The untold, centuries old story of Pinoy musicians who migrated to Hong Kong

Jan Yumul

Posted at Nov 10 2019 07:32 AM | Updated as of Nov 10 2019 08:58 AM

Danny Diaz and the Checkmates. Courtesy Danny Diaz

Note: This interview is part of the author's short documentary project, "On the Record: An Instrumental Hong Kong Documentary", which traces the history of Filipino musicians' settlement in Hong Kong, for the 2019 ABS-CBN University Creative Documentary and Filmmaking Class.

HONG KONG—At 70, and with an illustrious career as one of Hong Kong's most prominent entertainers, Danny Diaz is tireless and impassioned. 

It's the same energetic combo that has effectively drawn large yet intimate crowds, filling a live venue where guests, mostly fans-turned-friends, get more than their nostalgia fix - months of anti-government protests that show no signs of abating withstanding, even if embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam had earlier announced that the contentious fugitive bill would be withdrawn. It was formally buried in October.

Diaz, notable for being a "one-person show" who seamlessly switches between the guitar and keyboard (including jokes) from one musical era to another, is the third out of nine children of the late Rudy Diaz, a Caviteño, and Marcelina Diaz, a Bulakeña. The couple arrived in Hong Kong by sea in the late 1940s and soon started their family.

Danny Diaz in his studio in Lantau during an interview with this author for "On the Record: An Instrumental Hong Kong Documentary."

Diaz is one of the last few remaining Hong Kong artists of Filipino descent from his generation, and whose family came to the former British colony shortly after the Second World War. 

"I was born in Hong Kong. My mom and dad met after the war . . . in Manila . . . 1946, '47 around that time. My dad was already playing professionally. Then, he had a band and he met my mom and they got married," said Diaz. 

Today, only three out of the nine siblings remain in Hong Kong while the rest are in Canada and the United States. Diaz shuttles between Canada, his "alternative base", where his growing immediate family resides, and Hong Kong or depending on where his next big show is.

The entertainer was once part of HK-based popular 1960s rock band Danny Diaz & The Checkmates (he played chess and beat his uncle, George Monson, a month after he was taught the game) as a guitarist and vocalist. They took part in a couple of band competitions, eventually changing their lives forever.

"It started in 1963. I was playing the guitar and, next thing you know, we formed a band. Just because it was better than hanging out in the streets and getting into nonsense. So, we stayed at home and we just formed a band. And we had too many drummers and too many singers until we weaved it out, just the four of us," said Diaz who was already a soloist working on the stage professionally at the time.

The all-sibling band was highly regarded as a top-notch group that defined Hong Kong's music scene from the 60s alongside Anders Nelson & The Inspiration, D'Topnotes, Fabulous Echoes, Joe Jr. & The Side Effects, Teddy Robin & The Playboys, Lotus, Magic Carpets, Mod East and Mystics, and The Thunderbirds, in which Bruce Lee's brother, Robert Lee Jun-fai, was a vocalist, among others.

Rudy Diaz, father of Danny Diaz. Courtesy of Danny Diaz 

Diaz said he got into music at the age of four, also thanks to his dad who "listened to everything" from Frank Sinatra to Louie Armstrong and Elvis Presley, to name but a few.

"I was listening to everything. And then I would mimic it. And I would sing the song . . . So he'd (dad) would get me up on Fridays. I get to stay up because after 1 (a.m.), he'd show up with all his friends, the show people. And my mum would get up and cook up a feast. And they would stay listening to records and talk and drink," said Diaz.

A University of Hong Kong study in 2004, "Minstrelsy in the margin: re-covering the memories and lives of Filipino musicians in Hong Kong" by Dr. Lee William Watkins, mentions that when the Communist revolution broke out in China in 1949, scores of Filipino musicians who had been living and working in Shanghai migrated to Hong Kong. They also relocated to Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, among others.

