At 5pm on a Friday, a modest, ground-floor office in a Sham Shui Po housing complex becomes a jumble of small bodies and snatches of music. Students in different school uniforms stream into the back room to line up in neat rows or pull instruments out of their cases. A boy with a saxophone half his size blows out a few initial notes; another pings out one final scale on a silver xylophone before the instrument is pushed to the side to make way for the night’s choir practice. Among the small crowd of arriving children are Mei-yin, 11, and her brother Pui-lam, eight. Their father, Louis Chan, travels over an hour each way from the family’s home in Kwun Tong to bring his children here, the main centre for the Music Children Foundation. Here they join music lessons that the not-for-profit group offers to poorer students in Hong Kong. “It’s not easy to bring them back and forth all this way, but it’s worth it to see them learning and improving,” says Chan, who stopped work due to a long-term illness yet continues to bring his children three times a week. “They love coming so much, if I took it away, their lives would feel empty.” Chan’s son and daughter are among more than 1,200 Hong Kong students who take music and singing lessons with the foundation. The group was founded in 2013 by music educator Monique Pong in Sham Shui Po, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. The organisation’s chairwoman, Sheryl Lee, describes how Pong took action after seeing many children living in overcrowded, shared flats and given limited access to arts education. “She saw the need to do something there first,” says Lee, a Hong Kong-born concert pianist. “Our hope is that through music these children have another outlet besides just school and can find different ways to channel their emotions. We want to give them the same benefit that more privileged children would get.” Since its launch, the foundation has expanded rapidly, catapulted by funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club to run programmes taught by professionally trained musicians in eight districts. Hong Kong’s most innovative music venue is anything but predictable But Sham Shui Po has remained the hub, where 200 students take lessons out of the centre’s two small classrooms. It is a place where students can come to practise their instruments or do homework any day, and where parents can meet, volunteer and find resources. “It’s not just about music lessons, but engaging families,” Lee explains. But beyond having a place within the neighbourhood to come to sing or play their instrument, the students expand outwards, performing at community and concert venues across the city, including the Academy for Performing Arts. Meet the McDull songwriter who blends Canto-pop with classical music That experience has made a deep impact on Chan’s daughter, Mei Yin. A slender girl with a long ponytail, she is no longer nervous when singing onstage with her choir. “I was at first, but now I just get excited to perform,” she says. Chan is proud of seeing his children up on the stage, just as he loves being surrounded by the music they bring home to practise. “There was one performance where they were up there with a couple of hundred people in the audience and a huge orchestra next to them,” Chan recalls. “Even I would be scared, but they were calm.” The father notes that Mei-yin often practises by giving them recitals before bedtime. “Our neighbours don’t mind,” he adds. As she looks forward to high school, Mei-yin says she hopes to find a school with a choir. Suddenly speaking more seriously, she reveals: “It’s my dream to be a singer.” Shocked by China’s children’s music, couple creates festival for kids Such focus is obvious among the students from the moment their choir conductor, Bobo Lo, steps in front of the classroom for the Friday choir practice and claps her hands for attention. Quickly the chatter and giggles of the students cease. All eyes are on Lo. With the expansive gestures and exacting hand motions of a conductor, she takes them through vocal and facial warm-ups, pointing to her watch as she counts off how long they can hold the notes to stretch their diaphragms. The students watch her intently, their voices follow her gestures, blending together and undulating with song, their passion for the sound they are creating not just seen, but heard.