Eyes agleam, the Fire Dragon bursts onto the streets of Tai Hang. The smouldering dragon is flanked by an enormous retinue. For over 20 years, this procession has been heralded by the 1st Battalion Pipes and Drums of Tai Hang Fire Dragon Guards—musicians from the Red Tartan Pipe Band with a troupe of Highland dancers—working the crowds with an unmistakable bouquet of sound competing even with the clangour of cymbals and drums in an eclectic ritual that exists nowhere but Hong Kong.
“Bagpipe” is a term that most use to refer to the Scottish woodwind instrument, which is properly known as the Great Highland Bagpipe. Cultures throughout Asia, Northern Africa, Europe and the Persian Gulf have their own bagpipes, but in Hong Kong it is the Great Highland Bagpipe which has marked solemn and celebratory events, bearing witness to history. Comprising an airbag with an octopoid arrangement of pipes—a bass drone, two tenor drones and a chanter—the instrument is notoriously difficult to master and to maintain.
“It’s a discipline that neither many can do nor understand,” says Drew Cameron, a drummer with the Hong Kong Pipe Band. “The relationship between a piper and their pipes is more complicated, more passionate and, on occasion, infinitely more troubled and problematic than any relationship with a wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend.”
Behind Cameron, pipers prepare for the St. Andrew’s Ball, tuning up in a process that takes over an hour. The Pipe-Major holds an electric tuner up to each drone. Muttering and cursing, he removes a reed. Wrapping it with hemp, he glares at the offending component as if daring it to disobey.
Hong Kong’s climate is not friendly to bagpipes, the finest of which are made from African blackwood for its durability and sound quality. Because of humidity, some Hong Kong pipers use plastic components and many use synthetic drone reeds. Humidity also affects cowhide and sheepskin air bags, which are kept airtight and moist through seasoning. Leather bags were largely replaced with Gore-Tex in the 1980s.
PipeFest Hong Kong, 2010. An opportunity for Hong Kong pipers and drummers to share music between bands, uniting the piping and drumming community in support of Hong Kong Cancer Fund.
Bagpipes have an enduring bond with Hong Kong. It was a lone piper, armed not with guns but with his repertoire of Highland tunes, that the Japanese found as Hong Kong made its last stand in 1941. The Pipe-Major, William Craigie Keith Mackie, was last seen alive at Stanley playing the tunes “Cock O’ the North” and “Heilan’ Laddie” on that Christmas Eve. 81 years on, bagpipes continue to play ritualistic and musical roles in Hong Kong, which has made the instrument its own.
Though associated with the armed forces, bagpipes are not exclusively militaristic and first appeared in Hong Kong at the inaugural St. Andrew’s Ball in the late 1800s. There are three broad bagpipe genres: ceòl mòr (“big music,” referring to classical Highland music), along with ceòl meadhonach (“middle music”) and ceòl beag (“little music”), which are shorter pieces of popular music. These genres cover everything from laments, marches and salutes to reels and jigs for social occasions.
According to the piper Anthony Ho, it is mostly little music, popularised by British regimental bands, that is played in Hong Kong. Regimental bands inspired government-run bands including the first Chinese pipe band, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Hong Kong Police. Other government-run bands included the Civil Aid Service Pipe Band and the Auxiliary Medical Service Pipe Band. The first civilian pipe bands, the New Method School Band and the Scout Pipe Band, formed in the late 1960s and the instrument continues to captivate devotees like the piper, Chris Lee.
“I first heard the pipes when I was in the Boys Brigade,” recalls Lee. “I was seven years old and marching in the annual parade. That’s when I first heard the pipes but I could not see them, I heard them from long distance. I was very curious about it. I found the sound very powerful and loud. Everything else was silent because they were loud. It was haunting and very attractive.”
Appearing at official and public functions and private events, piping has become a mainstay for Hong Kong audiences. “Private bookings were received [for] weddings, opening of new premises, funerals or festivals. Every Christmas and New Year, the Pipes & Drums of the Royal Hong Kong Police Bands played for major hotels and private clubs,” writes Ho. “Such engagements involved full houses every New Year’s Eve.” The police force’s band was a PR coup. The folk tune “Scotland the Brave” became its signature, growing in fame as the theme tune for “Junior Police Call,” a television programme that was broadcast between 1974 and 1994.
