Cindy Ho | April 2018
I have known Hong Kong’s foremost flautist Matthew Wu and his wife Monique Pong, co-founded of the Music Children Foundation, since the days when I was studying in London, when we briefly met at a social gathering event. This interview was the first time we had a face-to-face conversation. It turned out to be very interesting. The interview with Matthew is presented first, followed by Monique’s, although there are events which involve both of them.
Music during Childhood
When asked about what exerted the greatest influence on his music during childhood, Matthew readily answered, “The school!” He continued, “When I was young, my father worked at a school in Jiangxi and our family lived there. My days began at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning with music practice with many others.” Apart from some common academic subjects, pupils were also assigned to specialised classes in arts (which he attended) or physical education.
For the first two years of primary school, Matthew played the erhu and the yangqin, although there were other musical instruments, such as flutes and violins, in the school’s Chinese orchestra. It was shortly after the Cultural Revolution and resources were scarce. One music teacher had to coach all the pupils who were learning music. The teacher might not have excelled in any instrument but had a basic working knowledge of how they should sound. Musical instruments? They were passed down from generations and generations of pupils. “I was given a rusty flute to start with and its broken parts were strapped together using elastic bands. But, apart from that, I could make it sound,” he remarked. It was in Primary Three that Matthew switched to the flute, fascinated by its beautiful sound.
Music exchanges during summers were treats. “Musical practitioners from neighbouring counties would come to my town to perform. Students immersed in music activities during day time, enjoyed concerts in the evening – there were dances, singing and instrumental music,” he recalled.
In his high school days, opportunities to perform music were much reduced, owing to, perhaps, a change in governmental policy. But that did nothing to dampen this devotion to music. When Matthew finished his junior high school, he was offered two options: “Either attending a key school with excellent academic track records or an art school. I chose the latter without hesitation. My parents were quite liberal in terms of my decisions,” he said. It was a boarding school where the fourteen-year old learnt to take care of himself. He was allowed to return home only once per week. The journey from the art school in Ji’an, a prefecture-level city in the Jiangxi province of China, to home took about an hour by train. He spent four years there, with a music major and minor in drama and acting.
After graduation, he worked in a theatrical company in Jiangxi, playing mainly the flute and the Chinese dizi. It was a relatively comfortable time in his life, receiving regular income by playing music.
Seeing that Matthew had developed a great talent in playing the flute, his father introduced a qualified flute teacher to him. “Those days, teachers, if willing to take on students, would not expect to get anything in return at all; it was pure altruism. Just like school days, when seniors readily assisted juniors to learn music. Students’ families who benefited might voluntarily present small tokens of appreciations but that was it.” At that time, this teacher happened to study at the Guangzhou Conservatory of Music, which in 1985 was renamed the Xinghai Conservatory of Music (XCM).
Partly inspired by this teacher and partly due to the fact that his role in the orchestra failed to satisfy his personal drive, Matthew decided to pursue tertiary education. “My audition was successful but then, I must sit for the National College Entrance Examination and achieve the required results before allowing to study. I spent few months after work self-studying high school subjects I never learnt before, including Chinese, English, history and mathematics. In the end, my results were good enough,” he explained. That also marked the beginning of his training at XCM.
The best intakes at XCM, only two or three among hundreds in any year, would be supported by the state – tuition was free together with a bursary towards living expenses. Matthew was one of them. Those who fared less well needed to finance their own studies and that could be a burden for many families. Although from the year afterwards, this sort of state support faded out gradually.
When Two Paths Crossed
In 1988, Monique decided to study at XCM and she met Matthew there during a visit. Monique left eight months afterwards for the Central Conservatory of Music (CCM), another leading music institution in China. But only a few months into the course of study she experienced one of the most turbulent moments in the modern history of China – the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Tertiary education institutions in China, including XCM and CCM, were brought to a complete halt.
Back in HK, she was accepted by Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) for an advanced diploma course, starting in September 1989.
