BY TIM HAMLETT
As the rain poured down on the handover ceremony in 1997 and a solitary bagpiper played a sad tune of farewell, it seemed that this might be goodbye, not only for his army, but also for his instrument.
The bagpipe had been played in Hong Kong for more than 100 years, but usually by Scottish visitors. The exception to this rule was the Hong Kong Police band, founded in 1954. Convention required that the bandsmen should be constables, but there were no expatriate constables, so the police pipers have always been local.
Gloomy predictions that the bagpipes would no longer be heard in Hong Kong turned out to be wrong. The bagpipe survives, not so much as an art instrument as an important part of social rituals.
Hong Kong has many uniformed organisations and groups. They all have parades from time to time. The bagpipe has many limitations but it is uniquely suitable for outdoor parades because of its loud volume and penetrating tone.
As a result many uniformed groups keep up a band, and conversely all the large bands belong to uniformed groups: the Police, the Boy Scouts, the Auxiliary Medical Service, St Johns Ambulance Brigade and so on and on.
Smaller groups are much in demand for weddings. I am not sure how this got started but one of the variations offered by Hong Kong wedding planners is a “Scottish Wedding” with pipes, kilts and such things. Even if the bridegroom ducks the Scottish costume, it is a pleasing thing to have the happy couple led into the banquet by a couple of pipers in the full gear.
In fact some surprising people like to be led into the room by a couple of pipers. Even rural Lions Clubs wish their formal banquets to include a little ritual in which the guest of honour is led in by pipers. The lead piper is then plied with whisky by the organiser, something of a hazard if the organiser is generous because the special cup used for this purpose is quite large and it is supposed to be emptied in one go.
The advantage of being a social instrument is that there are a lot of us about. Last year there was a “Pipefest” in which a massed band marched along the TST promenade in aid of cancer research. Several of the larger bands were “too busy” to participate but there were still more than 100 pipers and drummers on parade. For an alien instrument really better suited to cold climates this is pretty good.
The downside of the situation is that there is not much incentive for improvement. Most piping engagements involve short bursts and the audience is not taking much notice of the music anyway. Senior officers presiding at parades are willing, and may even prefer, to hear the same tunes they heard last year.
A few dedicated individuals reach high standards as soloists, usually by spending some time abroad. Bands face a dilemma: if they teach they must play tunes which the students can reach reasonably quickly. If they do not teach they can advance, but with a gradually shrinking membership.
Well, everyone has problems. Personally I am not Scottish and I only started playing six years ago when the prospect of retirement and endless leisure - so far a mirage - appeared.
The bagpipe has some serious drawbacks. The only volume available is loud, which makes practice difficult. There are only nine notes, but there are about 50 conventional ornaments which must be learned and practised. The instrument is difficult to tune and has lots of joints which need constant maintenance. Keeping up the necessary air pressure is demanding. But I must say also that when everything is working the end result is very satisfying.