TEO SENG CHONG | The man who brought the Chinese orchestra to Sabah

Chinese painting of happy, musical tadpoles and frogs Teo Seng Chong

[SabahSongs thanks Yap Keng Vui for translating all the conversations with Teo Seng Chong in this post.]

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TEO SENG CHONG arrived in Sabah in 1986 at the invitation of Tshung Tsin Secondary School, to bring Chinese orchestral music into Sabah. He is now Head of Music at Tshung Tsin, and today there are ten schools in Sabah with Chinese orchestras; seven independent schools and three primary schools.

In 2001, Teo conducted a 578-strong Chinese orchestra, “Symphony Below The Wind”, and for that, Tshung Tsin Secondary School went into the Malaysia Book of Records for organising the largest orchestra concert in Malaysia.

In 2005, Teo received the 5th Malaysia Performance Art Heritage Award, an individual achievement award, for his work preserving and perpetuating traditional culture. The event was sponsored by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, and organised by the Hainanese Association of Selangor and Federal Territories.

Why the Chinese orchestra was formed in Sabah

In 1979 a cultural event took place at the ISTANA palace, in Kota Kinabalu. Dignitaries representing all cultural groups were present. In the Malay performance, dancers were accompanied by musicians playing traditional gongs. In the Kadazan performance, local musicians played sompotons and bamboo flutes. In the Chinese performance, somebody put on a cassette tape which played Chinese music.

A Malay minister turned to minister Datuk Chau Tet On [who is Chinese], and asked him, Why are there no live instruments? The Chinese culture is thousands of years old, where is this culture now, in Sabah?

The Datuk took this to heart. He contacted the Principal of Tshung Tsin school who was, at that time, Datuk Chang Yu On. Both men agreed that this was an important matter. The school must have a orchestra. This was in 1979.

Some six years later, Tshung Tsin found Teo Seng Chong in Johor, where he was teaching five Chinese school orchestras. Teo was 32 years old when he came to Sabah.

“I loved Chinese music from a very young age. I did not have musical parents, but I listened to the radio, watched all the visiting Chinese opera troupes, and studied the old folk who used to play traditional Chinese instruments”, Teo said.

As a youth, Teo learnt to play Chinese traditional instruments by himself. He now teaches all the instruments in the Chinese orchestra, since he is Sabah’s only teacher of this music. In Tshung Tsin school, over a hundred children play instruments. He trains the secondary students, so that they can teach the primary ones on Saturdays.

All Tshung Tsin school’s first traditional instruments came from China. As the only person in Sabah who knows anything about these instruments, Teo has had to learn how to repair them when when they break down, and eventually how to make new ones.

Here is Teo Seng Chong holding an Erhu he made himself. The Erhu is made of hardwood and snakeskin, in this case python. Python skin from Vietnam or Burma is most commonly used.

Teo Seng Chong ERHU Chinese bowing instrument

“I have flown to China on a few occasions, to see how the masters of the craft do their work. But it’s difficult to learn. I can only learn by watching, peeking even, because no-one will teach you. This is traditional craftsmanship which is handed down to the children, not to outsiders.

Because of this, I have had to do a lot of experimenting: it is one thing to learn about the shape and mechanical function of an instrument, it is another thing to learn how to control the sound coming from it.

Teo approached the heads of the different Chinese Associations, and urged them to form orchestras. They did, and he teaches them all in Mandarin [rather than the local dialects such as Hakka, Hokkien and Foo Chow.]

“In the beginning, it was the old folk who wanted to play in the orchestra. Later, when the young children saw them playing, they started to join in,” Teo said.

Teo and Yap took me to the Chinese Orchestra Studio in the school Activity Center, which is a 7-storey building. Yap said at the time [circa 1995], Tshung Tsin was the only school in Sabah to dedicate an entire building to activities outside classwork.

Yap and Teo on the ground floor of the school Activity Centre.

A bit about Chinese orchestral music

Generally, a collection of over 20 musicians can be considered a small orchestra; 100+ would be a large orchestra, Teo said.