Chris Lee plays “The Road to Sham Shui Po”
Pipe pieces without lyrics are known as “tunes” and many have been written about Hong Kong, by pipers stationed here, to inspire regimental spirit. In 1928, the Scots Guards’ Pipe-Major, Andrew McKintosh, composed “The Road to Sham Shui Po” and “The Hills of Kowloon.” “The Road to Sham Shui Po is actually quite a well known tune even in Scotland,” says Chris Lee. Both tunes have been published in the Scots Guards Standard Settings of Pipe Music. “It’s the most standardised music collection, so every piper in the world knows it.” The tune “Chow Man” was composed by a piper stationed at Lo Wu. “It’s a funny name,” concedes Lee, who speculates that the tune has links to the Gurkhas, who were also stationed at Lo Wu.
In 1980, “Hong Kong Highland Gathering” was composed by John Allan of the Queen’s Own Highlanders in celebration of Hong Kong’s first open competition for pipes and drums, which was organised by the St. Andrew’s Society. This event further stimulated the growth of pipe bands and since then, competitions have elevated the level of playing in Hong Kong. Right up until the pandemic, Hong Kong has enjoyed numerous piping and drumming events with the latest being the Civil Aid Service Band 45th Anniversary Concert. There have been other spectacular showcases, recitals and events. The 170th Anniversary of Saint John’s Cathedral in 2019 featured the last massed pipe band performance before Covid-19 made such things impossible. “I hope these events will happen again,” says Chris Lee.
St. John’s Cathedral 170th Anniversary, February 14, 2019
Hong Kong played host to bagpipe friendly official events as recently as 2017, with the Military Tattoo celebrating the HKSAR’s 20th anniversary. But official attitudes to the instrument are changing. Anxious efforts to decolonise have brought bagpipes into the crosshairs. In 1997, bagpipes played a central role in the handover ceremony. “The elaborately choreographed performance concluded the evening centred around a lone piper who gave a musical signal to the troops to retreat and return home,” wrote ethnomusicologist J. Lawrence Witzleben. The lowering of the British flag and raising of its Chinese counterpart at midnight came with a musical shift.
“At that moment, the bagpipes which had been prominently featured a few hours earlier in the British ceremonies were nowhere to be seen,” wrote Witzleben, noting a transition to military brass bands. “The brass band is a marker of the neutral ground of diplomacy, with the performances of the national anthems of the departing and arriving sovereign powers making national distinctions unambiguously clear. [It was] a clearly defined transition from things purely British to things purely Chinese at midnight, mutually grounded in the international musical language of military bands in the morning, a border crossing and genre crossing celebration of love for the Chinese motherland, a motherland which now explicitly included the performers—and by extension the people—of Hong Kong.”
Andrew Yu, a piper and ethnomusicologist at the University of Edinburgh, notes that the government wasn’t interested in removing Hong Kong’s pipes after the handover. He notes that Betty Tung, the wife of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chi-hwa, assured members of the Auxiliary Police Band that the bagpipes represented “One Country Two Systems,” so they could be expected to remain. But change is now coming. The pipers of the Police Band will soon replace their familiar tartan trews with brass band uniforms and adopt marching styles associated with the People’s Liberation Army. The band now plays a repertoire of Chinese military tunes, causing apprehension about a decline in musical quality as arranging for the pipes is technically demanding, especially when set to the goose-step. “It’s difficult,” explains Yu, “because a bagpipe only has nine notes. The look and the rhythm don’t really match with the marching style either.”
Brought into question for its colonial associations, it is now up to Hongkongers to decide whether bagpiping can be claimed as a legitimate part of local heritage. “If locals think that piping is a part of Hong Kong culture then it is,” says Yu. “If they choose to play certain music then this is their culture.”
A 2012 recital by Chris Lee and friends, crossing over Chinese and Scottish music. The bagpipe and the Chinese wind instrument, the suona, are similar in many ways; they are double reed instruments often used to express both joy and sadness. Performers: GE Li 葛力 (suona 嗩吶); Wong Lai-kit (erhu 二胡); Camille Chan (pipa 琵琶); William Ng (Chinese drum); Charmaine Wong (cymbals); Fung Kwing-sau (snare drum); Ken Law (bass drum)
It seems odd that bagpiping should be marked out for enforced change in Hong Kong even as the instrument is greeted with enthusiasm elsewhere, including at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Free from politics, it has been possible for musicians of all types to meet on their own terms. “While busking at Central Pier I met the head of music at the Academy of Performing Arts,” recalls Chris Lee. He discovered that one of his students played the suona (so2 naap6 嗩吶), a Chinese double-reed horn. “The suona is very similar to the pipes in terms of ceremonial function. With his Chinese instrument group we did a Scottish tune together.”
It seems that musicians, when left to their own devices, are more likely to bridge cultures than to mark their differences. After all, states Andrew Yu, “bagpipes are just instruments. Why label them as belonging to one culture or another?”