Last updated: June 2, 2012 12:07 am

Expat lives: Man with the golden harp

A love of classical music led Kah-Ming Ng from Malaysia to Oxford via Germany
Kah-Ming Ng on Broad Street in Oxford©James Royall

Kah-Ming Ng on Broad Street in Oxford, with the Old Indian Institute Building in the background

As musical director and harpsichordist of the Baroque ensemble Charivari Agréable, Kah-Ming Ng has toured all over the world, playing regularly for statesmen and royalty. He has played for pop royalty, too – Duran Duran booked him twice to play at their private parties. “It was surreal, actually, but fun. I wanted to take a Spandau Ballet CD for them to sign,” he says, “but I didn’t.”

Kah-Ming was born and raised in Petaling Jaya, then a small satellite town in Kuala Lumpur’s commuter belt. But it wasn’t music where Kah-Ming first saw his future, but rather civil engineering, which he studied at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

After he graduated, Kah-Ming was employed by an engineering firm in Kuala Lumpur that designed improved drainage methods. Finding the work uninspiring, Kah-Ming founded a choir in his spare time and started to organise concerts around the city. He caught the attention of the funding bodies that would later provide his music scholarships – first to Germany, and then to the UK.

“The move to Germany was horrendous,” says Kah-Ming. “I thought I was feeling feverish because there had been endless rounds of farewell dinners and recitals, but on the plane over Karachi, my chicken pox erupted.”

Officials allowed Kah-Ming to remain in the country, but only on the condition that he stayed in his room for the duration of the virus. “It was then that I really experienced homesickness – from being a big fish in a small pond and then being put into what was like solitary confinement. It was tough.”

Kah-Ming lived in Freiburg, south-west Germany, where he enrolled in a six-month language course. “The climate was completely different, but that didn’t really bother me,” he says. “The winters were freezing so I stayed in a lot and cooked Malaysian curries for my housemates. I actually got quite well-known for them.”

After the course ended, Kah-Ming began studying Baroque composition at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt as the DAAD scholar. He admits that as a Malaysian in Germany he was often an object of curiosity: “Though there were Chinese and Japanese, I don’t think many of my friends had seen a Malaysian person before so they would come up and ask questions. We were certainly a rare breed.”

In 1991 he embarked on a second scholarship to the Guildhall in London, a less turbulent move than the one to Germany. “The Guildhall had this amazing flat for scholars above Spitalfields Market in east London. It was a brilliant place and I loved the life – and the curries – on Brick Lane.”

A year later, Kah-Ming moved to Oxford to read for an MPhil at St Anne’s College and a DPhil at Keble College. “It was a great time because I had my foot in the professional world by then, so I was able to mix a bit of college with the outside life.”

It was at Oxford that Kah-Ming founded Charivari Agréable, with whom he reached the finals of the Early Music Network competition in 1993. Now on their 22nd CD, Kah-Ming says that the ensemble has prospered in the difficult economic times because they have carved their own niche. “In modern [classical] music, all the same repertory – Brahms and the Beethoven cycles – have been recorded to death and no labels are paying for any of them any more. But with period instruments there is still growth, and we are one of the very few groups doing source research, meaning we do the digging and unearth music that has not been seen or recorded before.”

Kah-Ming has lived in his 1920s house in Headington since 2003. “It is one of the most desirable addresses in Oxford,” he says, “but people don’t know about it. It’s very close to the ring road but it is protected by the Shotover Conservation Area.”

Today Kah-Ming finds himself back in Malaysia two or three times a year for family commitments and to play at various functions, some of them for the Malaysian royal family. “I was elevated to the aristocracy several years ago,” he says. “So I am now the same rank as two other well-known expatriate Malaysians: Jimmy Choo [the shoe designer] and Michelle Yeoh, the Bond girl.”

.......................................................................

Buying guide

Pros

●It is an especially picturesque city

●Oxford is convenient for getting to and from London

●The classical music scene is very strong

Cons

●It’s hard to get some of the food and fruits from Malaysia

●Though transport to London is good, the Airport Express coach journey to Heathrow and Gatwick is usurious

●Low-lying Oxford is a veritable pollen trap – irritating for hay fever sufferers

What you can buy for ...

£100,000 A very small studio, perhaps slightly scruffy, on the outskirts of town

£1m A four to six-bedroom period house in central Headington

Contact

www.breckon.co.uk

Related Topics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE