Chance Encounters and Chinese Music in Scotland’s Capital

How did I, a Mancunian (no not Manchurian – I’m from Manchester) living in Edinburgh, come to be playing in a Chinese orchestra? I often get asked this question (not the Mancunian bit) and the answer is – just by chance.

I happened to meet musician and composer, Kimho Ip, in a school where he was demonstrating Chinese musical instruments. I mentioned to him that I was learning to play the erhu (Chinese bowed stringed instrument) and before I could tell him that I was only a beginner, he had invited me to play in Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra.

I was delighted to be asked but slightly nervous as my playing was very basic. I’m not being modest – I could only play in the key of D. I had a look online but could find no mention of Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra. Of course, because – as I soon found out – it is not a formal organisation. Everything happens by word of mouth – usually Mrs Szeto’s! She is a pillar of the Chinese community in Edinburgh, who knows everyone and can organise anything. It was Mrs Szeto who had the idea to set up the Chinese women’s association in Edinburgh, back in the 90s, that evolved into a Cantonese opera group. Getting together in one another’s houses, chatting, cooking and eating together, helped these women find a renewed sense of community, as they reminisced about their lives in Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before they were singing and playing Cantonese music. And some began to take lessons on Chinese instruments.

In 1999, when Kimho came from Hong Kong to study for his PhD in composition at the University of Edinburgh, he too came under Mrs Szeto’s wing – or was it the other way round? Either way, he was able to follow his supervisor’s advice to explore his Hong Kong cultural heritage, through a connection with these Cantonese opera musicians. He gave lessons on the yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and Mrs Szeto invited some players from Stirling and Glasgow to help on other instruments. Soon they were ready to perform in public. One particular event, held in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, combined a musical performance with the serving of tea, in a setting arranged like a ‘Chinese Teahouse’. It was a great boost to the morale of the musicians to have the general public admiring their presentation of Chinese culture. This was the real beginning of Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra (ECCO).

When I joined them, in 2009, I became the only non-Chinese person in the orchestra and was only just getting the hang of Chinese notation (not to mention the erhu). Yet through that musical encounter, I was welcomed into the Chinese music community and have since met some of the friendliest people I know.

Chinese Orchestra photo small size
Kimho (far left) directing from the cello. He had encouraged some younger members of the Chinese community to join the rehearsal.

Apart from a core group, the personnel of ECCO has changed over the years. Kimho went on to work in Germany and is now back in Hong Kong as Associate Professor at Lignan University. There are several university students who have joined the orchestra for the duration of their various courses, boosting the musical ensemble with their instrumental skills and good company before moving on.

One musician in particular, a brilliant computer scientist, joined the orchestra because of a chance encounter with me! I had been playing cello in a concert at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall and afterwards, mingling with the audience in the bar, I saw a Chinese couple talking excitedly. He seemed to be miming playing an erhu. I crossed the bar to speak to them and I asked if by any chance he played the erhu. He looked shocked! 

“Yes … how did you know?”

“Because I saw you going like that …” (mime erhu playing)

still looking shocked

“and because I play the erhu.”

eyes widen further

“You play the erhu? Weren’t you playing the cello?”

“Yes, but I play the erhu as well. I play in a Chinese orchestra would you like to join?”

even more shocked

“There’s a Chinese orchestra in Edinburgh?”

Actually they were from Malaysia, a very friendly couple, and when I told them about ECCO, he was keen to join and came to a rehearsal – the following day. He turned out to be such a good all-round musician that he was soon co-opted as director. The couple returned to Malaysia when he completed his studies but have kept in touch ever since.

Luckily, ECCO has found another enthusiastic musical director – erhu player Mike from Shanghai. That came about because of another chance encounter but that’s another story …

Over the coming weeks, I will introduce you to some of the musicians, their instruments and their music. In the meantime, here’s some photos taken earlier this year (2019) by designer and photographer Cynthia Wan, children’s music tutor at the Chinese school.

Erhu players in performance. Photo by Cynthia Wan.
3 Pipas by Cynthia small
Pipa players in performance. Photo by Cynthia Wan
Performing in the National Museum of Scotland. Photo by Cynthia Wan.
ECCO onstage smaller
New Year Performance, February 2019. Photo by Cynthia Wan

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