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Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra to perform with "snake-friendly" instruments in Shanghai (with photos/video)

Echoing the "Better City, Better Life" slogan of Expo 2010 Shanghai China (Shanghai Expo), the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (HKCO) will play enchanting music with about 40 snake-friendly "eco-huqins" at its Shanghai performance this Saturday (May 15).

Traditionally, the skin-covered sound box of the "huqin", a stringed instrument, has been made of python skin.

But since pythons have been on the endangered species list since the 1970s, products made with python skin have been banned in many countries.

As a result, musicians from the HKCO were often questioned by Customs officers around the world about the materials used in their musical instruments.

This prompted the HKCO to start looking for more "snake-friendly" alternatives back in 2004.

The HKCO's research and development officer Mr Yuen Shi-chun said the orchestra had been trying to find a substitute snake skin for huqins.

In four years - to the delight of both snake lovers and Chinese music lovers - a suitable man-made material was finally found and is being used for instruments such as gaohu, erhu, zhonghu, gehu and bass gehu.

"The huqins we now play are made with environmentally friendly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), instead of snake skin," said Mr Yuen.

"Python skin, actually, is not a very stable material. It gets softer and loses its tension when it's hot and humid, while in winter it contracts and gets harder and brittle, or sometimes cracks. All of this has an effect on the sound quality of the instrument, and the lifespan of the materials.

"PET, however, can handle a variation of temperatures and retains its tension and sound quality whether it's humid, warm or cold. It's much more versatile.

"We have also taken the opportunity to improve the design of the sound-box so we can keep the original quality of the musical instrument. The new material works perfectly.

"Using the new material has not only helped preserve snakes, but has also solved the problem of musicians not being able to use their own instruments for overseas concerts because their snake-skin instruments were stopped and retained at customs check points."

Mr Yuen, who makes the instruments by hand, said he had experimented unsuccessfully with pigskin and sheepskin before trying out the man-made PET.

He estimated that over 500,000 huqins are produced in China each year. As the skin from a four-metre python would make about 12 huqins, that means up to 60,000 pythons would need to be killed annually to meet requirements.

Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Yan Huichang said, "The HKCO is the only orchestra in the world that produces its own bowed-stringed instruments. This helps strengthen our status in Chinese music, unifying the sound quality of our instruments as well as enhancing their adaptability in cold weather and climatic changes.

"Some even say that our eco-huqin provides us with a global pass."

Care to listen to the music made with these eco-friendly, snake-saving instruments?

Then don't miss the HKCO's performance at the Shanghai Concert Hall this Saturday (May 15) – a HKSAR Programme for Shanghai Expo.

The concert will feature renowned Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai and pipa virtuoso Wong Chi-ching, who will perform under the baton of Yan Huichang, a National Class One Conductor.

The programme will include "Three Melodies of West Yunnan" by internationally recognised composer Guo Wenjing; the pipa and orchestral piece "A Thousand Sweeps" by Hong Kong composer Law Wing-fai; the violin concerto "The Butterfly Lovers" by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang; and Cheng Dazhao's "The Yellow River Capriccio" in which the audience will join in to create a rousing finale.

"Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra Concert"
Date: May 15
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall
Length: Approx 1 hour 45 mins
Ticket price: RMB 300, 240, 180, 120, 80
Booking hotline: (+86 21) 6386 2836
Online bookings: www.culture.sh.cn , www.ticket2010.com
Programme enquiries
(HK): (+852) 3185 1600
(Shanghai): (+86 21) 6386 2836