How a Precocious Hongkonger Became a Master Scottish Bagpiper

“Get ready… by the right… quick march!” 

At the Pipe Major’s command, the great doors of the Football Club’s sports hall are flung open and the Hong Kong Pipe Band marches into the St. Andrew’s Ball to roaring applause. It is November 30, 2021 and Hong Kong is enjoying a lull between waves of Covid-19, but the new year will bring further challenges for the city and its bagpiping community. 

In the foyer, a lone figure clad in Highland dress, watches the gallant pipes and drums. This is the piper Chris Lee. Having just completed his own solo performance, Lee has also spent the past hour watching his fellow pipers tune up as though he hadn’t experienced the process thousands of times before. Though quiet and masked, his eyes wrinkle into a smile that conveys earnest warmth. At the age of 31, Lee is one of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia’s most respected bagpipers. A modest man of unusual dedication, his passion for the instrument is plain to see. Magnanimous with his time and knowledge, Lee is keen to share with anyone who is keen to know and he extends an invitation to his next performance.

The following week, Lee hurries over to the Cenotaph, wheeling a case containing his pipes and accoutrements. Moments later, the skirl of bagpipes announces the start of proceedings as Lee heads a small procession from the Saint Andrew’s Society to lay wreaths in a brief but solemn Remembrance Day ceremony that has been curtailed these past two years by the pandemic.

Lee began his piping journey in circumstances not unlike the present – confined to his home while a mysterious virus gripped Hong Kong. “It was the year of SARS. 2003,” he recalls. “I didn’t have school, so much time was spent learning and looking things up on the internet. I started looking up videos and found a group of Hong Kong pipers.” 

He was captivated. In those innocent early days of e-commerce, 12-year-old Lee bought a cheap set of Pakistan-made pipes from a local website, paying for them via ATM. Bagpipes in hand, he sought out senior pipers, who welcomed the child and taught him the rudiments of music that would change his life.

“I think about piping all the time. For hours every day,” he says. “Even if I’m not with my instrument. I’m thinking about my music and fingering along while humming the tunes.” The piper’s enthusiasm is obvious but in his younger days, this rigorous practice regimen took a toll on his schooling. “I was always very tired because I practised bagpipes instead of sleeping,” he says. Lee squeaked by, graduating from secondary school only to face an unclear path ahead. Then he received an unexpected offer. 

For two years, Lee had studied under the renowned Canadian piper Bruce Gandy, via Skype. It was Gandy who presented Lee with an unusual opportunity: a position in his pipe band at the Halifax Citadel in Nova Scotia. Lee would spend much of the next three years in Canada, immersed in a bagpiping culture that has remained largely unchanged since the 17th century, when Scottish immigrants brought pipes to this far-flung corner of North America.

“It was a turning point for my life,” says Lee. “I had never travelled to another country, even for holiday! It was my first time outside of China. It was my first time on a plane!” Lee spent his time in Halifax performing for tourists, competing and sharpening his skills. He was so fond of the experience, it motivated him to become a full-time piper.

Even the other pipers were surprised by his ambition. “[They] teased me a bit,” says Lee. Undaunted, he pressed ahead performing and taking on several students before deciding to further his own education at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he studied for four years on a scholarship provided by the St. Andrews Society. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Scottish music, majoring in the pipes, while supporting himself by making reeds in a bagpipe factory. “My parents were very relieved,” says Lee with a laugh. “They didn’t think I would go to university.” To this day, Lee’s favourite set of pipes remains the one gifted to him by his factory colleagues.

At the Royal Conservatoire, Lee began collaborating with musicians of all different types. “To play [bagpipes] with other instruments is a challenge because you have to tune to standard concert pitch,” he says. Bagpipes are transposing instruments for which musical notation is not written at concert pitch, the reference to which groups are tuned for performance. Despite these limitations, Lee extended himself and composed music – mostly traditional Scottish dance tunes for ceilidhs but also tunes that drew on Lee’s Chinese heritage.

“I composed one piece to sound like Chinese music,” he says. “I didn’t name it well. I just called it ‘The Chinese Sounding Tune.’” Well-named or not, the experience of incorporating Chinese elements into pipe music has carried forward. Since 2009, Lee has played with Chinese music ensembles including one from the Academy of Performing Arts. Along with this, Lee has kept busy with a ceilidh band, a folk outfit and straightforward pipes and drums. 

Through the work of Lee, his fellow pipers, and the scores of musicians who came before them, the pipes have demonstrated massive crossover potential. Everywhere he goes, the young piper is warmly received by rapt audiences and greeted as a friend by musicians of all stripes. The triumphant sound of pipes has become as familiar in Hong Kong’s sensory landscape as the drums and cymbals of the lion dance – they are an intrinsic part of an international city. 

Piper Chris Lee in Hong Kong – Photo by William Furniss

Hong Kong’s Police Force, both pre- and post-1997, has been a particular beneficiary of the pipes’ charismatic public relations appeal. Since its founding in 1954, the Hong Kong Police Band has made invaluable contributions in maintaining good relations with the populace. Its signature tune, Scotland the Brave, is a familiar ear worm to many Hongkongers. 

Despite all this and the bagpipes’ real potential for overlap with traditional Chinese culture, colonial associations have put the instrument on the wrong side of Hong Kong’s current administration. There had already been discussions to strip the Hong Kong Police Band of their traditional tartan trews, issuing them instead with standard marching band uniforms, and now the Hong Kong government has made clear moves to sideline and silence the pipes. On July 10, there were no bagpipes at the Police College Passing Out Parade due to a decision to employ “all-Chinese-style marching.” The parade was accompanied by Western brass band instruments. Though the message is not explicitly stated, it is clear: the new administration is turning away from elements associated with Hong Kong’s past, even bagpipes, which once exemplified the robust success of One Country Two Systems. The new recruits have their marching orders. Could this signal the end for bagpiping in Hong Kong?

While he maintains a busy performance schedule, Chris Lee places heavy emphasis on teaching – important for passing on a treasured facet of Hong Kong culture, but also worthy for another reason. “It’s so important, teaching children [music] even though they don’t always want to learn an instrument,” he says. His youngest students are currently five and eight years old, learning on small practice chanters that look like recorders. With qualifications from Scotland, Lee is now able to conduct bagpiping exams, which bodes well for anxious parents eager to set their children apart, in the eyes of school admissions officers, from the masses of infant pianists and violinists. 

Lee’s reward for mastering this stirring and often polarising instrument has been far greater than any school transcript. For him, it is the profound love of music and community. The deep focus and joy in Lee’s playing is clear to all who see and who are drawn in by his abiding passion and gentle soul. He thinks Hong Kong is the perfect place to teach and promote the pipes because of its high standard of musicianship and the welcoming piping community – the same one that once nurtured a precocious 12-year-old. “The community is very small,” says Lee. “But if you have been around for a few years you will get to know people from every band. You will know all of them!” 

With the future of Hong Kong bagpiping now in question, at least in official capacities, it will be up to civilian pipers like Chris Lee to keep the culture alive and in this there is hope, which recalls the opening lyrics of Scotland the Brave, the Police Band’s erstwhile signature: “Hark when the night is falling, Hear! Hear the pipes are calling.”

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