On the icy morning of February 10, students from Avenues’ 4th grade chorus put on their winter coats for a short walk. Accompanied by teacher Mimi Hsu, hauling her electronic keyboard and carrying a bag of multicolored silk scarves, they filed out of the lobby with an air of quiet anticipation. Their destination was Hudson Guild, our partner in the Chelsea community located right across 10th Avenue on 26th Street.
For the second year in a row, the 4th grade chorus was off to give a special Lunar New Year performance for Chinese seniors at the Hudson Guild – a unique form of community engagement spearheaded by Lower Division music teacher Mimi Hsu. Before initiating the collaboration last year, Mimi had long been interested in channeling her students’ love of singing in Chinese into engagement with the multicultural melting pot of Chelsea.
Like last year, the chorus performed for an audience of mainly Chinese-speaking seniors who had gathered at Hudson Guild to celebrate the Lunar New Year (also known as the Spring Festival). With lunch waiting for the seniors at the back of the room, the 4th grade chorus got into formation at the front. After remarks by Hudson Guild’s staff and an introduction by Mimi, the students began their performance.
This year, the chorus performed a medley of five different songs in Chinese, a mix of jolly festive numbers, traditional highbrow pieces and colorful folk songs – there was even an original composition by Mimi! As a Chinese speaker who has lived in Mainland China and Taiwan before, I became curious about the selection of songs – where they came from, when they were written and by whom. After doing some research, I discovered that each song represents a different way in to Chinese history and culture, each growing out of a different cultural movement or tradition.
- Xiao Mao Lu 小毛卢 (“Little Furry Donkey”)
I have a little donkey that I’ve never tried to ride. / One day on a whim I rode him to the market…
A favorite of students in Avenues’ Chinese immersion program, this song’s happy melody and bouncy rhythm can often be heard in the corridors of the fourth, fifth and sixth floors. At Hudson Guild, the 4th grade charmed the seniors with the lively dance moves that illustrate the lyrics: riding a donkey, swatting its behind with a whip and being thrown off into the mud! The song’s origins are mysterious: all I could find was that it was written in 1960 by a man referred to on the Chinese Internet as “Comrade Lin Zhong-jiong.”
- Bu Yu Ge 捕魚歌 (“The Fisherman’s Song”)
I am not afraid of the roiling white waves / I hold on to the rudder and keep rowing
This popular children’s song was composed in the 1950s by music professor Zhang Ren-mo. Zhang was born in 1921 in China’s Anhui Province and moved to Taiwan in 1945 following the defeat of the Chinese Nationalists by the Communists in the civil war. Fascinated by the mountain folk songs of Taiwan’s aboriginal communities, he began to document them and eventually published several collections of these “exotic songs.” Inspired by the folk music of Taiwan’s east coast aborigines, “Fisherman’s Song” appeared in 1959 in Zhang’s “Hualien Mountain Journey” collection of compositions (Hualien is a rural county on the east coast of Taiwan known for its stunning mountain scenery and dramatic coastline). Shortly after, Taiwan’s Nationalist government accused several of Zhang’s friends of being Communist spies—an accusation leveled at many academics and professionals during Taiwan’s 38 years of martial law, which ended in 1986. Fearing that he would be next, Zhang left for Hong Kong and never set foot on Taiwan again.
- Molihua 茉莉花 (“Jasmine Flower”)
What a pretty jasmine flower, / Fragrant, beautiful, stems full of buds
This popular Chinese folk song dates back to the 18th century and probably originated in Jiangsu Province. It was one of the first Chinese songs to become widely known outside China, after a British diplomat noted its popularity and published its score in an 1804 travelogue. Created during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, between 1735 and 1796, the song’s lyrics describe the southern Chinese custom of giving the gift of a jasmine flower to a loved one. As a highbrow cultural symbol of China, the song was played during the medal ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
- Shuiguo Tan 水果攤 (“Fruit Stand”)
Watermelons, grapes, lemons, strawberries, peaches and kiwi fruit
“Fruit Stand” is an original composition by teacher Mimi Hsu. According to Mimi, the song was inspired by the fruit and vegetable markets of Taiwan, where Mimi was born and raised. The song’s lyrics mimic the calls of street vendors peddling fresh tropical fruits in the open air: “fruit, fruit, everybody come and buy fruit!” Arranged as a canon, “Fruit Stand” is a tongue twister, requiring students to concentrate hard as they rap the Chinese words, getting faster and faster and layering verses on top of one another. Like Mimi’s music classes (which are conducted in Chinese), the song challenges students while making them smile.
- Fengyang Hua Gu 鳳陽花鼓 (“The Flower Drum of Fengyang”)
No other song do we know how to sing / We only know the Fengyang song
Popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties, this Chinese folk song originated as a beggar’s busking rhyme in Anhui Province. The song’s lyrics describe the hardship of life in 14th century Fengyang County, where peasants fled famine and the frequent flooding of the nearby Huai River. The song’s lyrics blame Emperor Zhu, the founder of the Ming dynasty who hailed from Fengyang, for the area’s misfortune – according to custom, the Emperor Zhu took all the county’s good fengshui for himself during his rags-to-riches rise to imperial power, leaving nothing for local people. Throughout history, the song has often accompanied a traditional dance, like that which the fourth graders performed at Hudson Guild: twirling brightly colored silk scarves in unison, up and down, left and right. Nowadays, the song has strong associations with Lunar New Year.
- Miao Hui 庙會 (“Temple Fairs”)
The merry gong, the happy drum, beat grandly and clang / cymbals pierce the heavens
Written by Wang Meng-lin in the 1980s, this song describes and celebrates the local Taiwanese custom of temple fairs. Temple fairs are Chinese religious gatherings held by folk temples for the worship of local gods. Large-scale temple fairs are held around Lunar New Year and include temple rituals, Chinese opera performances, processions of gods’ images through the streets, and traditional dance troupes. Wang Meng-lin was associated with the Taiwan campus folksong genre, which originated in student songs on the campuses of Taiwanese universities during the 1970s. Influenced by the American folk music revival, the movement merged modern American and traditional Chinese folk influences and was associated with political activism.
- Gongxi Gongxi 恭喜恭喜 (“Wishing You Happiness and Prosperity”)
On every street and alley, / In every person’s mouth, / The first sentence you hear upon meeting / Is “congratulations, congratulations”
Songwriter Chen Ge-xin composed “Wishing You Happiness and Prosperity” in 1946 to celebrate China’s liberation and the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. During the war, Chen had been imprisoned in Shanghai by the Imperial Japanese Army for his back catalogue of patriotic songs. But when the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, popular music was considered ideologically suspect and Chen was labeled a “rightist.” He was sent to a “reform through labor” camp in 1957 and died soon after at the age of 47. The song has been a standard at Lunar New Year celebrations since its creation.
After learning the important stories behind these songs, I find it even more remarkable that they are as familiar to Avenues students as “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window” was to me when I was their age. That the 4th grade chorus was able to share these seven songs with a group of seniors was a moving reminder of the power of connecting with people who, though they might seem worlds away, are actually just across the street.