Opportunities in HK
Monique then had an idea of having Matthew joining a week-long visit in HK. “It was when Margaret Crawford, the former head of woodwind, brass and percussion at HKAPA, passed by. Very much impressed by the sound he produced, she began to ask Matthew questions. Feeling that Matthew could be a great asset for HKAPA, Crawford, seconded by other professors there, wanted him to be with HKAPA. This matter was brought up to Dr Lo King-man, the new head of HKAPA in that year,” Monique recalled.
Even with the support from HKAPA, it was quite a challenge for Matthew to obtain a permit to stay in HK owing to the situation in China at that time.
Life in HK
Matthew led a busy life once settled in HK. “Just months after arriving in HK in 1992, he was invited to join a European tour with the Asian Youth Orchestra, in its second year of its establishment. He was also assigned teaching roles while studying at HKAPA and even after graduation,” Monique said.
Another person who was significant in Matthew’s life was the former London Symphony Orchestra principal oboist and dean of music Anthony Camden. At that time, he was looking for candidates for a scholarship offered by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. All that Matthew had to do was to prepare a cassette recording for the dean and the next thing was that he was told to leave for the UK to study with the scholarship!
Music in Paris
By some intriguing coincidence, Monique had the opportunity to attend l’École Normale de Musique de Paris with the late French pianist and music educator Germaine Mounier. After being a primary school teacher in HK for two years after graduation, Monique thought of further studies overseas. She recounted, “My idea was just to attend a Paris-based language course. Upon arrival in the French capital, one day, I was on my way to Rue de Rome for the famous music shops. I heard piano sound from a nearby building. Driven by curiosity, I walked over and peered through the oversized key hole and observed what was going on inside. All of a sudden, someone patted my back and shouted, ‘You are late!’. It was actually Mounier’s masterclass!” She carried on. “I was forced to enter the classroom and I was looked upon as one of her students from Japan. ‘Would you like to join my class?’ she asked. I gladly accepted the offer. I spent two years at the school studying piano with the great master.”
But her French expedition came to a stop in 1996 when she had to return home for urgent family matters. On the other hand, Matthew just received his one-year scholarship and would leave for the UK the year afterwards. We still remembered meeting each other in London at a social gathering event.
Matthew returned to HK in 1998 and they sought a more settled life in the city. Both of them have been teaching music since then. Furthermore, Matthew has enjoyed an active performing career, collaborating with renowned orchestras including the Hong Kong Phil and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta as well as being a soloist.
He established the Hong Kong Flute Academy (HKFA) in 2004. “It not only provided an established location for teaching but also a permanent platform for students to have music collaborations. There, rehearsals and run-throughs prior to public performance took place and visiting music scholars could host classes,” he explained.
Matthew is particular keen on broadening music students’ exposure. With Monique’s connection with Paris, exchange programmes were organised in France, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Matthew would not expect students to be professional musicians. But several of them did change course during their university studies, perhaps due to his influence. One with a major in architecture switched to music, while another carried on with music education even after graduating with a master’s in finance.
He enjoys teaching very much; the challenge is that there could be many different ways to teach the same thing, depending on the learners’ attitudes, preferences and learning capacities. There are rarely one-size-fits-all solutions.
Any advice for students? Practise consistently, every day, no matter how long: a few hours or a few minutes are just fine. Work very hard to get a thing right but repeat that right thing many times!
Matthew has established himself internationally. Flautists around the world who want to come to HK to explore music opportunities often get in touch with him.
2019 will be the 15th anniversary of the HKFA. Matthew is contemplating setting up a Europe Asia flute society and planning for music activities in Korea, Malaysia and even Romania. We are looking forward to more international programmes that could benefit local music learners.
