Chinese Music in Victoria, Australia between 1949 and 1995


by Wang Zheng-Ting
© 1997-2014 by Wang Zheng-Ting

This article is an abridged version of chapter 5 of the book Chinese Music in Australia by Wang Zheng Ting.

There have been many Chinese musical and theatrical organisations in Melbourne during
the period from 1949 to the present, especially in the years from the late 1980s.
Prominent groups are the Chinese Song and Dance Ensemble (Zhonghua Gewutuan ),
the Australian Chinese Opera Association (Zhongguo Xiju Xiehui), the Gangzhou
Society Cantonese Opera Group, the Chao Feng (Zhaofeng) Chinese Orchestra,
established in the early 1980s, and the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble.
In this article, I shall examine the history and activities of three groups:
The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group, The Chao Feng Chinese
Orchestra, and the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble. I believe that these
three groups are representative of the development of organised Chinese music in the period from 1949.

  • The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group
  • The Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra
  • The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble

The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group

History of the Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group

The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group was established in Melbourne in 1960.
Because of the restrictive White Australia Policy during this period, many people
within the Chinese society in Victoria, either single or married, could not bring their
families to Australia. The establishment of the Cantonese opera in this society
therefore came about as an avenue for these people to enrich their lives to compensate
for the lack of family support that they used to have. Secondly, many Chinese that
came to Australia were sponsored by Chinese businessmen to work as labourers.
Many, therefore, had no education, nor did they have a good understanding of English.
In addition, under the White Australia Policy, opportunities were limited, which
resulted in the majority of these people staying within the confines of the Chinese
Community, which similarly limited their social activities within the Chinese society.
A third reason for the establishment of Cantonese opera in this society stemmed from
the overt manner in which gambling had taken hold in the Chinese community.
Cantonese opera was seen as an alternative mode of recreation. Additionally, the
majority of the Chinese population in Victoria came from the Canton Province, a
region fond of Cantonese opera (Yueju). To satisfy these needs, and in an attempt to
persuade Chinese people to take part in healthy activities instead of becoming involved
in gambling, the Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group was established. The
members of the Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group consisted mainly of
immigrant Chinese. Since the migrants were predominantly male, female
impersonators were adopted.

The local Chinese learned Cantonese opera mainly from sailors. In the 1960s air tickets
were very expensive and Chinese people usually travelled by sea. Ships from Hong Kong
to Australia were therefore quite frequent. According to Huang Zhaonan,
who is a musician, an actor, and the director of the Gangzhou Society, a ship named
Ziwanyizuozhianchen came to Melbourne approximately once every three months.
Every time the ship arrived (it usually stayed for one or two weeks), sailors on the ship
would play Chinese music and act in performances of Cantonese opera. Some of the
crew were members of a Cantonese opera association in Hong Kong. When they were
in Melbourne, the sailors constantly made contact with the local Chinese community
and played Cantonese opera with local Cantonese opera lovers. They also taught
music skills and opera performing techniques to the local Chinese people. As Huang
Zhaonan remembered, even the early musical instruments were contributed by the
sailors. The musical instruments played by members of the Gangzhou Society
Cantonese Opera Group were of both Chinese and Western origin.

The instruments used in Cantonese opera during the 1960s included a yuehu (two
stringed fiddle), yueqin (four-stringed plucked instrument with a sound box shaped
like the full moon), saxophone, violin, Hawaiian guitar, and percussion instruments.
Even a xylophone was used.

This performance included musicians from Sydney and sailors from Hong Kong. Not
only did the sailors teach the local Chinese how to play and perform opera and music,
they sometimes even took part in the actual performance. It seems that the musicians
played from music scores instead of the traditional way of playing by memory (as will
be discussed later).

The first opera, named Hubugui, was performed in 1961. The story was about a
faithful and loving couple. The wife was ill-treated by her mother-in-law and she left
the family while her husband was in the army. When the husband returned home and
discovered what had happened to his beloved wife, he immediately left home and took
a journey to look for her. Eventually, the couple were reunited. In 1962 the opera
played at the Russell Street Theatre. Other repertoire performed by this group
included: Birongtanjian, Wangbaochuan, Yibacunzhongjian and Yiqufengqiuhuang.

The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group was not a business. Audiences were
mainly Chinese and the group only played for charities, especially those organised for
fund raising in order to build the Chinese Nursing Home. The Chinese Nursing Home
was completed in 1969. By this time Chinese immigrant families, still in China, could
now come to Australia for reunions. The members of the opera understandably became
reinvolved with their families, resulting in less time for their involvement in opera.
Consequently, the Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group became inactive
(Gangzhou Tongxianghui Special Issue 1985:17). The group remained inactive until a
change of Australian immigration laws provided the conditions for a significant
improvement in the standard and opportunities for ethnic music development, more than
‘White Australia’ had ever seen.

By the late 1970’s, with more liberal immigration laws now in place, and the “White
Australia Policy” now a dead issue, many overseas Chinese started arriving in
Australia from countries that included Vietnam, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan,
Cambodia, and Laos. Among those Chinese people, many were Cantonese opera
lovers, and quite a few could act in Cantonese operas and play Chinese music. Having
found a lifestyle that provided peace and contentment, they were now seeking
opportunities to express Cantonese opera skills.

In 1985, local Cantonese opera lovers held a performance with the help of Sydney
Cantonese opera lovers. This performance layed the foundation for re-establishing the
Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group. By 1987, local Cantonese opera was re-
established in the Gangzhou Society with the assistance of Huang Zhaonan.
According to Huang Zhaonan, the opera has not had a proper name. People in the
Chinese community know it as Cantonese opera attached to the Gangzhou Society.
Thus, in this study the researcher still uses its previous name, the Gangzhou Society
Cantonese Opera Group, to identify this opera association.

Nowadays, there are a few actresses and female musicians in the association, hence no
female impersonators are needed. The musicians currently include Huang Zhaonan ,
Xu Caiping, Tang Xiongshan, Ren Xiafei, Peng Chunkui, and others. The repertoire
the group plays usually includes stories of ancient China. Most of the members of the
opera are over 40, which might be the main reason why popular songs are not
performed (He Shishang 1994:8).

The purpose of the opera is to create a social place for Cantonese opera lovers to meet
each other and to compare notes. The opera is still a non-profit organisation. Sometimes
they perform for fund raising. For instance, in February 1994 the opera gave two
performances at the Gangzhou Society Assembly Hall. They raised $1091 from the
performances, all of which was donated to the Chinese Nursing Home Welfare
Foundation in Victoria (Weisheng Huazu Laoren Fulihui) and to the Heavenly Queen
Temple Society Inc., Melbourne (Tianhoumiao Choujian Weiyuanhui) (Heavenly Queen
Temple Society Inc. 1994-1995:7,33). In the two performances, the group played
highlights from operas which included Guangxuhuangjifei, Zhaojunchusai, Anyu,
Shihouji, Huanjuelihentian, and Dengjieshecui.

Nowadays this opera association rehearses each Saturday afternoon at 124-126 Little
Bourke Street on the 1st floor, in the location of the See-Yap Society (Shiyi Huiguan).
The author has visited the opera association at this location twice. During these visits,
the organisation rehearsed in the style of Yuequ, a folk art form performed in Canton
province. Compared with Cantonese opera, Yue-qu is less extravagant, has fewer
players and, as such, is more economical to stage. As Huang Zhaonan points out, if
they performed Cantonese opera, they have to include more people and even invite
some performers from Sydney, which is quite expensive for an amateur production to
bear. Therefore, the association usually performs and presents Yuequ and highlights
from Cantonese operas.

The instruments used by the musicians included a yuehu, yehu, guangdong-yueqin,
zhongruan, a Western violin, as well as Chinese percussion instruments. Compared to
the opera association of the 1960s, fewer Western musical instruments are now used in
the opera. This could probably be a result of influence from the mainstream culture, in
which fewer Western instruments are now used for Cantonese opera in Hong Kong
and in mainland China.

Summary of the Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group

The members of the opera seem to enjoy their activities in this non-profit organisation.
Unlike the nineteenth century companies, the organisation is not a business. All the
musicians, actors and actresses are immigrants to Australia. The weekly rehearsals are
much more important than their very occasional performances. The social activity of
the rehearsal is important in that the musicians pay close attention to each other whilst
maintaining seriousness with their music. As with many amateur groups, the music
making has more meaning for the performers than for the audience. From the point of
view of contemporary styles of operatic performance in China, their approach would
seem to be rather conservative. Cut off from the main culture, they have not
developed as it has. For instance, they still play in unison and in China these days the
musicians would play different parts from an organised score.

