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SIU2: Shenging It Up in Hong Kong

By Published: June 7, 2011
A composer of chamber and orchestral music, Chinese canto-pop, electronic music, rock, pop and choral music, it's little wonder that Ng Cheuk and SIU2's music is difficult to pigeonhole."My inspiration comes from everywhere," he explains, "but mostly from the city of Hong Kong."

Peter Fan

SIU2 are something of a rarity in Hong Kong and seems to be swimming against the tide. "Hong Kong is a very commercial place, and it's very difficult to do something different" says Ng Cheuk. "The radio and TV only play mainstream music. There's just a little bit of jazz in Hong Kong. It's difficult to run a band in Hong Kong."

It's not only jazz that has to fight for breathing space in Hong Kong, as classically trained pianist Peter Fan explains: "Around the world there is dance music, progressive music, house—there are different scenes, but in Hong Kong we don't have such a thing as a scene in any kind of music. It's a very bold statement, but I think the others would agree that there's not such a thing as a scene."

The city is in no way short of trained musicians, however, as Ng Cheuk explains, taking up the thread: "In Hong Kong it's true that every student has to learn an instrument at a very young age. At primary school the students have to have some talent, so they study piano or violin and students are under great pressure to do that. Almost all the children in Hong Kong right now can play a musical instrument."

From left: Cass Lam , Jason Lau

It's an obvious contradiction that there are so many trained musicians in Hong Kong and yet there's apparently no music scene of any kind. "That's what makes it even sadder," laments Peter. "Young people learn to play an instrument but they don't love it, they don't buy CDs and they don't go to concerts. Some even hate it because they were forced to learn it."

The passions of youth in Hong Kong are clearly elswhere, as Jason explains: "In Hong Kong youngsters tend to sing karaoke more than go to live music." For Lam Tin Wai, the main pastime of the city's youth is shopping. Ng Cheuk expands a little: "People are very busy making money and they don't spend a lot of time on cultural things. The music scene in Taiwan is better than Hong Kong because Taiwan has a lot of live venues, a lot of musical festivals and a lot of bands. And I think people are more positive than Hong Kong people."

A band from Taiwan which shares some common traits with SIU2 is Sizhukong, a sextet which fuses traditional Chinese instruments with a western rhythm section to produce a highly melodic, eastern-influenced jazz. "I like what they're doing" says Ng Cheuk, "but we're doing it in a totally different way. Their music is more spacious but our music is tighter, more condensed and more energetic. Maybe it reflects our different cultures."

Peter sums it up thus: "Their music is more Zen-like." Certainly, Sizhukong's music stems from more traditional roots, and often takes its inspiration from nature, whereas SIU2's is born of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong; a panoply of urban sounds translated into melody, rhythm and percussion.

The reaction to SIU2's music in Hong Kong and China, has, according to Ng Cheuk been largely positive, and, he says, "quite exciting." However, it is not easy to get gigs, a familiar story for musicians from every corner of the world."We fight for concerts," Ng Cheuk underlines. "We pray for concerts," he adds, laughing, "and we're working hard on it. We play one or two gigs a week. These are mini-gigs of about an hour. In Hong Kong there aren't a lot of bands, so when people are looking for this kind of music there is no choice," he laughs, "they have to book us."

Although everyone in SIU2, except Lam Tin Wai, are full-time musicians, playing gigs alone doesn't pay the bills, so they all work other jobs, like teaching music. Maybe things are beginning to look up, however, as the band has just experienced its first taste of international exposure. SIU2's first gig outside Hong Kong and mainland China came at Borneo Jazz '11, and the band's vibrant performance was a hit with the audience. It was an experience which the members of SIU2 enjoyed and are keen to repeat: "We want to perform in other countries," says Ng Cheuk, "because every time we go out it is new inspiration."

Inspiration is clearly something which is not lacking in SIU2's music: "The main thing for me is passion," declares Ng Cheuk. There are plans to record a third CD and ambitions to tour, but Ng Cheuk indicates that the music will take a new direction: "with music from all over the world." There's symmetry to the idea of embracing the music of the world at a time when China is opening up to the world as never before. It's likely, however, that the rhythms and colors of Hong Kong will still permeate SIU2's music to come.

Whatever musical path SIU2 chooses to explore, one thing is certain; it'll be shenging it up.

Selected Discography

SIU2, Kon. Fusion (Flower Music, 2010)
SIU2, Open Door (Flower Music, 2008)

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