Nature buff’s passion project takes him to wide open spaces, recording sounds of HK

14-Jul-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

At a hiking trail by Kowloon Reservoir in Kam Shan Country Park, Andrew Kan Hei-chun faces off with a troop of monkeys.

The sound designer is not on a mission to trap or feed the rhesus macaques. Instead, he is trying to record their soft calls, as part of a project to create a “sound map” of Hong Kong.

“I’m worried the country parks might be destroyed at any point, either by hill fires or development. Nature could disappear anytime,” he said.

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Kan, 26, a freelance sound designer and engineer working mainly on concerts and shows, spends his free time heading out to Hong Kong’s countryside.

After 2018′s Typhoon Mangkhut caused widespread devastation, uprooting trees in urban and rural areas, he decided to archive the city’s natural soundscape systematically.

He was also struck by the lack of recordings of Hong Kong’s forest sounds, that producers rely on to create soundtracks.

Every trip I take, I discover unexpected surprises

Andrew Kan, sound engineer

“Those available are usually from the Amazon rainforest or national parks overseas, but Hong Kong is also ecologically diverse. So I decided to start recording sounds myself,” he said.

He hopes the project he started in 2018 will encourage Hongkongers to pay more attention to their city’s many country parks.

“The most interesting thing about natural sounds is that you never know what you will hear from one second to the next. Every trip I take, I discover unexpected surprises,” he said.

With his project, Kan joins the ranks of field recordists who document the sounds of different environments. The art of field recording began in the late 1800s, at first driven by a fascination with nature.

It is now regarded as a form of conservation, tracking the sounds of wildlife and natural landscapes, and helping to document animal behaviour, climate change and noise pollution.

Fion Cheung Ka-wing of the conservation group WWF-Hong Kong said: “Sound is an important indicator of problems in the natural environment.”

Kan’s project reminded her of environmentalist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, about the effects of the pesticide DDT on wildlife, which silenced birds and insects.

Kan calls his project “AK in KK”, after his initials and KK, the map coordinate codes along the city’s hiking trails.

Different seasons have different sounds, so Kan tries to head out on hikes year-round with his recorder and camera. While he has started recruiting volunteers to help with recording, he prefers venturing out alone to minimise causing disturbance.

He is able to point out certain species of birds or frogs just by the sounds they make, and he falls silent when the loud buzzing of cicadas starts.

“I really like the feeling of being surrounded by the cicada calls. It’s like suddenly, your sense of space no longer exists,” he said.

To get the best sounds, free from human disturbances, Kan heads out into the mountains at Hong Kong’s various country parks at dawn, when bird calls are loudest, or at night, when insects take over. Recording monkeys is risky, as they tend to try and snatch things, so Kan has to hide his equipment.

“We hear lots of different things along the hike, and if we just stay quietly in one spot for a few minutes, we can hear the changes over time,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, there are some man-made noises Kan cannot avoid. Planes land and take off from Hong Kong International Airport, while his sensitive equipment can pick up even distant traffic sounds.

Although aircraft sounds decreased after the Covid-19 pandemic cut demand for air travel dramatically, human noises rose as more Hongkongers have begun flocking to country parks.

“People like to play loud music as they hike, or speak loudly,” Kan said. “When we enter the country parks, we should respect other people and the animals that live here. Noise pollution is already forcing birds to change the pitch and volume of their calls.”

Since starting out two years ago, his sound map now stretches from Lantau Island in the west to Cape D’Aguillar in the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island, but most of his recordings are from Pok Fu Lam, where he lives.

His growing sound library now has 68 entries. “I just want to keep doing this for as long as I can,” he said.

Kan received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council this year for his project.

“This is a valuable project because it can help with environmental monitoring work in addition to helping ordinary people feel more relaxed,” said WWF-Hong Kong’s Cheung, the nature group’s flyway planning and training manager, who studies bird migration paths.

The bird calls recorded by Kan could help track the effects of climate change, she added, as these calls were seasonal and could indicate whether the seasons were changing slower or faster.

Kan has started recording in urban environments too. “Hong Kong has its unique city sounds,” he said. “The sound of the trams and ferries cannot be heard anywhere else, and these are the sounds that people who have been away for a while pinpoint as the ‘Hong Kong sound’.”

He has put his recordings on his website and welcomes visitors to listen, free of charge.

Finance worker Skyla Wang, 30, said visiting the website made her want to go camping. “The sound of crickets and cicadas reminds me of a warm summer night and also brings back childhood memories,” she said. “It makes me feel like I left the city for a moment.”

That is exactly the response Kan welcomes, as he hopes people will explore the city’s country parks themselves to listen and learn to respect and feel closer to nature.

“When we listen to nature, we realise our behaviour also affects it,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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