Catching Up: My Small Adventure in Chinatown

Still, New York in June:

On one Sunday, I had a delicious lunch in Little Italy and then walked south on Mulberry Street, crossing Canal Street into Chinatown.  I angled my way through the tourist hordes until I got past them to a quieter street and came upon a small park.  (Columbus Park–I didn’t know the name at the time, but have since found it on a map.)

The park’s narrow, winding path was filled with various Chinese music groups, from small ensembles to small orchestras, most with singers– each singer armed with a body mic, all competing with each other at the top of their lungs in a space certainly no larger than DuPont Circle.  Their audiences sat on benches or stood along the sides of the path, listening.

The winding path let to a little plaza where an old man sat, with his stringed instrument, on the base of a statue of Sun Yat-Sen.  His instrument, like a cello, was one you set between your knees.  But the tuning knobs at the top of its long neck were much larger than on a western instrument and, unlike a cello, the long neck did not connect to a wide base but to a small canister-like box.

The man kept motioning for me to sit down beside him.  Finally, I did.  He immediately handed me his instrument and tried to teach me to play it.

When I drew the bow across the strings, it sounded like I was killing a cat.  My teacher pushed the bow down to the string’s base where it met the box, thus instructing me to pull the bow there.  He also changed the placement of my fingers on the strings.  I had been tentatively experimenting.  Some people stopped to watch.  Every time I pulled the bow across the strings, I’d start laughing because it sounded so terrible.

My teacher did not appear to speak English, and I’m not sure how much of it he understood.  But at one point, when I seemed to be catching on a little, I could have sworn he was asking whether I’d played an instrument before.  I told him that I had learned the viola when young, but that that was a very long time ago.

Eventually, I left, but I put a dollar in his cap, recompense for the lesson.

(P.S.  Although I thought, from the sound, that the music in the park was Chinese, I am not so knowledgeable about the music of different Asian countries, and could have been mistaken.)

Next time:  Henry Street Settlement House

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