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This may be a familiar scene for many: A quiet park on a muggy Hong Kong morning; clusters of old Chinese folk doing tai chi or playing chess; the birdsong punctuated by the plaintive sound of an instrument playing. This vaguely wistful sounding music comes from a classical Chinese instrument called the erhu.
The erhu is a two-stringed instrument, often described as a Chinese fiddle, which has been around in China since the Tang dynasty. Aside from being a staple in classical Chinese music ensembles, the erhu has also made its way across the globe and been featured in music from metal bands, Regina Spektor, the Star Wars soundtrack, and even a Cirque du Soleil show. But as with all classical instruments that fall outside the safely preserved categories of Western music, the process of making erhus by hand like the craftsmen of old is a slowly dying art. Tucked away in a cluttered workshop in Tai Kok Tsui, Hong Kong has one such rare artisan in the former carpenter and erhu maker Tong Man-hak.
Master Tong, a quiet, well-spoken sort, is a migrant from Guangxi in mainland China. He tells a harrowing story of loss and separation when asked about his background: “In 1944, people were escaping China during the Japanese occupation, including my parents. I was born along the journey, but my father died in a plane bombing before I was born. My mother was only 19 at the time, very young.” A 19-year-old girl with a baby would not have stood a chance amidst the chaotic situation, so it was decided that Tong would be left behind in Guangxi to be raised by someone else, while his mother made her way across the border to Hong Kong in 1945.
Tong grew up in Guangxi and eventually got into the woodworking trade. Around the age of 20, he became interested in music after admiring people playing their musical instruments; loving a good challenge, he also started wondering if he could play as well as them. “I had no money to buy [an erhu], so I made my own. At first, I just used a bamboo tube and caught snakes to make the skin for the drum,” he recalls nonchalantly. When asked how in the world he was comfortable with catching and skinning live snakes, Tong laughs and explains how he had lived in a communal dormitory out in the wilderness while on a job, during which he would always encounter wild animals, including snakes, so he wasn’t in the least bit frightened.
Armed simply with bare-bones materials and a sense of enthusiasm, Tong set about making erhus, slowing learning through trial and error. “It was difficult to find someone to teach [this sort of craft] back then... I’ve never had a master [to learn from].” You might be wondering, with the wide gamut of classical Chinese instruments such as the pipa and the guzheng zither, why the fascination with the erhu in particular. The answer is one of practicality. “The erhu is a simple instrument with two strings. There was no way we could’ve even come into contact with more complicated instruments—we couldn’t have afforded it.” Tong mused that an erhu back in those days cost approximately $20, the rough equivalent to a whole month’s salary.
Real life got in the way of passion, and Tong shelved his musical instruments in favour of career and family. An experienced carpenter, he moved to Hong Kong in 1980, right at a time when society was in need of such talents, and eventually started his own renovation business. A major impetus for the change must have been his birth mother, who had maintained contact with Tong through the years. His gaze turns wistful as he says, “I was reunited with my mother this way, even though she already had another family by then… That was a very happy and unforgettable experience, something I’ve dreamt of every night for decades.”
It wasn’t until after Tong turned 60, and his three children had all graduated and entered the workforce, that he took up the erhu again. Eager to continue his experimentation from years ago, he “bought a nice erhu to examine and play on”, though at around $5,000 from a music shop over 20 years ago, it didn’t come as a cheap purchase. Unexpectedly, Tong then lost the instrument in a train station during a trip up to mainland China. After his friends remarked that his woodworking skills were more than up to the task, Tong decided that instead of spending money to buy another, he would make his own erhu—properly this time.
“At first, I just used common, standard materials—it’s enough to begin with. Of course, the sound quality wasn’t great on my first one.” With all the time on his hands, Tong was free to delve deep into his craft, and he dove in face-first, indeed. Learning on the fly and tweaking his work as he experimented, the quality of the erhus gradually improved, which spurred him to use materials of better quality. It’s taken more than a decade of consistently keeping his nose to the grindstone, but Tong’s hand-made instruments are now of performance standard, made using top-grade red sandalwood and python skin.
When talking about his craft, the normally soft-spoken master Tong becomes visibly more animated and verbose. Shuffling over to his workstation, he demonstrates the precision required in making a good erhu, explaining that all six pieces of wood used to piece the body of the drum together need to carry the same tone. He clinks on pieces of sandalwood that he has already sorted by tone and begun shaping, showing how they all emit the same pitch when struck. “When you make an erhu with wood that has the same tone, the sound it produces will be especially beautiful. If the wood doesn’t have the same tone, it’ll sound harsher, like a singer with a sore throat.”
Throughout the conversation, Tong drops in bits of knowledge on erhu making as they spring to mind. Each time he goes off on a slight tangent, a nugget of information is revealed, such as how the interior of the drum needs to be as smooth and polished as the outside, so the sounds won’t be absorbed by the wood before being emitted, how bigger snakes have better skin, and how each section will yield different kinds of skin, which all affect the eventual sound of the erhu. Tong’s pearls of wisdom are unpolished and totally organic in how they are presented as suddenly as he remembers them—a reflection of how organically he himself discovered these very pearls through the years.
With how detail-oriented and almost scientific Tong is in his approach to instrument crafting, it’s easy to forget he is entirely self-taught. He is understandably proud of his accomplishments, and at having received recognition from professional master players at the quality of his work. He tells us how he has signed up to this year’s Chinese Music Expo in Guangzhou, where he wants to “showcase Hong Kong’s local works, and let people see that we’ve also made top-notch musical instruments.” Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the expo has been postponed to August, but Tong is still hopeful.
He becomes slightly melancholic as the conversation drifts to the future. “I do hope a family member will be able to take over, to pass on my techniques,” but his sons are unlikely to do so. Another issue is that the entry barrier to the craft is high. Interest and hard work are all well and good, but anyone seriously interested in instrument-making should also have a good working knowledge of woodwork—Tong himself owes his success to his background as a carpenter. When presented with the idea of teaching someone his trade from scratch, Tong shakes his head emphatically, “I’d have to start from [teaching] woodwork! And then they have to learn to play. If you don’t know how to play, you won’t know what a good sound is… I don’t have the time.”
One can’t help but think he feels differently deep down as Tong goes on musing, “I do want to have a student that I have trained personally, and I’d like to see them surpass me. All teachers hope their students end up being better than them. My student doing well reflects well on myself.” As with almost any skill, it’s easier to pick up starting from a young age, so for Tong, the ideal student would be under 18, with a mind for woodwork and music. “If they meet all the requirements, then, of course, I’d be happy to teach.” He personally didn’t find the long process a chore because it is his life-long passion after all, but he does concede that “it’s something that needs to be passed down because doing it by trial and error is too difficult.”
The dedicated enthusiast lights up when asked to play a song—”Playing the erhu is my hobby!”—and leads the way into the stairwell of the building. It’s raining, which we had previously been told will make the music sound less bright, but amidst the patter of raindrops, master Tong nevertheless filled this one dusty corner of industrial Hong Kong with the doleful sound of his favourite old-school instrument. As the final trembling note fades into the realm of memory, Tong is met with effusive comments that his art needs to be preserved, but he only smiles gently. “Let it happen naturally. I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”