.
He was only a few years old, the 55-year-old Hongkonger recalls, when he began casually brushing the strings of a guitar left lying about the house. Before long, his affection for the instrument transformed into playing the piano.
Years later, Ho is tackling choral music composition, namely by blending classical music with Chinese folk songs and Canto-pop melodies.
Ho’s love of his Cantonese heritage often shines in his work, and the result is hardly typical in a city where the creative arts are not always celebrated.
Yet why he decided to incorporate Cantonese slang into classical music is a question he has been asked one too many times, he says.
“Would you ever ask Western musicians why they use English as their primary language when they’re composing?” Ho asks.
“No, because people find that perfectly normal since that’s their mother tongue. Well, Cantonese is mine, so that’s why.”
The idea for his unique approach to music-making emerged years ago, when he was still living in Canada and taking care of his three young children.
“I would sing different lullabies to get them to sleep and soothe them,” he recalls. “That’s when it occurred to me that there aren’t a lot of folk songs from Hong Kong,”
With that realisation, Ho embarked on creating his own lyrics to a variety of popular, well-known melodies.
And his passion has not diminished now that his children are grown up.
In fact, the talented composer is fully dedicated to his craft, working as an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. He also serves as a composer in residence for the Hong Kong Children’s Choir.
At a recent performance with the choir in Tai Kok Tsui, he lifts his hands and places them over the black and white keys as he settles easily into the piano bench. After a friendly smirk, he begins to play the Moment Musical Op 94, No 3 in F Minor, one of his compositions.
The notes waft through the air and across the room, and the energetic choir members dressed in red and blue attire sing the Cantonese lyrics to the melody. Smiles break out across their faces.
“Choir pieces can bring out emotion and passion when different voices and patterns are used,” Ho says.
With a dash of classical music and a hint of Cantonese phrases and slang, he hopes his approach will encourage children to sing, rather than them feeling they are forced to do so by parents.
“I enjoy seeing the kids’ response after they glance at their song sheets for the first time,” he admits, noting his belief that lyrics should connect with those who perform them.
“When the words are something they’re already saying on a daily basis, it makes the learning process fun and they’ll want to continue to pursue the art.”
Asked to elaborate on his motivation for making and working in music, Ho is forthright about lacking an insightful answer.
“Don’t ask me why. I was just born this way.”
But he relents and elaborates. “Being in touch with music, be it playing or singing, gives me a thrill that nothing material can offer. I believe we are all born with the need to pursue something in life. For me, it’s music.”
His explanation continues with a short piano performance.
“Words can only express one’s passion to a certain extent,” he adds. “However, if I play it, the audience can point out exactly what the composer is trying to highlight from the details, including the lively parts, the harmony, structure and its flow. And that is the power of music.”
While it has been proved that playing musical instruments is beneficial to children’s cognitive development, Ho does not believe in force-feeding children with extracurricular activities merely to help them gain a head start in life.
“Parents nowadays rely too much on teachers to train their kids into these musical overachievers,” he says.
Instead, Ho suggests surrounding children with music in their daily lives, enabling them to find their interest and passion, just as he did.
In the meantime, the educator and music aficionado is busy preparing for his next event.
On September 26, he will play 20 of his songs in a concert joined by more than 900 members of the Hong Kong Children’s Choir. The performance will be held at the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.