One of the main instruments in the orchestra is the Guzheng, or Chinese Harp. It has 21 strings forming notes on the pentatonic scale. The strings are now made of steel with silk or plastic binding. In the days before steel, all strings were made of silk.

A Chinese orchestra has four types of instruments:

Wind instruments. Eg. Chinese flute, Suona, Sheng

Suona Chinese wind instrument Chinese oboe Teo Seng Chong

SHENG Chinese free reed instrument  Teo Seng Chong

Bowed instruments. Eg. Erhu, Gaohu, Zhonghu. Tshung Tsin uses Western Cello and Double Bass for the low range bowing sounds.

Erhu Chinese bowed instrument Teo Seng Chong

Plucked instruments. Eg. Guzheng, Pipa]

In this video, Teo Seng Chong plays a Da Ruan [from the same family as the Yueqin or Moon Guitar], Gaohu and Zhonghu. Yap plays the Pipa.


Among the various percussion instruments below are two sets of gongs. On the left is a set of 36 gongs. On the right, is what is called “The 13 Faces” set of gongs.

Chinese gongs 13 gong set, 36 gong set, tympani, chimes pipes, Teo Seng Chong, Tshung Tsin school kota kinabalu

I saw some scores where Chinese notation was being transcribed into a Western orchestral score. On the right page, 1 = Do, 2 = Re, 3 = Me.

But Teo said this is not genuine Chinese notation. The Western missionaries who went to China wanted to teach the Chinese how to read Western music, to get them to sing hymns. They created musical notation which both cultures could understand: fusion notation!

comparison of Western music score and Chinese music notation

In 2000, Tshung Tsin recorded the first CD of Chinese orchestral music in Sabah. Among the tracks were orchestral interpretations of Kadazan songs from Sabah, and Rasa Sayang.

CD "Sentiments of Mount Kinabalu" by Tshung Tsin Chinese Orchestra

Teo Seng Chong’s ongoing quest has been to fuse Sabah’s local music elements into Chinese orchestral works.

[Simon Kong, Teo’s former student at Tshung Tsin and now a composer and conductor in his own right, has also been doing this – to international acclaim. More about him in another post.]

Here is the preface to a score of Teo’s work “Keindahan Kampung”, one of his many compositions where characteristics of Sabah’s local music are brought into a Chinese orchestra score.

Teo said cultural exchange is important, and Tshung Tsin Secondary School Chinese orchestra has been to Hong Kong for two consecutive years. It has also been to Taiwan, Shanghai and KL. Tshung Tsin has also hosted orchestras from overseas.

[In fact, this interview was conducted because of a cultural exchange: the Shanghai Sun-Wen-Yan Guzheng Art Studio came to KK to perform at Tshung Tsin, as part of the school annual orchestral concert. Here is the post.]

Another cultural exchange is The Chinese Music Orchestra Grouping, which is a North Borneo island event held every two years. Orchestras in the region come together, there is a group practice and then a group performance.

In 2001, 9 orchestras from Sabah, 3 from Johor, 2 from Sarawak and 2 from Singapore joined together to form “Symphony Below The Wind”. Teo Seng Chong conducted this orchestra, which entered the Malaysia Book of Records as the largest orchestra performance in the country.

Click on the picture below to make it big. Teo Seng Chong is conducting, in the centre.

Symphony Below The Wind, conducted by Teo Seng Chong. Malaysian Book of Records 2001

Teo has a friend who is an artist. He was inspired to paint about all this musical work. In this painting are a lot of little tadpoles, growing into happy frogs, making music among the bright flowers blooming everywhere. And the biggest frog? The Conductor, of course!

Chinese painting of happy, musical tadpoles and frogs Teo Seng Chong

The picture does say it all: that one man can be the catalyst for so much beautiful music. And The Conductor, what does he say?

I do this, because I love the music. Not because of anything else. Teo Seng Chong



  1. I knew Yap! My senior, Mr Teo was my teacher back then, I used to watch the Chinese Orchestra and the concert band a few times a year when they perform in school.

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