From a block away in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, we can just barely make out a sound unlike any we’ve ever heard, as if from underwater—melancholy, dissonant, otherworldly music. It pulls us toward the corner of Broadway and Alpine, where an older man sits upon a stool. He wears a Panama hat and silk jacket. A bow slides back and forth across his erhu, a two-stringed lute-like instrument he’s plugged into a tiny, battery-powered amp. Next to him, on the sidewalk, the erhu’s case sits open with a few dollar bills and coins inside. His name is Yingchang Song. Our interpreter, a Ph.D. student at USC, introduces us. Soon enough, she and Song realize they’re from the same city in northeastern China—Qingdao. They hit it off immediately: Not only do they both speak Mandarin in what they see as Cantonese-dominant Chinatown, but they know the words to many of the same folk songs. A generation apart, here they are on a corner in Los Angeles—and Song is visibly thrilled, but needs to get back to playing.
Though he’s played the erhu as a hobby his whole life, he’s new to street performance. He can make up to $30 on a good day, mostly in dollar bills from tourists looking for a taste of China. It’s not enough to live on, so he also sharpens scissors for the workers in the nearby garment-district sweatshops, hawking his services in rudimentary Spanish—“Filo tijeras! Filo tijeras!”—as he makes his factory rounds. He’ll sharpen scissors for a dollar, or sell a new pair for two.
At the entrance to Yingchang Song’s one-bedroom apartment is a makeshift Buddhist altar that stands taller than his five-and-a-half-foot frame, where a bowl of fresh oranges sits next to a few sticks of incense. He’s not a religious man, but his wife is. Most evenings, upon returning home from an afternoon of busking, he drops his erhu case and all the money inside it onto the floor and finds her facing the altar with her eyes closed, whispering a chant in a kind of loop. The two of them are cordial to each other but have little in common. They live largely separate lives. He spends his days on a street corner in Chinatown, playing his erhu or studying for his US citizenship exam at the local library, while she travels regularly to and from her temple, praying or cooking when she’s at home. Theirs is a marriage of convenience not unlike that of many other immigrants: She is an American citizen; they tied the knot five years ago so that Song could get a green card. The only evidence of their union hangs on a wall above his bed—a studio portrait of the couple against a light-blue backdrop, taken on their wedding day. “I look much younger back then,” Song says matter of factly.
When asked about why he moved to the US well into his fifties, Song says, “I left China because there were some things I still wanted to do in my life, and I didn’t want to admit I was too old for it.” Like so many immigrants before him, he had a vision of America as a magical place, “almost like a paradise in the West.” When his first wife passed away a decade ago, he decided to leave his private dentistry practice to his two grown sons and start a new life, alone. In Los Angeles, he realized there were few places for him besides Chinatown. He couldn’t read the road signs, nor could he talk to people. “I felt like I was blind and deaf, and I felt isolated.” But even in L.A.’s Chinatown, among many other elderly Chinese like him, Song chooses to spend most of his time alone—just he and his erhu.
Early on a Tuesday morning, Yingchang Song and another Chinese man in his late sixties chat before their weekly citizenship class at the local library. They’ve been taking these classes for months as a way to learn English and basic civics—both of which they’ll need to score high on if they want to pass their citizenship exams. In class, Song sits on the first row and recites a list of names written on a whiteboard: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Susan B. Anthony. He jots down English words in a notebook, and translates them into Mandarin characters. One hour into the lesson, he is visibly frustrated: He can’t remember much of what was said in class. He’s given himself the goal of taking the exam early next year; if he fails, he’ll be able to take it again a couple more times. He wants to prove to himself that he’s not too old for anything—not street performance, nor settling into a strange new land. He’s got the next few months to master it.
These essays are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview. This installment was made possible with support from the Eisner Foundation and KCRW.