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Chinese Music in Vancouver

Chinese Music in Vancouver:

Over the past century, this community has grown in both quantity and quality to be one of the most important musical forces in Vancouver. The history of Chinese music in Vancouver directly reflects the social, cultural and economic backgrounds of the immigrants from Asia.

Cantonese opera

Cantonese Opera in Vancouver, 1944

Cantonese Opera in Vancouver, 1944

The first Chinese immigrants to Vancouver were from Canton (Guangdong); therefore, their musical activities at the time reflected their background. Between 1916 to 1941, a number of Cantonese opera troupes toured in North America and made stops in Vancouver. In 1930s, Jin Wah Sing Cantonese Music Society (振華聲) and Ching Won (清韻) were formed in Vancouver Chinatown. They are the longest running Cantonese opera houses in Vancouver, only interrupted briefly during the China/Japan war.

In the 1950s, Cantonese opera houses and clubs were again thriving in Chinatown. The most famous ones were Jin Wah Sing 振華聲, Ching Won 清韻, Ngai Lum Music Societies 藝林音樂社。Many men working in the factories and small business in Chinatown participated at these music clubs after working hours. They learned the music from each other and found comfort in this closed community only known to the Chinese immigrants.

In 1961, Jin Wah Sing invited professional musician Wong Toa from Hong Kong as the opera house’s new artistic director. Wong became the most influential master of Cantonese music in Vancouver for the next 30 years.

In the 1980s, a huge wave of immigrants from Hong Kong came to Canada. Unlike the early Chinese immigrants, constituted of low-income working class, these new immigrants arrived with better education and English language capability. Many of the men maintained businesses in Asia and traveled back and forth frequently. Their wives with the extra wealth and time were able to develop their interests in singing Cantonese opera. The opera houses became ideal community centres for social gatherings. As a result, many musicians were able to make a living by playing and teaching Cantonese opera. Many new Cantonese opera houses have been established. They are no longer concentrated in Chinatown, but branched out to Richmond, the new centre of Chinese immigrants.

Chinese Instrumental Music

In the 1960s, the Hai Fung Association was formed to promote Chinese culture. A group of young men participated in a Chinese ensemble under the association. (Some of them have remained to play Chinese music in their leisure time and are members of the BC Chinese Music orchestra). Starting with six to seven instrumentalists, the ensemble later grew in size and included female players as well.


Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble

In the 1980s, some amateur Chinese instrumentalists started to play music together weekly.  Many of them first learned the instruments as an extra-curriculum activity in the schools in Hong Kong. They had formed the Vancouver Chinese Folk Orchestra, which had disbanded in the late 1980s. In the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, a number of short-lived ensembles were formed by the past members of the Vancouver Chinese Folk Orchestra and other interested instrumentalists. This had eventually led to the formation of BC Chinese Music Orchestra in 1995.

At the same time, a number of professional musicians arrived from China to Vancouver in the 1980s. This has led to the establishment of Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble in 1989, as the first professional Chinese instrumental ensemble in Canada. The instrumentation of Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble resembles a “Silk and Bamboo” ensemble, popular instrumental form in Shanghai. The ensemble’s leader Jirong Huang (erhu) was from Shanghai.

World Music

original asza

Asza’s original members

Silk Road Music was formed in the early 1990s by pipa player Qiu Xia He. While Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble performs more chamber/classical ensemble repertoire and commissions original Canadian compositions, Silk Road Music develops the folk repertoire and collaborated with world music musicians, such as Celso Machado and Andre Thibault.

Asza, co-founded by Qiu Xia He, multi-instrumentalist Randy Raine Reusch, Uruguayan percussionist Pepe Danza and Brazilian guitarist Celso Machado — who was later replaced by French-Canadian guitarist and oud player Andre Thibault.

Tandava was formed as a world music band exploring the music of India, Africa and Asia. It is Vancouver’s first ensemble combining Chinese, Indian and western instruments as the regular instrumentation.

In 2012, Lalun appeared on Vancouver’s world music scene as an international collaboration with Israeli hang pan players/flamenco guitarist Liron Man with Vancouver musicians Lan Tung on erhu and vocals and Jonathan Bernard on percussion.

The Arrival of Taiwanese Musicians

Orchid Ensemble 2011

Orchid Ensemble 2011

In the early 1990s, Professor Jung Sen Tung (erhu player) was retired from his conservatory teaching positions in Taiwan and moved to Burnaby. He had organized a number of performances of Taiwanese musicians.

Lan Tung formed the Orchid Ensemble in 1994 as Vancouver’s first professional ensemble coming out of the Taiwanese community. In the next fifteen years, the Orchid Ensemble developed in multiple directions, encompassing diverse styles in its repertoire. In world music, it collaborated with Jewish, African, Persian, and Japanese musicians. In contemporary music, it commissions numerous new works from Canadian composers. In improvised music, it performs the improvisation-based works by its leader Lan Tung. This has finally led to the initiation of Sound of Dragon Festival in 2012, with an extraordinary grant from the Equity Office of the Canada Council for the Arts awarded to the Orchid Ensemble.

Contemporary Music and Contributions of Canadian composers

Mark Armanini & Vivian Xia

Mark Armanini & Vivian Xia

Since 1980s, a number of composers, including the ones who are not ethnically Chinese, took great interests in composing for the Chinese instruments. This has greatly contributed to the development of the professional ensembles in Vancouver, providing them opportunities to perform in the main stream society. By performing Canadian compositions, they are also eligible for funding to produce concerts and pursue tours.

  • Mark Armanini
  • Moshe Denburg
  • John Oliver
  • Jin Zhang
  • Rui Shi Zhuo

In the past fifteen years, many more composers have started to compose for the Chinese instruments. The resulting works are in diverse styles, for many new combinations of instruments.

Creative Improvisation

Mei Han & Paul Plimley

Mei Han & Paul Plimley

DB Boyko, Ron Samworth, and Coat Cooke invited non-western musicians in Vancouver to form Crossing Borders Ensemble. Since then, Mei Han and Lan Tung, performing the zheng and erhu, began to be regularly involved in the improvised music scene.

Mei Han and Randy Raine-Reusch formed a duo of two zheng, performing their compositions structured for improvisation. Later Mei Han’s duo with Paul Plimley toured in China, bringing improvisation back to Asia.

Lan Tung formed Proliferasian to perform her own compositions for improvisers, fusing jazz with Chinese traditions in unique compositions.

Popular Music Influences



At this time, the 12 Girls Band became a commercial success in Asia. The record company in China hired young musicians from the conservatories to form a band. Playing popular music on traditional Chinese instruments, over pre-recorded sound tracks of western keyboard, drum set and sound effects, combined with short skirts and choreography, this became a new trend in Asia. Many new bands were formed in Asia, and eventually, this influence has come to Canada. Without the media and record companies in Asia, Pentatonics represents a young generation of Chinese musicians, gathering together to create their own music.

Sound of Dragon – Building a Community

After over 100 years since Chinese music was first introduced to our city, this is Vancouver’s first Chinese music festival. Not only the public can experience Chinese music in different context, the Chinese music community can learn from each other and exchange ideas. The students of Chinese instruments are exposed to various possibilities to apply their skills in different musical genres and are encouraged to create their own music.

Breaking the boundaries of nationalities, ethnicities, and genres, Sound of Dragon is the uniting force of Chinese music in Vancouver. It is also the only professional music presenter in Canada devoted to presenting music of Chinese roots.