The Gangzhou Society Cantonese Opera Group must be seen as a valuable leisure-
time activity for the older generation of Chinese immigrants who, after 20 or 40 years
of residence out of China, still find their contact with traditional Chinese music
important and meaningful.

The Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra

The Chao Feng (Zhaofeng) Chinese orchestra is one of the biggest Chinese orchestras
in Australia. Its establishment in the early 1980s was the direct result of the increase
in migration from Asia. Its development was mainly influenced by musicians from
Hong Kong, and later by professional musicians from mainland China. Its activity has
not been confined within the Chinese community, since it has also promoted Chinese
music in the general community in Australia, acting as a medium through which
Western people have been able to experience Chinese culture.

In the late 1970s, William Suen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, met by chance,
Lo Wen, a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam. They met at the Melbourne State
College (now part of the University of Melbourne), whilst demonstrating Chinese
musical instruments for a video production. Soon afterwards, they jointly built up a
network of Chinese friends who were interested in Chinese music. Lo Wen and
William Suen started teaching Chinese music and established a music group named
Chinese Unity (The Boite, [1984]:20).

In 1981 the group gave a concert, The First Chinese Music Concert, which established
its popularity mainly within the Chinese community. At this concert the programme
included an instrumental ensemble and included a dizi ( flute) solo, zheng (zither) solo,
erhu ( fiddle) solo, folk song, group singing, a North Lion Dance, and a Chinese classical
dance. In 1982 the group became an independent organisation known as the Chao Feng
Chinese Orchestra. Lo Wen was the first director and William Suen the first co-

New Asian Chinese immigrants provided extra potential new members for the orchestra.
In 1987, during its peak time, the orchestra had 40 to 50 members (Australia Council
1987:23). These included Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia,
Singapore, Mainland China, Chinese-Australians, and even some Anglo-Australians.

Generally speaking, the instruments used by the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra were,
and still are, similar to their counterparts in China. This was illustrated at the 10th
Anniversary Concert in 1992 of the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra, in which the
instruments used for this concert included the suona (oboe), dizi, sheng (mouth organ),
erhu, zhonghu, gehu, pipa, zhongruan, daruan, liuqin, yangqin, a Western double
bass, plus various Chinese percussion instruments.

The orchestra rehearses each Monday night at The University of Melbourne. Stephen
Wu (ex-director) remembered that the orchestra’s first rehearsal place was a rented
property in Elizabeth Street. In the early 1980s, after Dr Cathy Falk attended a concert
given by the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra, she offered a free rehearsal room in the
Melbourne State College with the objective of giving assistance that would help
promote the orchestra and their music. Her generous offer meant that the orchestra
had a permanent place for rehearsals (Interview: Stephen Wu, 22nd December 1994).

The orchestra has performed on numerous occasions, including, for example, at the
National Gallery, the Museum of Chinese Australian History, on ABC Radio, and for
the Melbourne Chinese Spring Festival in Chinatown. The orchestra attracts large
audiences. As Stephen Wu, a key member of the orchestra recalled, ‘the orchestra had
a very successful concert of Chinese traditional music in 1983 at Robert Blackwood
Hall, Monash University, with more than 1000 people present’ (Interview: Stephen
Wu, 3rd January 1995). Although the audience included both Chinese and Western
people, Chinese were in the majority. As Stephen Wu said in an earlier interview, ‘the
audience are mainly Chinese and include relatives of the members, friends of the
members, even friends of friends of the members’ (Interview: Stephen Wu, 22nd
December 1994). Nonetheless, the presence of significant numbers of non-Chinese at
the concert indicates the shift in attitude of the Australian public that has occurred
since the 1970s. During the time of the Whitlam Government (1972-1975), which
coincided with the end of Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, connections
between Australia and China improved markedly with the establishment of diplomatic
relations. Whitlam visited China in 1973 and China quickly became a major trading
partner of Australia. This new relationship blossomed as China became a major
tourist destination, and cultural exchanges of performing groups and individuals
became more frequent. In Australia there was a heightened interest in Chinese culture,
politics and life.

The size of the orchestra, nowadays, is very flexible, ‘usually only 8 to 12 people will
attend the rehearsal. However, if a major concert is coming up, the number could be
increased to approximately thirty’ (Interview with Gary Chen, 22nd December 1994).
In some circumstances, a nuclear group of 5 or 6 will play on behalf on the orchestra.

