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Variety show highlights China’s arts

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    Operatic tenor Mo Li will be among those featured at the Chinese Cultural Arts Festival.
    Ping Bai, a cellist with the Honolulu Symphony, has volunteered to join the performers.

When Ming You immigrated to Hawaii from China 20 years ago, she felt "shame" about her native country. China had undergone the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, a clumsy attempt at capitalism in the ’80s, and a brutal crackdown on students at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"I used (to) feel lucky to be in United States," said You, who runs the Shanghai Cafe on Bethel Street.

Things have turned around in China. The booming economy, the 2008 Summer Olympics and now the Shanghai Expo have left the world awestruck with China’s gigantic strides to modernity. You’s customers now tell her how impressed they are with the Asian country. "I feel proud to come from China," said the Shanghai native.

So You decided to bring some of the classical Chinese art forms to audiences here. She and her family formed a nonprofit organization, the Chinese Arts Wushu Cultural Center, which is hosting a program at the Hawaii Theatre showcasing some of the Chinese artists who live in Hawaii or visit here.

It will be a "variety show" in the broadest – and possibly the oddest — sense of the term. Singing, dancing, Chinese and Western musical instruments, Western and Chinese music, Chinese-born and Chinese-American performers are all on the bill.


» When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
» Where: Hawaii Theatre, 1130 Bethel St.
» Tickets: $15-$25 (includes Hawaii Theatre restoration fee)
» Contact: Iris Chen, 728-9803
» Websites: and

For good measure, martial arts is included, and why not? Martial arts has a balletic quality, and in the Chinese language, "martial arts," or "wushu," is derived from a general term used to describe art.

"We are called the Chinese Arts Wushu Cultural Center, so we felt like we had to include it," said Iris Chen, who will emcee the program. "We wanted to show the whole array of things from the Chinese arts."

The organization didn’t have to go far to find talent. First on the list is You’s son, pianist Irwin Jiang, a St. Louis High graduate who is in college on a music scholarship. Jiang will perform three Chinese songs, along with two blockbusters by Chopin and Lizst.

"In Chinese music, they use a lot of sounds from nature," he said. "I’m playing a song called ‘A Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix.’ The phoenix is a symbol of royalty. … so in that part it’s a very grand, very reverent sound, while the ‘hundred birds’ are rather wild."

Two Honolulu Symphony string players who were born in China, violinist Elaine Lu and cellist Ping Bai, volunteered to perform Western and Chinese songs. Bai said that Chinese music is "very different from Western music" and that performing in both styles will pose certain musical challenges.

"Sometimes the intonation is difficult" in Chinese music, she said, because Chinese music uses a five-note scale, rather than the octave scale used in Western music. "I am not used to using the Chinese scale to check my intonation."

Another performer has faced other difficulties learning his art. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, Huang Zheng Hua was sent to work on a farm. There, he heard a man playing the erhu, a Chinese string instrument, and immediately was entranced. There was no teacher, so he had to teach himself. Now, he is so proficient that he is frequently invited to perform with visiting Chinese artists.

"I would like to learn Western music, but I need to have some music," he said.

Other performances for the show include an ethnic dance from the ethnic minority region of Xinjiang, an exhibition of tai shi and other martial arts styles by an award-winning martial artist, and Chinese and Western songs performed by operatic tenor Mo Li, who has performed internationally and given workshops in Hawaii.

"We’ve been really lucky that so many professional performers have been willing to contribute," Chen said. "We all see this as a good opportunity to open up to the community."


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