He did not suffer fools gladly - Portrait of Canon Roy Yin


by Russel Dias-Jayasinha

Canon Roy Yin, formally known as Roy Bowyer Yin, joined the staff of St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia in 1946, as Chaplain and choirmaster. A new era in the chapel choir was heralded with his arrival. He introduced the well-known annual festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas-time, which has become a yearly feature of the school choir during the festive period. No doubt his association with King's College, Cambridge, during the reign of Boris Ord, who was perhaps the greatest choir master of Kings', influenced his English choral traditions.

Father Yin, as he was reverently referred to by the boys of the college, was born on 7th October 1910. He was the outcome of a mixed marriage. His father, Dr. Swat Chwan Yin, was a highly respected and eminent surgeon in Singapore; his mother, Lydia Bowyer, came from a modest background and the British community overseas did not readily accept her due to her union with the Chinese doctor. The marriage was doomed from the start since Mrs. Bowyer did not comfortably adjust to the Chinese way of life. She resented her two boys, Roy and Leslie, being involved in the Chinese community, and there were many disagreements and rows in the family. Eventually, after four years in Singapore, Mrs. Bowyer brought the two boys back to England, and placed them in a preparatory school in Surrey.

Bowyer Yin later won a scholarship to the well-established Marlborough public school. Besides his natural scholastic abilities that he acquired at his Prep School, he had a gift for music. Throughout his days in Marlborough he established himself as a competent pianist and organist. Here he acquired his great love of church music. From Marlborough College he entered Cambridge University, where he established himself as a fine scholar. In his first year, he read Maths, and in his second he read law. He subsequently dropped law and took up History, graduating in 1932 with an honours degree in that subject. While at King's, he acquired an immense knowledge of English church and choral music.

Early in his career as an undergraduate, he was an atheist. In his second year, he spent much time thinking about religion, and became an anglo-catholic. After spending three weeks contemplating in a London chapel, he decided to join the priesthood.

Following his ordination as a priest, he was appointed chaplain of King's College Cambridge, in 1934. He spoke of Henry VI Chapel as if it was the finest treasure in his life. On a visit to Cambridge one weekend he gave me a guided tour of the chapel. I was astonished at his detailed depiction of each stain glass window of the building, and every carving - even those under the seats of the clergy. The chapel of Henry VI was the centre of his worship and song and he continued to dedicate himself to the glories of this magnificent building until his new appointment as chaplain of Hurstpierpoint Public School in September 1937. He spent the war years in this Sussex school, teaching maths for nine years in addition to his religious duties.

Then the urge to travel, mingled with a missionary zeal took him to St. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia in 1946.

His first objective at St. Thomas' was to create a fine choir and within a short period of time he had recruited a suitable number of candidates to form a nucleus of choristers. In that first year with rigorous training, the college choir flourished and the musical reputation of the school soared.

A festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, not dissimilar to King's, became an annual feature of the School calendar. The popularity of this service soon overwhelmed the chapel and speakers were placed outside the church to broadcast the event to the masses. As a choirmaster and wonderful organist, Father Yin demanded the highest standards. Rehearsals were sometimes tempestuous occasions. On one instance after a somewhat ineffectual morning's service, he stormed into the vestry and showered his full wrath upon us. I have never heard such an excruciating noise in all my life. All exhibitions and scholarships are cancelled forthwith." A few days later he said that it wasn't the fault of the choir after all but the congregation.

Not withstanding the occasional hiccups, the choir went from strength to strength. It was now within its capabilities to include works such as 'The Three Kings' (Peter Cornelius), 'A Spotless Rose' (Herbert Howells), 'Hymn to the Virgin' (Benjamin Britten) and many other more taxing carols into the Christmas Service. Encouraged by the increasing levels of musical achievement other works of greater feat were performed in the chapel. They included 'Hear My Prayer' (Felix Mendelssohn), 'The Wilderness' (Samuel Wesley) and other anthems and choral works. Nearer the end of his time in the college he gave a performance of Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' using the trebles for the chorus parts. Naturally adult singers from the community were engaged to sing the major characters. The opera was performed in the Lionel Wendt Theatre in Colombo. He never did anything in half-measure and his musical output was huge.

Once the college choir was firmly established, he found sufficient adult singers in the community to form a Madrigal Group. Within a short time, a suitable standard was reached and in 1955, a concert was held in Colombo.

Due to my great interest in music, he took me under his wing, and I got to know him better than most of the other students. He led a simple life, and he seemed quite content with his typewriter, and a picture of Madam Suggia, above the piano. Marriage was something he never spoke about. Somehow it did not seem appropriate to discuss the matter with him - it seemed too mundane an issue. Perhaps, one factor may have been the unhappiness that he saw in the life of his parents. He was never idle and even the tropical heat of Sri Lanka did not sap his energy. I saw him still only when he was listening to music.

An upsurge of nationalistic fervour gave schools the option of becoming Government run educational establishments, or remaining independent. St. Thomas' decided on the latter. Even so, all schools were obliged to favour the Sinhalese medium of instruction over an English curriculum, and naturally, that aura of an English public School deteriorated. It gradually became clear that the stress on the importance of Sinhalese made it difficult to pursue the advancement of church music. By 1960 he was looking for fresh pastures. Reluctantly and sadly, non sine lacryme, in 1962 he left St. Thomas' for Kuala Lumpur. He was unable to settle himself comfortably in Malaysia encountering a linguistic barrier where Bahasa was the spoken language.

Once more, he moved to Singapore and was overjoyed to find that he had an extended Chinese family. One of the happiest moments of his life was when he adopted his foster son, Peter Ang.

While in Singapore, he continued to work for the church and also gave tuition in maths during his spare moments. His sermons created a stir when he told his Christian congregation that they shouldn't be surprised to see non-Christians entering the gates of heaven as well as them. The Christian hierarchy in Singapore heard about this and refused to let him preach in some of their churches. "Never mind. I still have friends," he said.

To one whose achievements were unparalleled, he was somewhat of an enigma. A pragmatist at heart, he had the strength of will to resist sentimentality in any form, and hold steadfast to his firm beliefs. His refinements were the hallmark of a cultured and articulate person. His inborn intellectual talents set him aside from the rest of his colleagues and he left behind an abiding musical presence in the school.

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