Music and eldership
The concert I attended took place in the Yee Hong Geriatric Centre; a peaceful venue for the contemplation of the meaning of music, song, and eldership. However, the first time I had attended a concert of this amazing orchestra, it took me somewhat by surprise how little I knew about Chinese music. But I soon began to understand how music and culture go hand in hand.
And like a succession of single tones in any musical composition, the concert was a tribute to the residents of this wonderful facility.
The orchestra is called CHEERS, and is made up of retired professional musicians of Chinese ancestry who use music as a way to connect with the members of their community and the general public — especially seniors.
But this orchestra is quite special. As seniors themselves, and through the medium of music the CHEERS orchestra raises awareness of Chinese culture, especially the culture of music. They focus on traditional Chinese instruments such as the Pipa (琵琶), a pear-shaped fretted lute with 4 or 5 strings; the Erhu (二胡), a two-stringed instrument; and the Dizi (笛子), a bamboo flute.
They also incorporate many other musical instruments in their programmes, including percussion.
As an instrument, the human voice is also a key means of communicating 5000 years of Chinese culture; and that culture is one of the oldest on the planet.
We humans are a migratory species. And in the process we contribute our stories and cultures to our new chosen homelands in which we establish new roots. This is the especially true of what has been called the “New World” of North America.
There are many historical reasons why we migrate and how our cultures spread far beyond the initial borders in which they first evolved. And history shows how our journeys contribute to the mosaic of other nations; and to human culture in general. Blended cultures emphasize the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things human.
The Chinese Diaspora
Worldwide, there are an estimated 40,000,000 “Overseas Chinese”: people of Chinese birth or descent.
A diaspora has connotations of forced exile; and of a collective migration out of the traditional homeland. Also inherent in the term is the immigrant experience of living as a minority in majority cultures.
In many nations around the world, this minority cultural experience has often been the norm for overseas Chinese, as well as a significant hardship. The Head Tax imposed on potential Chinese immigrants is just one of the skeletons in the Canadian closet. However, in Canada people of Chinese descent are the largest non-European ethnic origin in our nation today; and the fifth largest of any ethnic origin in Canada other than English or French. Most were also born outside Canada. In fact, when you include all Chinese dialects, and the two principal languages of Mandarin and Cantonese, Chinese is the third largest mother tongue in Canada, after English and French.
As early as the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese were exploring trade opportunities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Different waves of emigration followed to regions as diverse as North America, Oceania, the Caribbean, Latin America, South Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia.
In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and many colonies required labourers; China often supplied a pool of such workers.
These people were most often economic refugees; and frequently they worked in backbreaking and dangerous jobs such as the building of Canada’s National Dream — our transcontinental railway. The latter is a geographic extension of the east-west historical “flow” of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. It led eventually to the creation of a sovereign Canada and affirmed our multicultural identity.
As economic refugees, migrant Chinese everywhere on the planet struggled long and hard to improve their lives and to successfully integrate into their chosen “host” nations. This was not always easy as racism and other forms of discrimination often relegated them to the status of second-class citizens.
Moreover, as difficult as their lives were, far from their ancestral homeland, Chinese-Canadians often lived in isolated regions along the vast network of the transcontinental railway. Even today you can find small Chinese businesses in the smallest of communities along that route.
What Chinese-Canadians did manage to do, however, was to integrate their culture into the Canadian mosaic. In many ways the Chinese who emigrated throughout the world became role models for preserving thousands of years of history, culture, and art; while at the same time contributing to the building of social infrastructures far from “home”.
Other images of the CHEERS orchestra
For the CHEERS orchestra, music, culture, and community are a family affair.
Bob Fisher is a Markham travel journalist.
You can visit his website by clicking on the link below: