When I was in middle school I discovered the music of Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. My Mandarin wasn’t good enough to understand his lyrics, but, thinking that his odes to unrequited love were more relatable than those of an American pop star, I’d ask my mom to translate — at least until our conversations became unbearable lectures on etymology, proper enunciation, and somehow, always, my character. But a rare excitement still hung in her voice as she’d sing songs by the pop stars of her generation — Tsai Chin of course, and Fei Yu-ching. Later I learned that my mom was something of a choir star growing up, representing Fengyuan in traveling competitions.
That tingling realization that so much remains untold between my parents and me about ourselves and my heritage lingered among my memories as I made my way through The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which highlights immigrant Chinese relationships with and contributions to music across genres. Filled with photographs, ephemera, and listening stations covering music from the 1850s to the present, parts of the exhibition felt curiously familiar — as if I knew this culture but I wasn’t sure who told me about it. Seeing a 2003 profile of rapper MC Jin in Elle Girl’s “Our New Crush” column made me think of trying — and failing — to convince my white friends that Jay Chou was as cool as Justin Timberlake. Hearing Broadway actor and folk singer Stephen Cheng waver and croon in Taiwanese over a 1960s Rocksteady beat on “Always Together (A Chinese Love Song)” reminded me of understanding what my grandparents were saying over the phone growing up, but having to respond partly in English.
A horizontal banner printed with explanatory texts spans the length of the gallery. Your eyes and ears should wander through The Moon Represents My Heart, though, before following the text. Curators Hua Hsu, Herb Tam, and Andrew Rebatta have structured the show so viewers can first disperse, and then reconnect, as they relate unexpected strands of history in sections like “Source Materials: Opera, Chinatown Sounds, and Hip-Hop” and “Movements: Beijing Rock, Asian American Folk, and Songs of Revolution.” The exhibition left me feeling daunted, but also proud and hopeful. As I wondered about the culture my parents lost or repressed in coming to the United States, I discovered so many Chinese Americans — from singers to classical musicians to experimental sound artists — who picked up that culture and re-shaped it into something new.
A photograph of four young men, dressed in sharp suits, with their jet-black hair slicked into pompadours, made me stop and stare. They were The Cathays, banded together in 1963 in New York’s Chinatown after listening to The Temptations and The Four Seasons. “But open your angel’s arms/ To this stranger in paradise”; their mellifluous voices nearly mask the displacement and alienation the lyrics allude to. The song closes with, “And tell him that he need be/ A stranger no more.” As I looked at The Cathays, I remembered my dad’s closet full of plastic-covered suits at home and imagined how dapper he might have been before he opened his print shop in San Diego and opted for ratty T-shirts.
“My father and mother exhorted me to forget about going, […] ‘An ounce of gold is won in exchange for a thousand happinesses,’” reads part of “The Story of Gold Mountain,” a 19th-century Toisan folk song pleading a father not to join the California Gold Rush. It’s collected in a book and short documentary on Uncle Ng (1910-2002), a local Chinatown star known for singing on the streets and in Columbus Park. My dad, who worked 12-hour days that left him too tired to talk, came to the US nearly 140 years after the miners, but what the show does best is connect these echoes of immigrants, bonded across time and language in the pursuit of a golden ideal.
My family — like many Chinese and Asian American families — struggles to say “I love you,” making the ends of phone calls terribly awkward. But even if it’s not expressed, there’s love in quiet acceptance. This is palpable in a grainy 1980s photograph of David Eng’s configuration for editing music videos in his parents’ home in Queens. Two heavy monitors sit on a desk and an edit controller balances on a milk crate underneath. On the walls are seemingly contrasting posters of a flattened Chinese dragon riding waves and a Formula 1 race car, evidence of an American culture seeping into this teen’s life. Eng went on to record artists including Kiss, Salt-N-Pepa, and James Brown for his Bayside Records. Eng’s photo seemed to say that this is how our parents love us: by trusting us, and by letting something so foreign — a makeshift workstation for art or music — enter the house. I wrote my first reviews at our fake pearl-inlaid, Chinese-style dining table, catalogues stacked high until my mom came in with newspaper to cover it — “Move, it’s time to eat.”
Nearby, James and Hewson Chen’s father-son collaboration on Taiwanese Folk Style (2017) is a tender reflection on the feeling of becoming American. James immigrated from Chiayi, Taiwan, to St. Louis in 1971 to practice medicine, but he missed home so much he started writing songs for his son, later performing them at local gigs and self-producing karaoke videos. Some 40 years later, Hewson added guitar reverb and a bouncing beat; “Summer in Taiwan” arouses the restless feeling of awaiting the night when the humidity and mosquitos die down. James is featured on the cassette cover, a stark figure in a dark suit against a white wall covered in black paper cutouts of a billowing palm tree, a dog, and a grazing horse. The photo is irreverent, self-aware, and conceptual.
There’s so much more in The Moon Represents My Heart that made my mind (and heart) spill over. The take-no-prisoners guitar shredding from Emily’s Sassy Lime, a 1990s all-Asian American riot grrrl trio from Southern California, which included artist Amy Yao and her sister Wendy Yao, who founded the legendary punk boutique Ooga Booga in LA’s Chinatown; Burning Star Core founder C. Spencer Yeh’s thumping, burbling sound works that showcase his unlearning of classical music. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Teresa Teng, whose swaying 1977 pop ballad — one of the first foreign songs allowed into mainland China after the Open Door Policy — provides the exhibition’s title. From the dewdrop xylophone notes that open the song to Teng’s lilting vibrato, perhaps no melody is as significant as “The Moon Represents My Heart” for making new immigrants long for home. The Moon Represents My Heart made me want to call my mom and tell her that I have questions — I’ll listen a little longer now.
The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging continues at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre Street, Manhattan) through September 15. The exhibition is curated by Hua Hsu, Herb Tam, and Andrew Rebatta.