Hsien Chew - Pink Singers and Proud Voices Asia

He/Him - Hsien is a member of the Pink Singers, London’s LGBT+ community choir, and the founder and co-ordinator of Proud Voices LGBT choir networks, based in the UK & Ireland and in Asia. Born in Singapore, he came to the U.K. for tertiary studies and graduated from the Oxford University with degrees in immunology and medicine. A practising doctor, he also has a PhD in molecular biology and a masters in international business. His true loves, however, are singing and travelling, and he is forever grateful for the realization that putting together choral festivals in different parts of the globe scratches both itches. When he is not working on his “choir-self” you can often find him relaxing with his “wine-self”.

Although I originally called Hsien to talk about his work with the Proud Voices Asia choir network, I was treated to an extraordinary conversation about London’s Pink Singers, queer life in several asian countries, and how queer choirs across the world create community. Hsien was a wealth of knowledge about the history of LGBT choirs and performance in the UK and abroad, but he also had a clear and obvious love of the people he has met, the places he has travelled coordinating and promoting LGBT issues in Asia, and the connections he is able to facilitate through this work. The way he talked about his friends, music, and colleagues was inspiring.

{Hsien} - The Pink Singers is Europe’s longest running LGBT+ choir. The group was formed in 1983 as the brainchild of Brian Kennedy. Brian was very active in the London scene: he wrote a pamphlet called “Kennedy’s Gay Guide to London” and was a reporter for the “Pink Paper” which was a weekly newspaper for the LGBT community. In 1979 he travelled to New York and San Francisco and heard their LGBT choirs, and after that trip, he strongly felt that London needed an LGBT choir of its own. So, he published an ad in the Pink Paper, and in April 1983, twenty people arrived for the first rehearsal. Back then much of the conversation was about fighting back against conservatism and the conservative politics that was so pervasive in the UK. As time went on, the focus of activism changed to the AIDS crisis and criticism of Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, which was a bill that prevented education of LGBT issues in schools. The Pink Singers were very much a part of that movement and, although presently in the UK we have near legal equality (if not social equality), the Pink Singers has never really lost that spirit of activism. The conversation now has swung towards discussions of intersectionality and bringing in those people in our community who still face larger systemic discriminations: the transgender community, ethnic minorities, disabled members, and bi-sexual visibility. Outside the UK, the choir also advocates for the inequalities felt in other countries across the world. The tragic irony is that the UK has had a hand in setting up those inequalities to begin with through colonialism and occupation. For instance section 377 of the Indian penal code, which was inherited from British Victorian law, states that “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.” In 2017, the choir dedicated a year of performances to bring attention to that terrible law.

The music the choir sang in the past was largely written for alto, tenor, and bass (ATB). Gender and identity politics made it hard to find anyone who wanted to sing soprano, so we kept everything low! In the beginning we focussed on 2 or 3 part songs. Over time though the musicality has progressed. People are now very invested in putting on performances of higher and higher quality and recognise that better performances make for better engagement. In the beginning, there were about 20 members. We’ve now capped our numbers at 90. Although it is hard to find rehearsal spaces for this many people, the main reason that we have a limit at all is that we are aware of the role of the choir as a community: we’ve found that if it gets too large, factions start to develop and choir members just don’t get to know each other as well. Because of this strong community, people often discover that they develop a wonderful sense of self within the group. I did! I had been out in university, but when I joined I had yet to reconcile my LGBT identity with the other parts of my identity: work, academia and everything else. Being so involved with the choir, and having my LGBT identity be such a strong part of that relationship, I found that my “choir-self” began to be much more recognizable in how I viewed my “everyday-myself”. I think before the choir, I viewed my “LGBT-self” as just one segment of who I am. If  you imagine it like Trivial Pursuit tiles, each facet of my life was a different slice of the circle. The choir helped connect those pieces together to make one whole. It helped me realize that my LGBT identity was actually the container into which all the other pieces fit.

I would love to say that this outcome is something specific to The Pink Singers but, in fact, it is the same with any LGBT choir. What is unique about The Pink Singers is its longevity and age. Because it has been established for so long, there is a drive to connect with newer choirs and really expand that network. There has always been an annual, or at least biennial trip with the choir around the UK, Europe, and even America. So I began to think about that platform,  how that interaction with other choirs worked and started to consider the benefits of formalizing that relationship a bit more. Every choir has knowledge to share, whether it be long-standing organizational knowledge, or new techniques and repertoire, so I was interested in how we could go about creating a network to facilitate this.

In 2011, The Pink Singers went to Bristol to sing with a fairly new choir there. Twitter had just started, and our two choirs began having twitter conversations about how to get together in a more organised way. These conversations led to the start of Proud Voices UK & Ireland as a network of LGBT choirs in this part of the world. Then, in 2013 when The Pink Singers turned 30, we decided to organise a festival of choirs as a celebration. Most of the choirs from Proud Voices UK & Ireland came to join us and it was a truly amazing event. We called it the Hand in Hand Festival. The festival has now taken off and we have a queue of choirs that want to host the festival in their own city!

