La Salle was not always a school with a strong Chinese music tradition. Although the Chinese orchestra now boasts 60 members and has won a gold prize in the Hong Kong Youth Music Interflows for eight years running, when they started 15 years ago, there were only 12 members.
Today, they will be competing against six other schools at Tuen Mun Town Hall Auditorium. They will perform The Legend of the Wind Lion God by Taiwanese composer Su Wen-cheng. It was chosen by conductor Ng Chiu-shing because it is full of emotion and leaves room for the orchestra's wind instruments, strings and percussion to shine. Ng says there is no real secret to their success, other than: "Getting school support, establishing a close relationship with the students, keeping them interested in music, teaching them, and just showing them you care."
Christian Wan Kai-yan, head of the school's music panel, credits the passion of present, as well as former, students. "We managed to establish a tradition and culture of Chinese music here. The Chinese orchestra offers a sense of belonging. Many former students come back to help, or even to conduct if Ng isn't available."
This continuity and sense of brotherhood is something the students feel strongly about. Ryan Fung Hei-chit, a Form Five student who plays the cello, recalls his experiences. "Even though we're a group of boys, we all cried together. I remember we practised until 10pm the night before a competition and we had to be at school by 7am the next day. It was intense. We put our heart and soul into it and came second. We were disappointed, but we're like brothers. If we lose, we cry together, and if we win, we laugh together. Well, actually, we'd cry even if we won."
Ambrose Lam Cheuk-tsun, a Form One erhu player, says: "Moving from primary level to secondary level was a big jump. I had to have a lot of one-on-one sessions with seniors before I adjusted."
La Salle's principal, Brother Steve Hogan, emphasises the social side of the orchestra. "The members often know each other from primary school. Their friendship and passion for music is obvious."
The members all have their own reasons for joining a Chinese orchestra instead of a Western one. Frankie Fong Ho-lam, a Form Five flute player, said it all started in Primary Three. "It was a tradition back then for the school to ask former students to perform for younger students. That's when I heard the sound of the Chinese flute [di or dizi] and fell in love with it."
Samuel Sha Wai-ho, a Form Five percussion player, says: "I first played with Chinese drums in K-3. I think Chinese drums sound more momentous, especially when it comes to playing songs about war."
Going into the competition, they are relaxed and confident. But they also know they're expected to win. Ryan says: "In the Youth Music Interflows, La Salle's other orchestras have all won gold already. We believe our orchestra is as strong as any of them."
Ambrose is more direct in his expectations. "I hope we win gold. After all, we've always been the best," he says confidently.
Kenny Mok Ho-yin, a Form Five student who plays the gaohu, has bigger goals than "just" winning gold. "I want to do more than win Interflow. I want to build the best strings orchestra in Hong Kong. Since Form One, I've been comparing us to Diocesan Boys' School and Sha Tin Government School's orchestra, and I want us to be better!"