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Published: Oct 21, 2005
Modified: Oct 22, 2005 7:31 AM
Song of solidarity
Organizers see benefit concert as first step in unifying the Triangle's Chinese community



Members of the Twelve Girls Band play a concert organized by Triangle Chinese American groups at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. Zhong Bao and Zhang Shuang, front, play the pipa, a four-string lute. Ma Jing Jing and Yang Songmei, back, play a hammered dulcimer called a yang qin and Zhou Jian Nan plays a zitherlike instrument, called the guzheng, to their right.
Photos by Lin Yinghao for the News & Observer

CHAPEL HILL -- As the clock ticked toward 8 o'clock Monday night -- before house lights dimmed, the audience in a sold-out Memorial Hall burst into spontaneous rounds of applause.

They were ready and waiting for the Twelve Girls Band, a multiplatinum act in Asia, making an eleventh-hour stop during their booked American tour.

Determined to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Zi-Qiang "Zach" Chen, a Durham resident, state environmental engineer and art and culture coordinator for the National Council of Chinese Americans, was the impetus for pulling the performance together.

But for him it wasn't just about raising money. Chen had a vision of a new Chinese-American community, one that would be a united social and cultural force in the Triangle. To get there, though, it would have to move beyond internal fissures.

As the group began playing, it looked as if it might have succeeded.

"This is nothing short of a miracle," Haipei Shue, an organizer and executive director of the 6-month-old National Council of Chinese Americans, told the audience of about 1,400. Shue drove six hours from Washington, D.C., to attend. "I never see the Chinese community this passionate, this excited about a cultural event," he said.

With a marathon-runner's frame, long, wavy hair and spectacles, Chen is easy to pick out in a crowd.

"He's the guy who makes everything happen," said friend Shue. "He's the guy who will get you in all sorts of trouble."

Although Chinese-Americans were not overwhelmingly represented among the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Chen felt compelled to rally his community to do something to aid relief efforts. After all, he said, generations of Chinese people have been devastated by man-made and natural disasters.

He also thought it was about time his community shed its image as quiet and complacent and got more involved with the larger social welfare of America. Besides Buddhist and other religious groups, the global Chinese diaspora is often perceived as aloof. In countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, where Chinese make up a dominant merchant elite, it has been a target of criticism and violence.

He thought of a benefit concert and the Twelve Girls Band. The group, which combines jazz, classical and world music with traditional Chinese instruments, has lately been all over the entertainment pages of Chinese-language newspapers and Web portals such as Sina.com. The ensemble has sold more than two million records in Japan alone, packed concert halls across Asia and appeared in television ads for chocolate and cell phones.

To Chen, who grew up in the Gobi Desert near Mongolia, it made sense to use music as a means to mobilize the community.

"Music speaks [to] everyone," he said.

Taiwan and Mainland

That unifying power would be needed to bridge factions in the Chinese-American community, which mirror national politics. The 27-year-old Triangle Area Chinese American Society has a reputation of being more of a Taiwanese club. The 10-year-old Chinese-American Friendship Association, more of a Mainland Chinese club.

"It's almost the rule rather than the exception," said Shue, of similar divisions he observes in Chinese-American associations up and down the East Coast.

Sometimes, Taiwanese and Mainlanders are polarized by genuine differences of opinion over matters such as Taiwanese independence. But self-segregation occurs for other practical reasons.

Decades ago, Mainland China adopted simplified Chinese characters and a Roman-alphabet-based Pinyin system of pronunciation. Taiwan stuck to traditional Chinese characters and a symbol-based Zhuyin system of pronunciation. Parents who want their children to learn their native tongue take them to different Chinese schools depending on what method they know.

Chinese American Society President Lily Chan, who emigrated at a young age from southern China, said the Triangle's Chinese-American associations have some overlapping members, and they welcome anyone regardless of political leaning or national background. But the groups' different makeup does reflect changing trends in immigration, she said. Twenty some years ago, Taiwanese made up the largest number of Chinese immigrants to the area; they joined the Chinese American Society. About 10 to 15 years ago, policies that restricted Mainland Chinese from entering and staying in this country relaxed. A new wave of immigrants created the Chinese-American Friendship Association. Its membership of about 2,000 outstrips the Chinese American Society's 1,000.

Scheduling the concert

Working with Shue, Chen made calls to try to make the concert happen.

The group had been scheduled to perform in D.C. on Sunday, and then travel by bus to Reno, Nev., for the next concert Friday. Even if the group waived performance fees, squeezing in a detour to the Triangle would require money for airfare and lodging. Despite hitting multiple roadblocks, such as how to find a venue at the last minute and get housing for the band's large entourage, Chen and Shue persisted.

A key turning point came when IBM and its former PC division, now owned by Chinese computer-maker Lenovo, each agreed to contribute $10,000 for the concert.

With that financial backing, the band's management gave a green light to the concert. The two umbrella Chinese-American organizations, four Chinese schools, a North Carolina Chinese-language newspaper and university Chinese associations quickly swung into action to sell tickets.

What was so great about the Twelve Girls charity concert, Shue said, was that the different groups worked together. "They [didn't] care if you [were] from China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. They just want[ed] to make the event a success."

Tickets sold out in three days.

United in the music

During the concert, mothers cradled babies or toddlers in their arms. Enraptured teenagers left Chinese-school homework untouched on their laps. Young audience members held up camera phones to snap photos. And white-haired seniors visiting from Shanghai, such as the parents of North Raleigh resident Sue Dong, bobbed their heads or hummed softly along with the beat of "Mountain and River."

Audience member Baochu Chang, 55, counted her seats as something of a miracle. She had tried to buy tickets from a Chinese school and the Chinese American Society. Both had waiting lists.

She found out organizers had given IBM and Lenovo a total of 250 choice seats to sell to employees. "I used all my contacts," Chang said. She turned to three friends, IBM employees, to help scout out tickets.

"It would be your lifetime dream to see these girls," said Chang, who has shared Twelve Girls' CDs with a few families who regularly meet for potlucks.

"I didn't want to disappoint her," Chang said of her 23-year-old daughter, Melanie Chin, an engineering doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was visiting at home.

In the end, the show raised an estimated $10,000 for Katrina's victims.

And it also made another kind of impact. Shue said the activism of the Triangle community, populated by many well-educated and technology-savvy Chinese-Americans, differs greatly from the traditional model of insular Chinatown communities. He joked that maybe his national public policy group should move its headquarters to the Triangle.

His group needs the kind of excitement and support that the concert garnered as it fights to pass legislation, such as a bill to spend $1.3 billion to expand Chinese language education in America's public schools, among other things.

Chan, too, hopes the solidarity exhibited at the concert won't die.

"Unity," she said, "that's how we'll have a voice."

Staff writer Peggy Lim can be reached at 836-5799 or mailto:plim@newsobserver.com

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