All members of the orchestra are volunteers. This creates a problem in that the
effectiveness of rehearsals cannot be guaranteed since the numbers that turn up for
rehearsals varies greatly, often with only a nucleus of the orchestra attending. Many
performers have not had a solid training, and the levels of performing technique within
the orchestra vary widely. These problems greatly hinder the progress of the orchestra.
Nobody is paid a salary and the only renumeration comes from occasional

In the early days of the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra, the music performed was
mainly Chinese music which had been popular in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the
1970s. The music played in Hong Kong during the 1970s was quite conservative
compared to that played in mainland China. The selection and arrangement of the
pieces, as Stephen Wu pointed out, was determined by the standard of the orchestra.
The repertoire included traditional Chinese pieces such as Jiangjunling,
Chunjianghuayueye, Yudabajiao, Zizhudiao, Yuzhouchangwan, and Jinshekuangwu
(Interview: Stephen Wu, 22nd December 1994).

Since the late 1980s, many professional musicians have come to Melbourne, most of
them as English language students. These musicians have had a strong influence on
the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra through participation in rehearsals, giving individual
lessons to its members, and by taking part in performances. These professional
musicians have included Chen Wenjie, Chen Baitao, Dong Qiuming, Gao Tieshuan, Li
Li, Shen Pangeng, Wang Zheng-Ting and Zhang Ningna. Gao Tieshuan, Julian Yu,
Cai Chunsheng and Shen Pangeng have conducted the orchestra.

In 1981 an additional influence on the orchestra came about through the visit of Mr
Liu Wenjin, a famous composer and conductor from the People’s Republic of China,
who was sponsored by the Chinese Fellowship of Victoria. When in Australia he gave
lectures and taught local Chinese music lovers to play music. He also trained the
Chinese Music Group in Melbourne [previously the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra]
(Eastern Standard, 14th December 1981). Through his activities in Melbourne he
reinforced Chinese music influences from mainland China on the Chinese Musical
Group and, under his influence, the group expanded (Interview: Grace Gorman, 22nd
December 1994).

In 1992, Mr Yang Jeiming, the principal conductor of the Central Song and Dance
Ensemble of Beijing, and a Kenneth Myer Artist-in-Residence at the Victorian Arts
Centre, was invited to conduct the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra, which was
performing in concert with the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble. The concert took
place on 4th June 1992 in the George Fairfax Studio, as a part of the program In the
Footsteps of Marco Polo, which was a musical journey tracing the Italian explorer’s
voyages. Through the training of Liu Wenjin and Yang Jeiming, and from the
influence of professional musicians from China, the orchestra’s repertoire is not
nowadays limited to traditional Chinese music. It now includes contemporary Chinese
music, as well as adaptations of other music, such as the Japanese piece The Mail
Coach, and an Algerian piece, Taimu-Taimu.

Some Australian Members of the Orchestra:

Peter Bannister

Peter is an Australian. His involvement with the orchestra came about by accident.
As he recalls in an interview:

Twelve years ago, when I was employed at the Ministry of Transport, a
Chinese woman worked for me. She was so shy that, to gain her confidence at
work, I asked her to teach me one word or one sentence in Chinese each day
(Interview: Peter Bannister, 22nd December 1994).

Soon after, Peter became interested in Chinese culture. For the purpose of learning
more about Chinese culture, Peter thought he should make more Chinese friends.
Because he is a clarinet player, he joined the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra in 1983,
learning the sheng [mouth organ].

His experience in the orchestra has been rewarding in two ways. Firstly, his
knowledge of Chinese culture has been extended through his contact with Chinese
people. Secondly, the comparisons he has made between traditional Chinese and
Western music have enabled him to appreciate Western music in a different way. For
example, Peter discovered that some music principles are similar between traditional
Chinese and Western music: vibrato for a long note; crescendo for ascending;
decrescendo for descending. Traditional Chinese music uses more fifth and fourth
intervals which are not rich, but pure; Western harmonisation is more complicated and
based on discords, using the third, the sixth, and the seventh intervals. Traditional
Chinese music uses the perfect tuning system, while Western music adapted the well-
tempered tuning system which is easier for modulation. The rhythm in traditional
Chinese music is quite simple compared to Western music. As Peter explained, if one
only eats apples, one would only know the taste of apples. If one eats an apple and a
banana, one is able to compare the different tastes of the two, which can help one to
appreciate the apple in a different way. Because of his knowledge of Western music,
Peter is able to improvise effectively in the orchestra. Additionally, his knowledge of
Chinese music has helped his playing on the clarinet. Peter’s personal experience in
the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra shows that music acts as a bridge linking two
different cultures, and that there is an advantage in cultural exchange.

