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Humans of Hong Kong: Never playing second fiddle with Master Tong Man-hak

By Catharina Cheung 20 May 2020

Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. In this episode, we sit down with Tong Man-hak, a retired carpenter and erhu maker and enthusiast, for a chat on making classical Chinese music instruments by hand, and being the last of Hong Kong’s such craftsmen.

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“People were escaping China in 1944 during the Japanese occupation, including my parents. I was born along the journey, and my father died in a plane bombing before I was born. My mother was only 19 at the time, and a 19-year-old girl with a baby didn’t stand a chance. I was left behind in Guangxi to be raised by someone else, and my mother came to Hong Kong in 1945.

“I came to Hong Kong in 1980, and was already well-experienced in my work as a carpenter—right at a time when society was in need of such talents. In the 1980s, I started to do my own renovation business. I played the erhu while living in the mainland, but I gave it up because I moved to Hong Kong, had a family with three children, and started working in construction and renovation.”

“After I turned 60, I took up the erhu again. I bought a nice erhu to examine, play on, and experiment with, but then I lost it when I went on a trip up to mainland China, in a train station. Instead of spending money to buy another erhu, I started to make my own. Of course, the sound quality wasn’t great on my first one. I learned more about the construction and improved with my second erhu, and the ones after that. I’ve never had a master [to learn from], and it took roughly 10 years of experimenting to reach these results. I kept at it until my work became a high standard, and graduated to using Angsana wood.”

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“I’ve had a lot of encouragement from friends and even recognition from professional master players for creating this kind of quality. My aim is to showcase Hong Kong’s local works and let people see that we’ve also made top-notch musical instruments. I do hope a family member will be able to take over, to pass on my techniques. All teachers hope their students end up being better than them. There’s a sense of satisfaction [but] let it happen naturally. I’m happy doing what I’m doing now.”

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.