Chinese, Taiwanese choral societies help build community

05:00 AM, Apr 21, 2013

Cherry Tsang of Rochester has been playing the piano for The Chinese Choral Society of Rochester for five years. Sun., March 31, 2013. (MARIE DE JESUS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/

Written By Mary Chao | Staff writer

if you go

What: Chinese Choral Society of Rochester’s 30th anniversary concert featuring the theme “Flow, river, flow” with songs in Chinese and English.
When: 7:30 p.m. May 4; a complimentary food reception follows.
Where: Penfield High School Auditorium, 25 High School Drive, Penfield.
Cost: Suggested donation of $6 for adults and $4 for students and seniors. Tickets are available at the door and by calling Youti Kuo at (585) 377-0063.

If you go

What: Spring Concert by the Taiwanese Choral Society of Rochester. Canons of Music featuring songs in Taiwanese, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Aborigine Hakka.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 27; a complimentary food reception follows.
Where: St. Mary’s Church, 15 St. Mary’s Place, Rochester.
Cost: $7 for adults; $5 for children. Tickets are available at the door or by calling Peter Liu at (585) 802-2488.

When Shirley Lian moved to Rochester in 1980, like other immigrants, she sought out other Chinese people to connect with culturally.

Lian, who grew up in Nanjing, China, and works at Xerox Corp., has fond memories of singing traditional songs as a girl. It didn’t take long for Lian to find the Chinese Choral Society of Rochester, formed in 1982 by other Chinese immigrants who wanted to sing the traditional songs of their homeland.

Another group of immigrants started gathering more than 20 years ago and would inevitably have singing as part of the get-togethers. From that group, the Taiwanese Choral Society of Rochester formed in 1993.

The groups have become an important part of the Chinese and Taiwanese culture in Rochester, just as arts have brought together other immigrants such as at the India Community Center and Turkish Cultural Center.

The two choruses perform publicly each spring, usually one week apart, with a nod to the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration in May. This year, the Taiwanese Choral Society performs on April 27 at St. Mary’s Church downtown and the Chinese Choral Society on May 4 at Penfield High School.

Both groups plan to perform folk and popular music from their homelands — and offer a glimpse of their cultures.

To understand the nuances of the two groups is to understand a bit about the history of East Asia.

Some 400 years ago, people from the Fujian province of China started migrating to Taiwan, developing their own distinct dialect and culture. Because Taiwan was controlled by Japan in the first of the 20th century, some Taiwanese speak Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese. After World War II, Japan ceded the territory to the Allies. In 1949, the Nationalists moved their government to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the Communist Party in China, and many of their faithful followed.

Because of the differences in cultures, most of the Taiwanese choir hail from Taiwan. Members of the Chinese Choral Society are of Chinese descent from different East Asian countries with large Chinese populations, including Taiwan.

Both groups speak mostly Mandarin Chinese, the official language of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the Republic of China in Taiwan, although the Chinese choir gives a nod to other languages in its music and the Taiwanese chorus sings in a variety of languages.

We are not a political organization. We try to be inclusive. Music is our uniting factor,” Lian says, noting that Chinese Choral Society members are from a variety of different Chinese-speaking countries and regions such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

Chinese Choral Society

The chorus of about 40 singers is led by David Chin, 27, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia who serves as the current conductor for the group. Chin has directed several choirs, including the German Bavarian Brass Band and Liberty University Chamber Singers. He moved to Rochester to enroll in Eastman School of Music’s master’s program in choral conducting on a full scholarship and is now an adjunct professor in choral studies at Roberts Wesleyan College.

He is very enigmatic,” Lian says of Chin’s skills as a motivator and conductor.

Chin also shows his booming voice during a weekly rehearsal at Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church in Pittsford. Speaking in a combination of Mandarin Chinese and English, Chin tries to inspire his singers not be afraid to lift their voices.

It’s America. You have to be independent,” Chin jokes while coaching singers to be less restrained.

Many of the songs selected for the upcoming spring concert have the theme of “Flow, river, flow,” which signifies the group’s longevity and celebrates the 30th anniversary of its annual concert. Among the selections will be the Chinese song “Falling Water” and “Defend the Yellow River,” a song about fighting off Japanese occupation. Also on the program is “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” in English.

The choir also sponsors a school chorus each year to sing at the concert, helping them learn a song in Mandarin Chinese. This year, the choir from Park Road Elementary School in Pittsford will perform.

One of the goals of the choral group is to promote Chinese culture and music to all people in the Rochester community, young and old, says Nancy Wang, a founding member. The group travels to sing at local nursing homes, most recently at Gables at Brighton.

Taiwanese Choral Society

While the Chinese Choral Society practices in Pittsford, the Taiwanese Choral Society of Rochester rehearses weekly at a historic mansion on East Avenue, in space loaned to the group by a local Taiwanese businessman.

The group tackles songs in a variety of languages: Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Filipino, English and Hakka, the Aborigine dialect of Taiwan, says longtime chorus member Thomas Hsiang.

Members consider their singing a celebration of all the heritages that make up Taiwan, he explains.

Yunn-Shan Ma, 33, leads the group of some 20 Taiwanese singers from a variety of backgrounds and professions, from professors and students to engineers and stay-at-home moms.

A native of Taipei, Ma is pursuing her doctorate in choral conducting at Eastman and also served as a guest conductor for the Eastman Chorale. Her husband, Ming-Lun Lee, sings in the chorus.

Easter weekend, the group was hard at work perfecting a 1960s ballad from Taiwan called “Unforgettable,” a selection from the film Love Without End, starring one of the biggest Chinese actresses of that era, Lin Dai.

Wan bu liao, wan bu liao,” the chorus belted. Translated, “Cannot forget, cannot forget.” Just like the Nat King Cole classic of the same name, this Chinese version is packed with raw emotion.

Other songs include the Japanese “A Thousand Winds” and the Taiwanese “Blessings.” Not everyone can speak all dialects, so there is a lot of language work as well as music rehearsal.

The singing during the original parties thrown at members’ homes usually ended up with karaoke singing, says choral member Joy Hsiang, Thomas’ wife.

It was a social gather place for the local Taiwanese community,” Joy Hsiang says.

As it grew into a formal musical organization, the choir started tapping talent at Eastman as conductors and accompanists. A concert is held each year during spring to celebrate Taiwanese American Heritage Week, Thomas Hsiang says.

Connecting cultures

Music presents a great medium for people to reach across cultural barriers, says Peter Liu, president of the Taiwanese Choral Society.

The distinct rhythm and melody of our music should give a new sensual experience to the audience,” Liu says.

While many Asians attend the annual spring concerts, so do other members of the Rochester community who are interested in learning about different cultures, Liu says. There is always a reception after the Taiwanese concert, where members of the Taiwanese Association of Rochester serve sushi, moochi and other traditional foods.

Lian says she’s gratified to see a bigger mix of people in the audiences for the Chinese Choral Society. They also have a reception with traditional foods such as dumplings.

They follow us through music, and it’s a wonderful connection,” Lian says. “Music is universal.”