Grace Gorman

Grace Gorman is an immigrant from England. Her involvement with the Chao Feng
Chinese Orchestra came about simply because her ex-boyfriend is a Malaysian
Chinese. He bought her an erhu as a gift, and introduced a friend of his to teach her to
play the instrument. As Gorman said, ‘through the practice in the orchestra, I have got
to know more Chinese people which has helped me to comprehend Chinese culture’
(Interview: Grace Gorman, 22nd December 1994).

Grace Gorman’s involvement with Chinese music has even influenced her Western
colleagues and friends. They are more interested in her playing erhu than her clarinet,
and sometimes attend the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra’s performances. This provides
her colleagues with an opportunity to become further interested in Chinese culture.
Gorman’s personal experience in the orchestra shows that a possibility exists for those
that do not necessarily have direct contact with Chinese people to become interested in
Chinese culture, and that these people in turn can influence others.

Summary of the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra

The Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra has its origins from new immigrants to Australia
from various Chinese communities in different countries. Although the orchestra
comprises volunteers, it is significant in being the first local Chinese orchestra to
introduce Chinese concert music to the general community in Melbourne, generating
interest and promoting understanding at a time when China was just beginning to open
its doors to the West.

Individual interviews with selected members of the orchestra illustrate that the
different backgrounds of each person meant that they have had different responses to
Chinese music. The advantages of inter-cultural exchange have been described as well
as the advantages of dissemination of cultural influences to individuals through
personal contacts and social activities with friends.

The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble

The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble is a professional Chinese music ensemble in
Australia. With the Chinese Government opening its doors to the West, a wider
spectrum of talented artists made their way to Australia making possible the
establishment of a professional music ensemble, comprising educated musicians who
were previously established in their profession in China. Although the ensemble’s
activities have involved both the Chinese and general communities within Australia,
its performances have been more directed to the general community. The ensemble
has its own distinctive characteristics. Its high standard of musical skill and mastery
of both traditional and contemporary Chinese music enabled the ensemble to achieve a
high reputation in the ethnic communities whilst touring around Australia. It also
provided the ensemble with the opportunity to appear frequently on media programs.
The ensemble has experimented in amalgamating Eastern and Western musical
aspects, which is still a continuing developmental direction in their music. The
experiences and achievements of the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble have shown
the potential for immigrant Chinese to succeed in their profession in Australia. Other
ethnic music groups could possibly be encouraged by the success of the ensemble to
achieve similar results.

Established in early 1989, the ensemble was originally know as the Wang Zheng-Ting
Ensemble, and/or the Melbourne Chinese Music Ensemble. However, in 1991 the
ensemble registered as ‘The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble’ at the Office of Fair
Trading and Business Affairs in Melbourne.

In the beginning, the ensemble’s activities were restricted to the Chinese community,
usually performing for Chinese festivals. With the help of Susan Fain, the executive
officer of the Multicultural Council of Victoria, the ensemble made contact with ABC
Music Deli. The first recording with Music Deli was on the 17th of August 1989.
There were only three musicians for this recording; Wang Zheng-Ting, Julian Yu and
Andy Chen (Chen Baitao), respectively playing sheng, erhu, and sanxian ( lute). ‘The
performance went very well, and the results were broadcast the following night on
“Music Deli”, with many appreciative comments from interested listeners’ (a letter
from Stephen Snelleman, 21st August 1989, to the International Language Centre).

Because the recording was so successful, the ensemble was invited by Music Deli to
participate in a concert for Music Deli as a part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. The
concert was held on 29th September 1989, in the Toorak Uniting Church, with the
ensemble performing for approximately 10 minutes as part of a live broadcast of 90
minutes. A subsequent article described the Chinese music for this concert:

No one could have been prepared, either, for the sight of three business-suited
Chinese musicians, Wang Zheng-Ting, Julian Yu, and Andy Chen, serious as
thunderbirds, playing Chinese traditional music on the sheng (a bundle of
bamboo pipes with a mouthpiece which works like an organ) and two stringed
instruments, bowed and plucked. The fragility and perfection of their music
took the whole audience into uncharted territory, especially Wang Zheng-
Ting’s passionate and absorbing work on sheng (Doug Kesselring, Juke, 28th
October 1989:28).

