By Philip Yeung, a former speechwriter to HKUST presidents, and a joint writer of English lyrics for the University Anthem
For 32 years, HKUST has lived without a university anthem. Then on October 1, 2022, someone innocently asked after the playing of the National anthem, “What is the university anthem like?” That someone was Edith SHIH, a Council member, and the person she put the question to was none other than the Hon Andrew LIAO, then Chairman of the University Council (now Court Chairman). There being no anthem, he replied, “A good question! A great idea!" Then, he added: “The job is yours.” The next thing you know, the habitually low-profile Edith owned the role of being an eager midwife to the birth of the anthem which turned out to be “triplets”, with Chairman Liao as the happy “Godfather” to the project backed by HKUST President Prof. Nancy IP, and HKUST(GZ) President Prof. Lionel NI, both offering advice and support. Soon, a Working Group was formed to assist Edith Shih, including Founding President Prof. WOO Chia-Wei, three musically inclined Council members, Helen KAN, Peter CHEUNG and Patrick YEUNG and five other members, drawn from faculty and staff of both Clear Water Bay and Guangzhou campuses.
At first, everyone thought what could be simpler than producing a school anthem. Little did they see the unforeseeable challenges that awaited and ambushed them, as a result of two fateful decisions: Instead of commissioning an anthem, the Working Group opted for an open process with a call for submissions. In the end, a seven-member Selection Committee was established which included the renowned conductor YIP Wing-Sie. The committee had to screen 45 entries and winnow them down to a few for consideration by the Working Group. Adding to the challenge was the second decision that the anthem must come with three sets of lyrics— Putonghua, Cantonese and English and they must all be ready by early March. Ken CHENG, the orchestra conductor, thought it was tantamount to “mission impossible”.
HKUST has chosen to take the road least travelled. Other universities, East or West, adopted church hymns, borrowed melodies, or gave the job to a professional musician. But this university has turned the project into a collective labor of love that has stirred a strong sense of belonging.
This tight schedule demanded a slave driver, which is what Edith calls herself in her new role. Thankfully, she is a slave driver everyone can respect, if not love.
The process might be open, but in the end, the bulk of the work fell to people with an HKUST connection, past, present or future—not by design but by happenstance. With the exception of the Cantonese lyrics by a local expert Chris SHUM, the Putonghua lyrics was the handiwork of JIA Xianzhang, an incoming MSc student majoring in environmental engineering and management who is surprisingly steeped in Chinese classics; the English lyrics was the joint effort of Edith Shih who argued tirelessly over every syllable with myself, a former speechwriter to past HKUST presidents, with contributions from Dr. Isaac DROSCHA, our own music faculty. Edith the head assessor went over all three versions of the lyrics with a fine-tooth comb. The soul-stirring melody came from Kelvin YUEN—unquestionably the most representative member of this twin-campus university. An HKUST alumnus, he is now one of the founding faculty members teaching economics at the Guangzhou campus and doubling as an affiliate faculty at the Clear Water Bay campus. As an amateur composer, he has a habit of humming tunes to himself. The melody came to him as he was strolling along the banks of the “moat” that runs through the Guangzhou campus, with black swans gliding on the water. He is determined to conjure up a melody that is catchy, stirring and sublime for this young and dynamic university. He struck the right chord using the trumpet as a melodic line. Slow and solemn is out. Hummable and powerful is in. It is a stroke of pure musical genius.
Many doubted that this tip-top university of science and technology has any depth or diversity in artistic talent within its walls. But everyone is stunned by a talent parade that boasts vocalists LAM Kwok-Ho, a business school alumnus, now a rising freelance opera singer; Clara LEE, another alumna, now a professional singer; Edwin WAN, a fellow vocalist, also an alumnus, now a performing artist; as well as Lawrence TSUI, yet another alumnus, the versatile music producer who magically put everything together.
The large cast of contributors makes the process a head-spinning complexity. Racing against the clock while corralling a dizzying number of participants, Edith often toiled until the wee hours of the morning. One late February afternoon, with the English lyrics still being hotly debated, and the clock ticking down, the pressure became so unbearable that it caused Prof. Woo to ask with concern in his voice: “What’s the matter?” This caring query brought our iron lady to tears. If in your mind’s eye, you see tear stains on the music score, they belong to Edith.
The establishment of HKUST has been hailed as a major miracle. The birth of its anthem is nothing less than a mini-miracle. Margaret THATCHER famously said that if you want to get a job done, give it to a woman. Likewise, Chairman MAO believed that women hold up half the sky. Edith has done more than her fair share in holding up the celestial canopy.
As for the intriguing question on the absence of an HKUST anthem, the truth finally came from the horse’s mouth at a sharing lunch for the production team hosted by Edith. Prof. Woo revealed that the construction of the HKUST campus was supposed to take seven years. Instead it took just three. Next, he must scour the earth for 100 tip-top scholars willing to leave their comfort zone to join the half-born and unknown university. With a million things jostling for his attention, the anthem wasn’t even an afterthought.
At age 85, Prof. Woo, remarkably, has never missed a single meeting of the Working Group. He is mighty pleased with the final product, and no less proud of the process itself. It brought forth the best from everybody—student choir members, university orchestra players, alumni, academics, administrators, Council members and even former employees. They feel ennobled in every fiber of their being. In Prof. Woo’s opinion, our university anthem gives you the goosebumps, on a par in its emotive power with the French national anthem or China’s March of the Volunteers—unheard-of in a university anthem. In previews, it has already moved quite a few people to tears. HKUST has dug deep and discovered its unique magic. What should have been a mundane or mechanical process has stirred the soul of the university.
The birth of the anthem is the exclamation point to the long, illustrious and fruitful chairmanship of Chairman Liao whose love for this university sees him continue to serve as Court Chair. It is a precious legacy gift that he hands to the university community under the joint leadership of the incoming Council Chair Prof. Harry SHUM at Clear Water Bay and President Nancy Ip, a historic first female university president in Hong Kong. Perfectly timed, it also celebrates the birth of HKUST 2.0 with its spectacular second campus in Guangzhou, and the beginning of the exciting journey of HKUST 3.0 in the next 30 years and beyond. It is a goosebumps moment on both sides of the border, on both campuses, old and new, near and far.
A new day is dawning over Clear Water Bay and Nansha. But this time, the Red Bird finally has an achingly beautiful song to twitter across the awakening Greater Bay Area.