The sound collector: He’s on a mission to record every sound in Hong Kong

Aug 19, 2020

Andrew Kan hopes to preserve the sounds of Hong Kong’s natural surroundings before they disappear because of human development.

On a hiking trail in Hong Kong’s Kam Shan Country Park, Andrew Kan faces off with a troop of monkeys.

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

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

Kan, 26, is a freelance sound designer and engineer who works mainly on concerts and shows. But in his free time, he likes to be in the Hong Kong countryside, recording its natural sounds.

Andrew Kan makes a recording while on a hike in Hong Kong.
Andrew Kan makes a recording while on a hike in Hong Kong. / Photo: K. Y. Cheng/SCMP

After Typhoon Mangkhut caused widespread devastation to the city in 2018, he decided to systematically archive the city’s natural soundscape.

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

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

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.

“Sound is an important indicator of problems in the natural environment.”

Fion Cheung, WWF-Hong Kong

Field recordists track the sounds of wildlife and natural landscapes, helping document animal behavior, climate change, and noise pollution.

“Sound is an important indicator of problems in the natural environment,” says Fion Cheung of the conservation group WWF-Hong Kong.

Different seasons have different sounds, so Kan tries to head out on hikes year-round with his recorder and camera. To get the best sounds, free from human disturbance, he leaves at dawn, when bird calls are the loudest, or at night, when insects take over.

He’s become so familiar with the sounds that he’s able to point out certain species of birds or frogs just by the sounds they make.

“If we just stay quietly in one spot for a few minutes, we can hear the changes over time.”

Andrew Kan, sound designer

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

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

“People like to play loud music or talk really loud as they hike,” Kan says. “When we enter 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 he started recording two years ago, his sound library now has 68 entries, and it continues to grow. “I just want to keep doing this for as long as I can,” he says.

This year, Kan received funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council 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,” says the WWF-Hong Kong’s Cheung.

The bird calls recorded by Kan could help track the effects of climate change, she adds, since the calls are seasonal and can indicate whether the seasons are changing slower or faster.

Kan has started recording urban environments, too.

“Hong Kong has its own unique city sounds,” he says. “The sound of the trams and ferries cannot be heard anywhere else, and these are the sounds that people who have been away for awhile will point to as the ‘Hong Kong sound’.”

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

“When we listen to nature, we realize our behavior also affects it,” he says.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

Hong KongEnvironment


Producer and Videographer: Shanshan Kao

Script and Narration: Gavin Huang

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña