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Beautiful Purple Bamboos, Splendid Great Wall

The hard work and achievement of traditional Chinese music students and teachers in Oakland Lincoln School

The World Journal, NCM Award Winner, Monica Xu Posted: Feb 01, 2006

Tyler Thompson, a forth grade African American student from Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., has been highly sought after by mainstream media ever since a Wall Street Journal story featured the boy performing the Sichuan opera, Young Shepherd of Water Buffalo, in fluent Mandarin.

Thompson became another American alternative news celebrity after University of California at Berkeley engineering student William Hung achieved fame by singing off-key in the popular television show, American Idol.

Since both media darlings came from the East Bay and were closely related to the Chinese community, many in the community felt flattered with the attention but also wondered whether music education is useful if one could become famous by singing off-key or singing unusual tunes. In many ways, Thompsons story isnt unusual in the Bay Area: many non-Chinese residents in the Bay Area know how to speak Chinese. The Bay Area has multi-lingual schools such as the bilingual Chinese American School in San Francisco, and the trilingual Pacific Rim International School in Emeryville where non Chinese students can host, perform and compete in speech contests in both Chinese and Japanese.

Starting her search from San Francisco, Mirian Jordan, a reporter from the Los Angeles bureau of the Wall Street Journal, took five months to track down Thompson. The newspaper editor had enough foresight to put the article at the front page of his paper, one of the three largest national newspapers. The editor praised Jordans story, saying, At times when the presidential election is dividing the country, the report of an African American boy singing Chinese opera has warmed up peoples hearts.

Though the story is heart warming, it calls attention to two problems in mainstream media: First: the mainstream media pays so little attention to minority issues that it makes a big deal for what seems an unimportant news item. Second: most English-language media tend to feature politically correct stories on the front page, such as elections, murders and scandals, while Chinese newspaper focus more on political involvements, human rights and racial discrimination. But if the newspaper gets too political and serious, readers may get stressed. So sometimes the newspaper tries to soften up the tone and put on light-hearted articles such as this one just to tell the readers that world is still beautiful.

The Founding of Purple Bamboo Orchestra and Chorus

Since the Wall Street Journal reported the Thompson story, mainstream TV channels such as CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, KTVN and a few Bay Area Chinese TV channels all came to Lincoln Elementary school and wanted to arrange interviews with Thompson and his music teacher Sheryln Chew. Chew, who lived an ordinary persons life commuting between Twin Peaks and Oakland, now suddenly has her email box jammed with emails from all these big media firms.

In CNNs history, the cable news channel has visited Oaklands Chinatown three times. Believe or not, two out of the three were related to Lincoln Elementary School. The first time CNN visited Oaklands Chinatown was in 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton launched a social welfare reform. CNN visited the retirement home in Oakland to write about impact of new policies on Chinese retirees. Chang ZhaoXiong, who is now serving in the Hong Kong legislature, hosted the reporters. The other two visits were both in Lincoln Elementary School. CNN did an interview about 10 years ago when Chew established the first Chinese music orchestra of American public school at Lincoln Elementary School. After that CNN story aired, Arthur Lopes, who was the headmaster of the school 50 years ago and later moved to Spain, saw the story and phoned the school to congratulate for their accomplishment.

When CNN visited Lincoln Elementary School the third time, they came to do a story about Tyler Thompson.

You should not only focus on Thompson. Chew told every reporter who came to see her. In Lincoln, there is also Dominique Ransom, another African American student who can sing in Chinese. All other students also have opportunities to get Chinese music education and join the orchestra to improve their skills, she told them.

Chews orchestra, The Purple Bamboo Orchestra, has become quite well-known since its foundation 10 years ago. They have performed at many community events, such as the outdoor Christmas concert at Oakland plaza, and the East Bay flag ceremony to celebrate Chinese National Holiday. They perform about 20 times a year.

Chew still vividly remembers the first days when the orchestra was founded. For her, it brings back the memory of Taiwanese Chinese music master Sun Pei Chang, who once held the director position for the Chinese Cantonese radio Orchestra. All the instruments used in Purple Bamboo orchestra were originally owned by Sun. When Chew founded the orchestra, she was realizing Suns unfulfilled dream.

When Sun came to United States from Taiwan, he brought with him dozens of Chinese traditional music instruments and wanted to start a Chinese music orchestra. But due to various reasons, his dream never came to reality, and those instruments were left in his closet collecting dust. After Sun passed away, Chew, who once studied music with Sun in Taiwan, came to help Suns widow and found these instruments. Suns wife told Chew that these instruments could not be sold or given away, and it would be such a loss to throw them away because they cost a fortune when Sun bought them 30 years ago. The thought of raising money to buy these instruments to establish a Chinese music orchestra thus came to Chews mind.

Chew took action immediately. She first accepted $1000 from the Marcus foundation and donated the $500 she won for the Mason McDougal Award toward establishing the orchestra. The Chinatown Service Center also donated $500. When parents heard about Chews donation, they joined the fundraising and collected $2000 in one week. For a wealthier school district, $2000 could be come from one check from one parent, but for Lincoln Elementary School, where 90% of students receive free lunch, the $2000 meant numerous hours of hard labor in restaurants and small stores.

With $4000 of hard-won cash, Chew and her 15-year old son drove to Suns house in Los Angeles.

I could not cheat on my maters wife, Chew said. The twenty instruments she bought included Erhu, yueqing, dawan, xiaowan, yangqin, and flute.

Chew decided to name her orchestra the The Purple Bamboo Orchestra and Chorus.

Bamboo is purple when young and tender, she said. I hope these students can grow up as fast as bamboos.

The first American Public school Chinese music orchestra was thus founded. Later on Chew also added a chorus to practice Chinese chorus, and Thompson is now a member in the chorus.


Great Wall Carries the Torch

On every Saturday afternoon the sound of traditional Chinese music can be heard from the big music room of the Laney Community College. About 40 students usually rehearse together there. But if you enter the music department building, you would find another 40 students taking classes in classrooms of various sizes: those who study plucked-strings would play pipa, yueqin, daruan, xiaoruan; those who study flutes would follow the teacher and practice one tune over and over; those who study bowed-strings would play the Chinese violin Erhu; those who study the percussion instruments would stare at the notes on the blackboard and hit the drums with rhythmic beats

This is the Great Wall Youth Orchestra in the Laney Community college. It has another branch called Great Wall Youth Chorus, and Thompson is one of the members. Every Friday the rehearsal includes both Chinese and English songs. Both Orchestra and Chorus were also founded by Chew, who taught in Lincoln for 30 years but even longer in Laney. Next year would be her 31st year in Laney Community College.

What is the relationship between Purple Bamboo Orchestra and the Great Wall Youth Orchestra? Why is there a need for the Great Wall Youth Orchestra if there is already Purple Bamboo Orchestra? Chew has her own explanation: When the kids in Lincoln grow up and go to middle school, there is no more chance for them to study traditional Chinese music. The skills learned in Lincoln would go wasted.

But anyone can study at the community college, including both elementary students and middle school students. Some parents would send their children to community college so that they can take advanced classes. The students who study in the weekend classes in Laney belong to this category, although they study music instead of science.

Chew encourages both students and graduates of Lincoln to continue their education in the Great Wall Youth Orchestra if they are members of Purple Bamboo Orchestra. Students under 18 can attend school for free at the community college. Therefore, the kids from Lincoln Elementary School dont pay anything when most Chinese parents would have to spend hundreds for their children to study music.

Long before Great Wall Youth Orchestra was founded, Chew had already started traditional Chinese music education in Laney. It is dated back to1988 when she and her husband Xiao Shuo Chang created together the Cantonese Opera Class. Xiao was once the lead flutist in Canton folk music orchestra and thus was teaching music theory and history, while Chew taught vocals. They were the pioneers in Chinese music education in the States. Xiao has since passed away.

Forty Years of Devotion

Shortly after Purple Bamboo Orchestra was established, the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation was established. The board of the Purple Silk Music Education Foundation is also responsible for raising money for Great Wall Youth Orchestra, though the foundation was originally created for the Purple Bamboo Orchestra. The board currently has nine members, which include the dean of Laney Community College, Odell Johnson, and the director of Oakland symphony Michael Morgan. Joe Ryan, who has headed the board for the last nine years, is an education professor at Santa Monica University.

