Go back just a couple of generations, and a lot of Hongkongers probably owned a harmonica and knew how to play it. Now, however, the beauty of this miniature instrument largely goes unrecognised. But not by 17-year-old Charis Chan Tsz-wun .
Charis, who was named Performing Artist of the Year at the 2017 Student of the Year awards, started playing the harmonica in Primary Four. “I was attracted by its tone colours and variations,” she said.
Despite having claimed the title in a range of music competitions, the Diocesan Girls’ School student said the best moments her instrument have given her have little to do with winning.
“I enjoy performing for people because what matters most, after all, is being able to bring happiness [to others],” Charis told Young Post.
As she excitedly explained, she recently had the pleasure of performing in front of 100 young people aged three to 17 as part of the Children’s All Rounded Development Programme, co-organised by the children’s charities Po Leung Kuk and Angels for Orphans.
She selected a few well-known children’s songs for the event, including Disney classics A Whole New World and I See the Light. The response was overwhelming.
“The highlight came when I was playing the theme song from [the children’s cartoon] Doraemon,” Charis recalled with a smile. “The entire audience was singing along happily and loudly. I could see the children were enjoying themselves. It was very heart-warming.”
Her lively recitals not only kept all eyes on her onstage, but offstage, too. As soon as she finished her final piece, the children rushed towards her in a swarm.
“They were very curious about my harmonica … one child even tried to put it in her mouth and blow it.That made me realise I can bring people together by making music.”
Charis also tries to make an impact on a smaller scale. When she was awarded a brand new harmonica by the International Seoul Harmonica Festival, she decided there was someone else who would benefit from the prize more than she would.
On her daily journey past Jordan MTR station, Charis would notice an elderly street performer whose harmonica was out of tune.
“He’s a good harmonica player, and he loves it so much that he used it as a way to make a living,” she explained. All he lacked, thought Charis, was a good quality instrument. Without hesitating, she gave him the one she’d won.
“He tried it out immediately, and told me its tone was really lovely,” she said.
Now, the man always uses the harmonica Charis gave him. “I was so delighted to have helped him.”
“A lot of the adults I’ve met told me that they used to play harmonica when they were young. But perhaps because it came so easily to them, they regarded it – much like the recorder – as a boring instrument,” said Charis.
Some even told Charis they didn’t see the harmonica as “proper instrument”, much less one capable of producing concerto pieces.
While this perception could explain why the mouth organ is not popular among teenagers, Charis believes the bigger problem lies with “certificate-oriented parents”.
“There are no graded examinations for this instrument, which means learning it won’t help children get into a top school, or join the school orchestra,” she explained.
In spite of these hurdles, Charis is confident that the future of the harmonica is promising.
“Right now, a growing number of harmonica players are trying to develop new ways to play the instrument. I can see that it has an unlimited potential.”
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge
The Student of the Year Awards competition is organised by the South China Morning Post and Young Post and sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.