This performance helped promote the ensemble’s great popularity in ethnic music
circles. It further encouraged the ensemble to direct and develop a blend of traditional
and contemporary music towards the general community. Invitations for performances
became more frequent. Within the first year of the ensemble’s establishment, it was
invited to play at major festivals in Melbourne, including the Melbourne International
Festival and the Piccolo Spoleto, further promoting the profile of the ensemble.

In order to make itself more attractive to the general community, and to enable
flexibility and a greater repertoire of music to be performed, the ensemble needed to
extend its size or else incorporate new instruments and sounds. The continuous influx
of Chinese students from mainland China made this possible, since amongst them
were some high standard Chinese musicians. In different periods the following
musicians have played with the ensemble: Dong Qiuming, Li Jun (dizi); Wang Zheng-
Ting (sheng); Cai Chunsheng, Shen Pangeng, Su Qi and Julian Yu (erhu); Chen
Wenjie (pipa, ruan); Chen Wenxiang, Hu Ping, Zhang Ningna (yangqin); Yang Mu
(qin); Li Li, Wang Yuehu (zheng). Currently, the ensemble consists of six musicians:
Chen Wenjie, Dong Qiuming, Shen Pangeng, Wang Yuehua, Wang Zheng-Ting and
Zhang Ningna. To add further variety, Dong Xiaomeng, a mezzo-soprano and
graduate from Xian Conservatory of Music, performs with the ensemble.

Most of the members of the ensemble are from an area south of the lower reaches of
the Yangtze River (Jiangnan), so instinctively the ensemble inherits the musical style
Jiangnan Sizhu from this region. For instance, when playing traditional pieces, the
musicians in the ensemble have more freedom for improvisation and ornamentation.
However, improvisation is limited to a certain extent simply because a musical score
needs to be followed more or less strictly. Whilst improvising, the musicians have to
consider keeping the smoothness in the horizontal melodic movement of their parts,
maintain the vertical texture, and coordinate it harmoniously with the other
instruments. Hence improvisation is technically quite difficult and ornamentation has
therefore gained more importance in performance. With ornamentation, especially
when playing traditional pieces, each musician will play to the others. While one
features, the others will remain soft, and while one plays more ornamentation, the
others will perform only simple ornaments. These then are the features of Jiangnan
Sizhu style.

Another feature is seen in traditional pieces, where normally the ensemble repeats its
melody line with the different instruments, and re-ornaments it according to the
expertise of the musician and nature of the instrument. For example, Purple Bamboo
(Zizhudiao), as played by the ensemble, is repeated four times. The dizi plays in a high
register, using more semiquavers and more syncopation; in the following repetition of
the piece the erhu plays, one register lower, and uses more slides. The sound of the
dizi is resonant, while the sound of the erhu is soft, making an obvious contrast. The
sheng follows the erhu part and repeats the melody with fewer notes, and in some
cases uses chords. As a result, even though the melody is repeated several times, it is
not monotonous. Most musicians in the ensemble perform with a graceful and
exquisite style, which is a distinguishing feature of Jiangnan style.

With informal performances, a fixed program usually does not exist, and more
ensemble pieces are played. For instance, when playing at a restaurant, the ensemble
only provides background music, and ensemble pieces are ideal. At small festivals,
where there isn’t a fixed audience, the next piece played usually depends on the
reaction of the crowd. For instance, the ensemble may play a soft piece to gain more
interest, or play loud music to override a noisy crowd. If many people appear as if
they are going to leave, the ensemble will usually try to play an exciting piece to draw
the audience’s attention back. Anyone in the ensemble may suggest a piece to play,
although the format is usually determined by the leader with occasional advise from
the dizi player (a main melody instrument player). The leader incorporates
experience, technique, and social skills to determine the format of performance
relevant to each occasion.

