updated 23 Oct 2013, 00:07
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Tue, Sep 03, 2013
The Straits Times
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Keeping the family in tune
by Eve Yap

Singapore - There is little small talk in erhu player Chew Junru's family.

He and his three younger siblings are all serious musicians who would rather chat about finer points such as tonal quality and the "temperament" of notes produced by the Chinese instruments they play.

He says: "Our family conversations don't revolve around what to buy or where to go to eat or shop."

Their father, businessman Chew Sin Hwa, 55, encourages them - he thinks music is a "place where they can train resolve and develop drive".

Mr Chew is right. His eldest child, Junru, 24, has become the first graduate from Britain's 130-year-old Royal College of Music to specialise in a Chinese instrument.

An alumnus of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), he earned his Bachelor of Music degree in performance with the erhu last Saturday.

He is also the first Singaporean recipient of a scholarship from the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing to do a master's degree in erhu.

His three siblings, aged 18 to 21, are accomplished on the yangqin, the middle ruan and dizi.

His parents, who play no instruments, started the children on music from a young age. Junru learnt to play the erhu at nine while studying at Rosyth Primary School.

While Mr Chew recalls that there were frustrating times for his children in mastering the basic skills, they "were hooked once they were able to produce beautiful melodies".

His wife, housewife Koh Lay Tiong, 52, says she is the "more mellow one" in the family but enjoys listening to and learning from her four children.

In 2009, Mr Chew, who runs an oil and gas business based in Jakarta, led a Chinese chamber ensemble to the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod held in Wales, where it came in first in the ethnic music section.

In fact, since 2006, the family has staged at least eight Chinese orchestra concerts here and in cities such as Beijing, Jakarta and Kyoto.

Mr Chew, how much have you spent in staging or helping to run the concerts, some of which your children have played in?

Mr Chew: It's not about the money. Rather than indulge the children with expensive material gifts, we provide a generous budget for them to regularly attend and participate in concerts.

Ms Koh: It gives my family a sense of purpose. Organising concerts challenges my children to interact with different people and learn how to manage logistics needs.

Mr Chew: Many youth say they are bored. They are bored because there is no focus to fuel them.

Junru, you obviously do not lack motivation. How much hard work do you put in for your music?

Junru: During competitions, I practised for up to eight hours every day at Nafa. I did this for months.

Are you a traditional Chinese family?

Mr Chew: We are firm supporters of many Chinese cultural art forms, especially Chinese operas. But we are not a traditional Chinese family. Chinese heritage is our core value, our roots, but we distil and assimilate - though not emulate - the best of Western culture.

My children enjoy Western pop songs despite their classical Chinese music training.

Junru: When I was younger, I enjoyed bands such as Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit. Nowadays, I listen to fun., Coldplay, Maroon 5, Adele and Bruno Mars.

What do you appreciate about Chinese music?

Junru: In Chinese music, we don't just think in terms of black, white and grey - there are a few million shades of grey.

Mr Chew: Take the flute, for example. The Chinese play it differently because we don't just play the notes. We play with qi.

Junru, how is your relationship with your siblings?

Junru: They were my playmates when I was young. There was never a dull moment with them around.

Mr Chew: They argued a lot, mostly about music - Western versus Oriental, classical versus pop, and so on.

Ms Koh: Their relationship is a bit like an orchestra. You listen intently to how different musicians support one another, knowing when to give more and when to step back.

Did you cane your children?

Junru: Caning was mild, not beyond one stroke. Most times, it would be because we didn't want to share toys.

Mr Chew: Most canings can be avoided through persuasion. As parents, we may want order to rule for the day, but we shortcut the opportunities for our children to learn to negotiate and sort things out among themselves.

Ms Koh: There is a Chinese saying on caning: "Pain on the child's body, hurt in the mum's heart."

The threat of the cane became irrelevant when they were around 10.

Mr Chew, you were home only on the weekends because of your business. Did your children miss you when they were younger?

Ms Koh: I think my children coped well because their father called home every day and he's back weekly, like clockwork. So the children grew to trust him and not miss him.

Mr Chew: I tended to over-compensate as a weekend father. When Junru was in Primary 4 to 6, he developed many hobbies and always waited for me to come home to buy things such as rare Pokemon cards and Tamiya assembly cars for track racing.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently.

Junru: It's difficult to answer because, to me, I have perfect parents. They encourage and discipline in just the right amounts and give me space to grow.

Ms Koh: I'd take mother's advice to drive slower and take care of myself overseas so my mother wouldn't be so worried about me.

Mr Chew: In Confucian text 2,500 years ago, filial piety doesn't mean just obeying your parents, but the ability to change your parents' shortcomings. If I were Ru, I'd speak out more to a dad who is very expressive.

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