But the Filipino musicians' involvement in Shanghai's entertainment scene was said to have started in 1881 when a Spanish conductor recruited musicians in Manila. The same study mentions that in 1943, there were 143 Filipinos who were active in Shanghai, sharing the same music scene with American and Russian migrant musicians.

Some of these encounters were captured in photos sent to this author by Nona Pio-Ulski, daughter of Russian musician George Pio-Ulski, orchestra leader of the now-abolished Hong Kong Hotel along Wellington Street in Central. Nona runs the website Pio-Ulski.com where a wealth of her family's history had been published, including her dad's encounter with early Filipino musicians in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Early highlights of the relationship between Hong Kong and the Philippines can be traced in the 1800s with the exile of Philippine revolutionary leaders. Dr. Jose Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, Gregorio del Pilar, and Marcela Agoncillo, mother of the Philippine flag, which was also sewn here, among others, once walked the streets of Hong Kong. The meetings later paved the way for the archipelago's independence from Spanish rule in 1898. Rizal, who owned two clinics in Hong Kong, is considered as "the first overseas Filipino worker". 

Russian musician George Pio-Ulski with a Filipino bandmate in Shanghai in the 1930s. Courtesy of Nona Pio-Ulski Langley, founder of pio-ulski.com
Russian musician George Pio-Ulski with a Filipino bandmate in Shanghai in the 1930s. Courtesy of Nona Pio-Ulski Langley, founder of pio-ulski.com

Long before Filipino domestic workers overtook Filipino musicians in the labor export race, the Filipino musicians had been recognized as the first-generation of remitters in the city. Less stricter visa policies would later enable their families to join them. 
Unfortunately, not the same could be done for migrant domestic workers limited by the conditions of their two-year contracts, which sometimes run the risk of being cut short. 
 
"By 1958, Hong Kong was considered a paradise for Filipino musicians (Cheng 1958). The arrival in Hong Kong of musicians and songwriters from Shanghai presaged the development of the entertainment industry in Hong Kong. Cinema is the main medium through which development in the popular music industry in Hong Kong may be traced," Watkins' study reads.

It was also in this period, the study mentions further, where Mandarin flims began to flourish and Mandarin pop reached its height in the 1960s. And by this time there was a turn of events as the post-war generation matured.

"There was a demand for music with a Cantonese character and the other development was an attempt to keep up with the west. Western songs had Chinese lyrics and old Chinese songs were rewritten with English lyrics, since the English language had become a status symbol. Filipino musicians had by this time begun to make their mark in the music industry of Hong Kong," the study reads.

The role of Filipino musicians also broadened in this period as they were being hired as either songwriters and arrangers. They were the better, if not the best choice, even though they were sometimes viewed as lacking in originality. But their ability to literally play by ear gave them an edge given the growing demands of the evolving industry in Hong Kong then.

These developments also brought the Filipino musicians closer to stardom, not necessarily always in the limelight, but are also respected for their contributions behind the scenes. 

But even before all that, established singers such as Marcelina Diaz, whose Filipino hospitality generously manifested in the regular feasts she liked preparing off stage at the family's home in Austin Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, often attracted new friends. One of them ended up becoming a chart-topping global singing icon.

According to Diaz, every time his mother's friend was in Hong Kong, he would come to their house. The friend used to be with the British Royal Armed Forces. He would jump over the wall and "run to uncle Bing Rodriguez's club and sing". And the he'd be "put in jail" because he was not supposed to leave the base.

Matt Monro. Wikipedia Commons

"His duties expired so he went back to England. His name was Terry Parsons. And he became a truck driver. And after that the (1964) Eurovision came. And he joined it but changed his name. His name is Matt Monro," revealed Diaz. 

"He would come to Austin Road and he would eat kare-kare and he would eat adobo. Because he was into music, he never forgot Hong Kong Filipino musicians because we were the only ones that gave him a break and let him sing on stage. And he was damn good."