The ensemble’s routine for a formal performance is to play more solo pieces and fewer
ensemble pieces. The reasons are as follows: firstly, since there are only 5 or 6
musicians in the ensemble, some parts may appear weak. For instance, the bass line
sometimes may not be sufficient. Secondly, it is not always possible to rely on all
ensemble members to be present at a performance, due to each individual’s work and
family commitments. It is very difficult to play standard ensemble pieces when someone
is absent. Thirdly, ensemble pieces require more emphasis on cooperation by each
musician, which can only be achieved through more frequent rehearsals, which are seldom possible due to
the reasons previously mentioned. One advantage of playing more solo pieces is the
increased flexibility in performance. With solos, the accompanying parts are less
important compared with ensemble piece parts. Solos emphasise the musician’s
individual standard, rather than cooperation with other musicians. Therefore, less
coordinated rehearsal time is required for this type of performance. Since each member
of the ensemble is of the highest calibre, playing solos gives full play to each musician’s
expertise and does not compromise the standard of the overall performance. < p>

At performances, the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble usually provide solos by
wind instruments, such as the dizi, bawu, kuodi, hulusi, sheng and lusheng. Solos are
also provided by the two-stringed bowed instrument erhu, and by the plucked and
struck stringed instruments such as pipa, ruan, zheng and yangqin. The range of the
ensemble’s repertoire incorporates traditional Chinese music, contemporary Chinese
music and adopted foreign music.

An Experiment with Australian Musicians

As part of a Western society, the ensemble has the opportunity to experiment with
Western musicians and composers. In the 1994 Music Round, Jeffrey Crellin, the
principle oboist in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, was invited to participate in
an ensemble’s performance. In the author’s opinion, Jeffrey’s oboe enriched the sound
quality of the ensemble, particularly in New Gold Mountain. Although the piece was
originally composed using all Chinese musical instruments, Jeffrey used his
experience to augment feeling for the music. For instance, he used the oboe to imitate
the melody played by the erhu and used tempo variations, which made the piece more
impressive. His interpretation of this piece helped the ensemble to become familiar
with how Western musicians approach music, and the experience enhanced the
cohesiveness of the group, when both rehearsing and performing. Jeffrey was
particularly interested in New Gold Mountain more than any other Chinese piece he
played when with the ensemble, possibly because this piece was composed by a
Western composer.

New Gold Mountain was composed by George Dreyfus for the Australian Chinese
Music Ensemble, and was later incorporated in a recording with the ensemble in the
making of a DAT master tape at the SBS radio station. This piece combined both
Eastern and Western musical aspects. The Western aspect was Dreyfus’s natural
ability as a Western composer. Dreyfus played his Western bassoon, yet this was
accompanied by the Eastern sheng. The blend of Eastern instrumentation and
ornamentation, together with Western composition and instruction, provided a unique
experience. Over recent years the composer has had a close interest in Chinese
culture, and has even conducted a symphony orchestra in China. The enthusiasm for
experimentation was quite evident in the ensemble’s associations with Dreyfus, as was
experienced during his instructions at rehearsals and in other activities. Dreyfus’s
experimentation with Eastern musical aspects, was quite evident, and clearly noticable
in some of his interpretations of musical pieces.

Firstly, Dreyfus is a wind instrument player, and his interest in wind instruments was
exemplified in experimentations with musical phrases written for the sheng (another
wind instrument), when in rehearsal with the Australian Chinese Music Ensemble, and
in composing New Gold Mountain. Further development of this interest was
demonstrated in his piece composed for the didgeridoo with a symphony orchestra,
and in his use of wind instruments from different nations, including the souna, in a
symphony orchestra piece. Secondly, to consider the composer’s instructions during
rehearsal, Dreyfus requested each member of the ensemble to ornament their parts in
the piece. For instance, the dizi added more decoration notes, the sheng and zheng
filled the gap in a long note, and the erhu used more slides. Through each musician’s
decoration, the Chinese aspects of the piece were reinforced.

Through cooperation with Jeffrey Crellin and George Dreyfus, the ensemble has
obtained some experience with Western musicians and their involvement with Chinese
music. A special benefit of this cooperative experience reinforced the ensemble’s
orientation towards an amalgamation of Western and Eastern musical aspects.

Various Specific Contexts of Ensemble Performances

The ensemble’s main activities include performing in the media, at festivals and for
special occasion entertainment, and at universities. The ensemble performs for both
profit and non-profit occasions. However, as most of the performances are for
professional purposes, payments usually follow the rates of the Musicians Union.
Non-profitable performances include fund-raising and charity events, promotions for
Chinese cultural events, and promotions for building up the identity of the ensemble in
the general community. The ensemble also assists other Chinese music groups by
playing at their performances. Some of these people have reciprocated in giving
valuable aid to the ensemble in the past.