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Music Children Foundation
Monique, with her elder sister Annike, co-founded the Music Children Foundation (MCF) in 2013, a registered charitable organisation with the IR 88 status, which was granted tax exemption under section 88 of the Inland Revenue Ordinance. MCF’s mission is to offer early music education to underprivileged children in HK. Its benefits are multifaceted, including building the children’s self-confidence, developing their talents in tandem with academic studies, improving family relationships and nurturing a lifelong interest in arts and music.
Before the interview, I read some of the press releases related to MCF. The sisters had an impressive track record of developing a school from scratch to something very well established. Together with their qualifications in child education and entrepreneurship, they could have established a profitable education institution of her own.
An Idea was Born
“My mentality changed after having children – I became more empathised with people, especially children and there is a natural urge to care about them. In particular, children in Sham Shui Po attracted my attention.” According to governmental statistics, Sham Shui Po in HK has the highest population of low-income families of any area in HK.
“One day, while travelling on a plane, I watched an introduction to El Sistema, a non-profit programme founded in 1975 in Venezuela with an aim to create social change via music,” she described. In fact, Gustavo Dudamel, current music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had his early music education through El Sistema. “One core feature I found is their collective learning approach led by volunteers who are professional musicians. Striking similarity to what Matthew and I experienced in China when we were young. The virtue is that monetary reward is out of the picture while teaching music – this is extremely honourable.”
She then masterminded the seemingly impossible charitable initiative, partnering with the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) to source targeted students, inviting qualified music teacher volunteers, looking for space for music training, promoting MCF to wider audiences and engaging with potential donors.
The initial reaction from others was full of doubts and a lack of belief that families who struggled to get fed would have time for music. “We proceeded nevertheless, making use of SoCo’s premises to conduct classes. The only requirement for students was that they must be from low-income families,” Monique said. In the intake of twenty-seven children in the first year, behaviour challenges including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia were not uncommon. “They do have huge potentials, just that they don’t have the opportunity with music education!” Monique asserted.
Monique enthusiastically showed images of past music activities at SoCO, “Literally, each of us was given a square foot-size space and that was where they play the instruments, nothing more. Spaces in toilet and kitchen were never wasted neither, ideal for self-practice and rehearsals.”
The first few months were crucial for student retention. She made use of different strategies, including personal calls to families to remind them about the lessons and conducting interviews for each family. “Some of the parents were educated in China and they recognise how precious is this opportunity for them, to enable their children to learn music for free. Unless they have specific health issues, these are the ones who are more likely to keep up with lessons.” Motivational behaviour also applied to parents in order to fully engage with the families. “Everyone was so touched when students performed on stage in front of their families, showcasing all their hard work,” Monique marvelled.
Ever since Monique identified the founding sponsor and principal patron, she has received donor referrals while her good causes are known to others. The media also helped. Local press published their stories, drawing attention from wider audiences. Professional volunteers from financial institutions also assisted the MCF. Some of the students taught by Monique also offered their support. And, just looking at the recent annual report on the website, the list of sponsors is impressive, spanning a variety of local and multinational corporations. “Over the years, we received great interests from different corporate donors willing to support MCF.” In addition to financial support, some sponsors even offer free space to MCF; given the high land prices in the city, it is something really quite extraordinary.
MCF recently obtained funding from the HK Jockey Club (HKJC) and it planned to expand to six locations in HK with two more in the next year. Working with the HKJC required an elevated level of professional non-governmental organisational management, with its projects being scrutinised in fine detail.
Since its inception, MCF has been a major focus for Monique. “I would rather hope to spend more time on my family and on devising creative strategies for MCF. Annike can now devote more to the organisation. She is very smart. Her academic performance was excellent. But due to family circumstances she had to leave school earlier to work to support the family. I am no good in maths, computer skills. But she is complementary to me. She is well-equipped with training in entrepreneurship and child education; we will be doing very well together.”
Monique then added, “The critical element here is infusing hope into these families. We explain to them academic performance is only a small part of life. We never expect them to be musicians after all – no examinations, no competitions and our purpose is just to offer them possibilities and for them to open up themselves.”