Songs, Chinese-American style


By Stephen Nessen

They were all over Chinatown last week. From the fireworks ceremony that kicked off the Chinese Lunar New Year, to performances at City Hall, to the parade in Chinatown on Sunday. The Manhattan Amateur Art Association and Columbus Park Music Club has been training all year for this.

With New York’s Chinese community now strewn across the boroughs, and often priced out of Chinatown, this group of mostly retired Chinese immigrants gathers every week to meet old friends, share gossip, and sing nostalgic songs from their youth. At major events, like Chinese New Year, their song and dance routines, drumming, and fan dancing are in high demand.

If they were disappointed to be last in line at the parade on Sunday, they didn’t show it. Stuck at the corner of Mott and Broome Sts. the group’s founder, Chu Yun Wang, broke out his accordion and launched into a song about Mongolia. The 15 or so members of the group harmonized with him. A good size crowd gathered and the singers passed the hour and a half before the parade began, breathlessly working through their repertoire. When the crowds eventually dispersed, the group sang on anyway.

The group has officially 130 members and in the summer you can find any number of them at the Columbus Park pavilion thumbing through well-worn songbooks, singing, dancing, and often dissing each other. It’s their weekly jam session complete with constant competition for the microphone. “It has a little taste of American Idol,” but with Chinese characteristics, said one of the members. In the winter they practice indoors at the Chinatown YMCA on Hester St.

A novelty to many New Yorkers, this public display of unrestrained singing is commonplace in China. Retirees often spend long hours caring for grandchildren. When night comes, they are relieved of babysitting duties, and hit the streets. Occupying any available piece of public space they rig makeshift amplifiers with long extension cords. They find musicians or just sing along with a CD. Singers and dancers wave paper fans and belt out nostalgic love songs, folk ditties, and even odes to Mao.

In New York the singers are restricted to Columbus Park, indoor venues, and Lunar New Year parades. Sometimes they perform at the library at Pace High School and Gouverneur Hospital.

“When we were young we loved singing and dancing, but we had no time. We had to raise a family and work,” said Huang Ju Mei, 60, a kindergarten teacher in Queens, and vice president of the group. Most regular attendees she says are retired, but only receive services Monday to Friday so the group provides support and a place to socialize on the weekend.

Unlike the heart warming 2007 documentary “Young at Heart,” which features a sexagenarian chorus group that travels the U.S. performing songs by Outkast, The Clash, and Coldplay, the Columbus Park group sticks to the classics. “I don’t like the old stuff but people grew up with that and love to sing the old songs,” Huang said. “The audience is pretty old so they love those songs too.”

The group is however the subject of their own documentary. “They provide a sense of home in Chinatown for the elderly who are disconnected with the majority in this country,” said filmmaker Keicheung Lo, 27. “The group helps unify the overseas Chinese and promotes Chinese culture. I’m an immigrant myself, and I came to this country, looked up our own history, and wondered why our own people have to migrate to a other lands.”

Huang was the only fluent English and Mandarin speaker in the group when she joined in November 2005. She is also the grant writer. They receive four government grants for renting space, purchasing costumes, and hiring a professional Chinese choral teacher. They have become staples at Chinatown’s public events, cultural ambassadors of Chinese music.

Many of the members lived through the Cultural Revolution. Nostalgic love songs were banned at that time, “We could only sing government songs. We always hid our art. Now we are free and have the time,” Huang said.

But it’s not all fun and games. Many members are vying for the coveted position as a soloist at the major concerts.

Huang is a scrupulous leader. “If you can’t sing, and are out of key, you should stay in class. Not everyone agrees with me…When I ask people to learn new song, they say, ‘We’re just amateurs, not professionals?’ That creates a bottleneck. We can’t keep repeating the same songs for the community.”

Another soloist acknowledges an undercurrent of tension in the group, “There’s a little discomfort with me. For every song I sing someone else doesn’t get to. I’m very careful about learning the songs though. I don’t want to embarrass the group. Luckily I haven’t so far.”

But she has a reason to be nervous. That’s because she is the only non-Chinese singer in the group. “I may like a tune, but I don’t have to analyze it,” she said.

Born in Queens, Rima Strauss, 54, began singing Chinese late in life.

In September 2007, with a bagel and coffee in hand, Strauss ventured over to Seward Park.

She heard shrill singing and went to look. A Chinese man approached her, and in halting English, asked if she would sing an English song. To his delight Strauss said she would sing, but only a Chinese song. Having spent a few years in China in the early ‘80s she had picked up basic Mandarin and a few songs.

Huang invited her to Columbus Park the following weekend. “It was like camp,” Strauss said. “It was such a great time. I noticed how friendly people were. It’s unbelievable. It’s fantastic.”

The parade on Sunday began an hour late, and the group had already been singing for two straight hours by the time things got moving. But they sang on, barely audible over the drumming group in front of them. Their makeshift amplifier and microphone batteries were long dead, but nobody minded, they were meeting later to sing a few more songs in Sara D. Roosevelt Park later anyway.