There have been four Chinese board members as well: Norma Lau, who previously served as Oaklands auditor, who passed away recently. Chuen Chen, the executive assistant for the Perata school district who had to quit her position due to busy work schedules. Mai Hing and Carol Quan, former education superintendent of Oakland, are the two remaining Chinese members on board.

When asked about her experience on the board, Quan emphasized that Chew was doing a very meaningful job. Music education is an important part of education, she said. Purple Bamboo Orchestra and Great Wall Youth Orchestra offer continuous education and the mission of the board is to guarantee their ongoing operations. This has become a significant part of Quans retirement life.

Chew is a forth generation immigrant who speaks fluent Cantonese and Mandarin. Her 40 years of devotion to music education is also a tribute to her teacher, Bill Somerville, who was once the president of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. Forty years ago Chew applied for a scholarship at the foundation. Somerville granted her four years of scholarship to fulfill her dream to study music.

For forty years Chew and Somerville kept in touch, allowing Somerville to be very familiar with her work. Although what Chew may not consider her achievements extraordinary, her persistence and innovative approach has won Bills praises. He said that Chew was their most successful investment.

May 28th next year will be the 30th anniversary for Chew at Lincoln Elementary School. She said that a concert was to be held to celebrate and showcase her orchestras at Oaklands Kevin Simon theatre. Two hundred students from both Purple Bamboo and Great Wall Youth Orchestra will perform together. She had gotten a discount for the theatre and obtain grants from both Philanthropic Ventures foundation and the California Arts Committee.


Hiring Famous Teachers

The instructors in Lincoln Elementary School and Laney Community College as well as the directors of Purple Bamboo and Great Wall Orchestras are a group of established classic Chinese musicians from both Mainland China and Hong Kong. Many of them were once members of the national orchestra or university professors. Over the last 10 years, the musicians include Xi Paishen (director), Zhao Yangqin( Yangqin), Wang Hong(multiple instruments), Zhao Gangqin (Guzhen), Yin Jinhan(vocal), Chen Jiebin (erhu), Zhen Wen (percussion), Zeng Jiwen (flute), Chen Yannong (Cantonese opera), Huang Guoshan (Cantonese opera), Liang Qing (dance), tan Yuqing ( Cantonese Opera)..

It is these teachers who are training an 80-member orchestra that include strings, percussions, and flutes. Current instructors include director Zhen WanPeng, flutist Lu Xian, Pipanist Liu HeChen, Euhuist Zhang Xiaofeng, percussionist Wang Wei, and Shi Tao. For them, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. While they are helping American children to study Chinese traditional music, they also have the chance to utilize their special skills. Some of the teachers have to drive more than an hour to teach. Wang Wei said: Ms. Chews training schedule is well organized. We were trained just like this as kids.


Facing the Financial Difficulties

The financial crisis in the California government also had impact on the education funding. The music education is the first to get cut. Starting from the new semester, Lincoln has to choose between computer and music education. After a poll among teachers, music lost to computer by one vote.

Some of the teachers who voted for music wrote to the school district that they firmly supported music education because the hands-on music education not only help improve students competence and confidence, it also provides a bond between the school and the community.

Somerville, the president of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation who has provided large sum of education grants since 2000, also wrote the school to express his concerns over the budget cut. The foundation gave Lincoln Elementary School another $15,000 to keep paying the teachers.

The vice superintendent of the school district later set aside part of the budget from proposition E so that Lincoln Elementary School can keep three days of music classes each week. From this semester on, Chew no longer has her own classroom. She can only use the stage in the student hall which is also used as the dining hall. When students come to lunch in groups, the noise level can seriously affect the quality of teaching. Neither can Chew assist any student privately any more. The three day schedule only makes it possible for students in grades three and four to have music lessons. Other grades no longer have the chance. For the other two days in the week, Chew is arranged to teach in an elementary school in Fruitvale where Hispanic students are the majority. Chew mentioned that she already founded a chorus there and would start to teach Chinese music soon. But her heart breaks whenever she thinks that some of the Lincoln kids no longer have the opportunity to study music.


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