I am originally from Singapore and travel back fairly regularly. Around the same time as the first Hand in Hand festival, I began to wonder whether there were LGBT choirs in that part of the world. I had heard from a friend that there was in fact a choir in Singapore, though they fly under the radar as homosexuality is illegal there. The next time I was in Singapore, I was lucky enough to meet them. I told them that we regularly have the chance to sing with other LGBT choirs in the UK and I asked if they had ever sung with another choir. They were completely unaware that there were other LGBT choirs in neighbouring countries at all! I began to search, and I found two other choirs - one in Beijing and the other in Taipei. Neither had contact with other Asian LGBT choirs. So, these three choirs decided to form Proud Voices Asia and start a quest to find other LGBT choirs in the area. Very soon after, choirs in Japan and Korea joined us.

In 2014, the European LGBT choir festival Various Voices took place in Dublin. We thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to bring the choirs from Asia to this event. We were able to find travel funding for them and I can honestly say how much of an eye-opening experience it was from their point of view. I have pictures of the Chinese chorus walking around open-mouthed and just shocked at everything they saw. After these choirs saw the Dublin festival and realized how much fun and exciting it can be, I really encouraged them to start their own festival. So, in 2015, Taipei put on their own Hand In Hand festival. Although there was not a lot of time to plan, we managed to get eight choirs to come! Groups from Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea were all able to travel and participate. It was truly amazing.

One of the challenges is, of course, language, but there are also huge cultural differences between the countries. These are countries that have centuries of shared history, war, occupation, and conflict. It makes for a very complicated relationship, and gay choruses are not immune to that history. These groups also have very different ideas about what it means to be “LGBT” in part because the term “LGBT” as a cultural signifier of identity is largely a Western concept. Part of this variation stems from vocabulary and language, and part from culture and how each country’s history shapes sexual identity. The World Health Organisation and the United Nations use the term “men who have sex with men” or “MSM” but that term, while functional, doesn’t come close to representing the complexities of external perceptions of identity or how people internally view themselves. There are also very different sets of reasons for why people in each country stay in the closet. Depending on which country you’re talking about, it could be religion, the law, or societal pressures and is frequently a mix of all 3. What I have learned through running Proud Voices though, is that the culture of each country really helps define how LGBT identity is formed. For instance, in Korea, there is a strong culture of protest and being vocal against opposition, so the choirs there also tend to be more advocacy based and visible. In contrast, there are the Japanese choirs which are more likely to be internally focussed and see themselves existing to provide a safe space for their members. When they organise concerts, they don’t always advertise them. In fact, they often won’t announce the venue until just before the concert. So, while it is a generalization, a Korean queer choir and a Japanese queer choir have fundamentally different ideas about what a performance is, and who it is for.

After the Taipei festival, Seoul was next to host Hand in Hand in 2017. It will be in Tokyo next year in 2019. We’ve found that, even in the few years that these choirs have been connected through the network, the groups have a new understanding of what their choirs can be. Through meeting choirs from other countries, they have vastly broadened their scope of possibilities. Where they previously worked in isolation, with the network they have found a truly international family.

I think the next step for Proud Voices Asia is increased infrastructure and organization. At the moment, I am the person connecting these groups, delegating the festivals, running the website, and setting up activities. At some point soon, we will need a more formalized structure with perhaps elected representatives from the choirs. Through that, I am hoping to ensure the longevity and growth of the network. As we hold these festivals, I am also increasingly conscious of the repertoire of these choirs. The idea of part singing is again largely a Western one and most of the music that is sung in these choirs comes from Western traditions. These choirs therefore often originate in cities and countries with a colonial past: Singapore, India, Taiwan, Japan, Korea. I would love for choirs to start in countries that have not had that particular choral tradition. Thailand for example has never had that level of exposure to Western choral influence. There is certainly some enthusiasm to set up choirs there, but  their challenge is that they do not have that specific history of part singing, although there may be an alternative heritage of singing to draw from. Fundamentally, if we are to see queer singing groups develop in other Asian countries we may need to expand beyond more formal definitions of what a choir is. I would also love to see the choirs that are flourishing evolve to greater acknowledge local musical styles. I also worry that the model of expatriate-driven choirs doesn’t always have the breadth of appeal or depth of reach into the communities they seek to cater to.

Overall though, what I’ve found from working with the Pink Singers and also with all of the choirs that are part of Proud Voices UK & Ireland and Asia, is that the community that is formed from these groups and networks is incredibly important to the daily lives of individuals. These choirs change peoples lives. Choirs make them happier, healthier, and more socially connected. They are a vital part of many people’s identity and the more we can help spread that into communities and countries that have not had those opportunities, the better.