Voluntary performances are usually quite difficult to carry out. The musicians in the
ensemble have different working commitments, and to ask for release to attend a
performance is often difficult, especially as it is done with the knowledge that no
compensation of fees for the performance will be received. Sometimes the nature of
voluntary performances may be quite ambiguous. Frequently then, the leader of the
ensemble will go by himself to perform to avoid possible misunderstandings, or
possible devaluation of the professional reputation of the ensemble.

In the ensemble’s experience, performing within the Chinese community is much more
difficult than performances for the general community. A major reason for this
difference relates to the values of those Chinese that head the organising committees
that the ensemble needs to negotiate with. These people are usually not from mainland
China. They seem more likely to maintain the older more traditional ideas towards
Chinese music and Chinese musicians. For this reason, and for reasons of promoting
and creating its own style of music, the ensemble focuses on exposure within the
general community, taking advantage of being in a Western society, and therefore
avoids the disadvantages and restrictions of performing within, and associating with,
mainstream Chinese culture.

The ensemble has frequently been recorded by ABC Music Deli. It has performed on
ABC National Radio, ABC Radio Australia, SBS Radio, and on 3ZZZ Radio. The
ensemble has also performed on SBS Television and on Channel Ten’s Good Morning

The ensemble has performed at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Melbourne (1989), the
Melbourne International Festival (1989-1993), the Launceston Festival (1990, 1991),
the First Chinese International Arts Festival (1991), the Australian Festival of Asian
Arts (1992), the Bendigo Easter Fair (1992-1994), the Port Fairy Folk Festival (1993,
1994), the World of Music Festival in Brisbane (1994), the Melbourne Moomba
Festival (1994, 1995) and at the Melbourne Chinese Spring Festival in Chinatown
(1989-1995). More recently the group played at an Australian Citizenship ceremony
(February, 1995), attended by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for
Immigration, played a two week season at the Crown Casino to coincide with the
Chinese New Year (1995, Year of the Pig), and performed at the National Folk
Festival in Canberra (Easter, 1995). The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble holds a
contract with Event Enterprises for promotion and performances throughout 1995.

The ensemble has performed at the University of Melbourne, Monash University,
Latrobe University, RMIT, and Deakin University. In 1993, with musicians from
Sydney, they played at the Australia National University in Canberra.

With the financial support of the Australia Council and the Victorian Ministry for the
Arts, the ensemble’s first self supporting concert was held in Melba Hall at The
University of Melbourne (9th and 16th of August 1992). Approximately 130 people
attended this first concert and about 70% were Asian. For the second concert there were
approximately 150 people and about 40% were Asian. In 1994 the ensemble obtained
other grants from the Australia Council and the Myer Foundation to set up performances
at the Music in the Round Festival. The audience reached approximately 300 at one of
these performances and more than 95% were estimated to be of Anglosaxon origins.


The Australian Government’s approach to the immigration question swayed community
attitudes and policies toward ethnic groups and thus indirectly influenced the
development of Chinese music in Australia over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s the
White Australia Policy severely limited immigration, and as a result of community
attitudes, existing Chinese residents remained in segregated communities. The
language barrier further polarised communities. The further consequence of the White
Australia Policy severely limited the potential to ‘import’ quality musicians. Musically,
the lack of integration of cultures stifled the acceptance of Chinese music in the general

The development of the Chao Feng Chinese Orchestra, one of the biggest Chinese
orchestras in Australia, at first was mainly influenced by musicians from Hong Kong.
In more recent times the further development of the orchestra was greatly aided by
professional musicians from mainland China. Accordingly, the Chao Feng Chinese
Orchestra has the significance of being a pioneer for introducing Chinese concert
music to the general community. Thus, since the Australian policy towards China has
become more enlightened, the opportunities for people in Australia to become more
interested in Chinese culture has been greatly enhanced.

In modern times, The Australian Chinese Music Ensemble is an example of a
professional ensemble with a high standard of performance. Its activities are integrated
with both the Chinese community and the general community in Australia. The
ensemble has performed extensively in Victoria but also in Queensland, Tasmania and
the ACT, and has recently accepted an invitation to perform in Taiwan. The ensemble’s
overall musical success, and its current aim to integrate with Western composers and
musicians, may be seen as a valid path that other ethnic music groups may wish to

Wang Zheng Ting can be contacted at


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