Mr. Chan is a street musician who plays a Dizi (笛子), a type of bamboo flute that is used in Chinese folk music and Chinese opera. On most days Mr. Chan can be found by the ATMs on the corner outside the AON China Building on Queen’s Road Central.
Mr. Chan comes from Chongqing. He moved to Shenzhen and waits at the border to get clearance to come to Hong Kong. Because of immigration laws, his trips to Hong Kong are intermittent, and he usually stays for up to three weeks at a time.
“All the laws here are really controlling, and you’re not allowed to work. But it’s only temporary. When 2046 rolls around, things will change,” says Mr. Chan. “Hong Kong is looking after its own economy by controlling immigration. And they should! If they didn’t, every poor person would come over here. I feel like I was unlucky to be born as a mainlander, maybe next time I’ll be reincarnated as a Hong Konger. I want to change my life.”
Despite the controlling nature of Hong Kong and its Rule of Law, Mr. Chan still enjoys many aspects of life over here. His sentiments echo the importance of mutual respect, a Confucian concept quickly dissolving in China’s burgeoning culture. “Hong Kong is very human. People treat one another well. Rich and poor people can mix—not like in the Mainland, where the government is very corrupt. But it’s slowly getting better. You should try to understand the Mainland. I know you may have been there, but you only understand it on the surface level. The infrastructure back there is very poor, everything is built badly, like tofu. We all know that everything is of bad quality.’.
Mr. Chan carries 3 or 4 dizi 笛子 in a large worn briefcase. Although good-natured and easy-going, he is reluctant to perform with others as he claims the results are “not that good”. His long-cultivated musical career like his lifestyle has largely been solo and nomadic.
He is a multi-instrumentalist, but he plays the dizi in Hong Kong because they’re light and portable, and allow him to move quickly should the authorities appear.
As it turns out, not everyone shares his passion for street music! “I was arrested once in 2003. There was a misunderstanding between me and the Police, and they asked me to come down to the station, but I was scared and stressed so I didn’t want to go. Then they charged me with resisting arrest. They wouldn’t listen to me. Now that I think back on it, I should have just gone with them. If I’d gone it would have been fine,” he says.
A vagabond lifestyle often comes with knowing the law of the land. “Some police are familiar with me. Some of them are sympathetic and they tell me that I can play in certain places and they don’t bother me.”
Mr. Chan knows approximately 320 songs by memory. “When you learn a song on a Dizi, you never forget it,” he explains. His vast musical repertoire consists of both traditional folk songs and Western tunes (like Jingle Bells) but he enjoys playing Chinese folk music the best.
“I play a lot in Central because there are lots of wealthy people. Lots of foreigners.”
Does this mean that foreigners are more generous than locals? Apparently not. “Hong Kongers are more generous than foreigners because they understand what they’re hearing. Foreigners don’t really understand, they only give money out of pity, I know this. Maybe it’s 70% pity and 30% appreciation. There is definitely pity.”
Mr. Chan’s earnings from playing the Dizi vary depending on the types of people he encounters. “If people hear a song that they like, they can be generous and give me $10 and maybe $20, sometimes even $50. Occasionally, some people even give $100. One time, someone gave me $500!”
These earnings allow Mr. Chan to cover his daily expenses, which include a couple bowls of noodles or rice. When the long day is over, Mr. Chan returns to a small apartment in Yau Ma Tei, which has been provided by a benefactor. It’s a safe place where he can sleep on the couch and take a shower.
Although Hong Kong culture is not always seen as the most benevolent, Mr. Chan is still a witness to its humanity. ”Hong Kong people don’t care about my things…, if you dropped money on the street they would help you pick it up. This wouldn’t happen in the Mainland.”
The most surprising and also personal motivation behind Mr. Chan’s journey all the way from Chongqing centers around his family. “I started playing the Dizi when I was young then I stopped. Many years later my own kid ran away from home and I needed to go find him—people suggested that I bring my Dizi to earn money on the way. It was only because of this that I picked it up again.“
Perhaps Mr. Chan’s love for music is his reminder to Hong Kongers of a forgotten culture. So the next time that you see him playing his Dizi, maybe a coin or two wouldn’t hurt. He may be playing for money, but he may also be playing for his long-lost son.
Hear Mr. Chan playing his Dizi here:Butterfly-Lovers.mp3 Jingle-Bells.mp3 Unknown-1.mp3 Unknown-2.mp3