Archive for the ‘music’ Category

As promised, I’m now posting some short videos from the Tiger Girl launch party at Books Inc., including a short reading and excerpt from the Q&A, a song by the amazing Cambodian American singer Laura Mam, and a 30-second video that gives you a feel for the event!



Much thanks to everyone who came to the launch at Books Inc./Opera Plaza in San Francisco! And I hope these videos can give a feel of the event to those who could not come in person.

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“The old-timers say it’s good luck that it’s raining. A good start for the Year of the Water Dragon!” said my friend Ratha Kim, who is one of the coordinators of this year’s Cambodian New Year Festival in San Francisco.

(left to right: Ratha Kim and Jenny Chea-Vaing)

Indeed after a particularly sunny winter, we had an uncharacteristically rainy Saturday this March 31, in time for the Cambodian New Year celebration at the Tenderloin Children’s Playground. I hope that it is indeed a blessing from the water dragon, or water Naga –the giant mythological snake that is the ancient protector of Cambodia.

This year’s festival started with a blessing bestowed by orange-robed monks from the Nagara Dhamma Temple of San Francisco and King Monks Maha Ghosananda Temple of Oakland. After they chanted New Year’s blessings, people lined up to give the monks the delicious food they’d prepared for the celebration.

As the monks dined on separate gold-colored floor mats, the rest of us sat down on mats and rugs and ate the delectable Cambodian dishes prepared by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Cambodian community.

I loved the delicious ginger-and-lemongrass spiced chicken, curries, and silver thread translucent noodles!

This year’s festival had to be moved indoors because of the rain. Last year more than 400 people attended the day-long festivities which included band after band, dancing, food booths galore and vendors selling Cambodian-themed clothing. This year’s celebration was much smaller but had a nice family feel as most of the participants were from the Tenderloin.

A highlight was the Fashion Show. I managed to tape part of the rehearsal, which features students from Bay Area schools including San Francisco State University, CSU-Fresno, and the California Culinary Academy. (Ratha Kim is shown emceeing in the video:)

And of course there was lovely live music by local Cambodian singers. Here is a sample:

I was pleased to meet one of the organizers, Jenny Chea-Vaing, who has been volunteering to help put together the community New Year celebration for the past 10 years.

Jenny’s own story is quite remarkable. She moved to the Tenderloin as a child in the 1980s when her family was sponsored to come to America after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand. “Our sponsors were in Utah, but when we got off the plane, they weren’t there!” Jenny’s family was forced by officials to spend the night in the airport. Eventually they discovered their sponsors had sold their house and were in fact in the process of leaving Utah, so Jenny and her family were not allowed to stay. Instead her father sold everything of value– including the new clothes they’d bought to wear in America and her step-mother’s wedding ring–so that they could all buy Greyhound bus tickets to California where he had a relative. Jenny and her family ended up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

“We lived with four or five families in one studio [on Leavenworth and Eddy],” she said. At night they slept on mats on the floor, head to toe, practically no space in the single room they all shared.

She grew up in San Francisco, attended Galileo High, worked in donut shops to earn money, and had an arranged marriage at age 16. She went on to graduate, study medical training, and now works in the insurance industry.

As a teenager, her oldest son, Jimmy, twice spent his summers as an apprentice monk so that he could earn merit for his family.

Jenny's son Jimmy (in the middle)

Jenny says she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had in America. Having survived Pol Pot’s reign of terror and the violence and extreme poverty that followed the Vietnamese military takeover of Cambodia in 1979 (toppling the Khmer Rouge), she has seen incredible hardship in her young life. Her older sister rescued her from marauding soldiers by hiding her under dead bodies during the daytime. Her sister then hid herself under bodies nearby. “I could hear the soldiers come and kill people who cried out, ‘I’m a civilian! Don’t kill me!’ I knew I couldn’t make a noise or they’d kill me too.”

At night they walked on foot through the jungle, trying to find the rest of their family. “My older sister picked young leaves for us to eat. She’d always try them first to make sure they were safe. She saved my life. That’s why I was always grateful to her, I never fought with her [in America], I always honored her.”

Even after the Pol Pot-regime fell, Jenny and her sister were not safe. Their mother had died, their father fled to Thailand to try to make a better life for them, and they were put in the care of relatives who treated them as slaves. One day Jenny witnessed them trying to kill her older sister, taking her out on a canoe and hitting her repeatedly over the head with an oar. Jenny had climbed up a tall tree and could see everything. She called out for help as loudly as she could and an old fisherman finally heard her and helped the sister, throwing a log into the river so that girl could float to the bank to safety.

Finally her father was able to bring them to Thailand where they lived in the Khao I Dang refugee camp from 1980-1982 then two other camps for 3-6 months each before they were sponsored to come to America.

Despite this incredibly hard life, Jenny is a cheerful and kind person.

“That’s why I try to give back,” Jenny says of her life experiences. “That’s why I’m grateful today. I’m thankful. I had many people help me along the way.” She volunteers every month around the city as well as for AIDS Walk and cancer charities.

I think Jenny is an incredible person. She also embodies some of the loveliest qualities of Cambodian culture that extreme hardship have not managed to destroy including a warmth and graciousness that is hard to define. Despite the hell almost every Cambodian refugee in America has gone through, Cambodians can be some of the most warmly welcoming people I’ve ever met.

Because of the hard work of community volunteers like Jenny Chea-Vaing and her entire family (including her kids, husband, step-mother, mother-in-law, and nieces!), Ratha Kim, and the cheerful student volunteers from SFSU, CSU-Fresno, and other Bay Area schools, the Cambodian New Year Festival is a wonderful celebration of Cambodian culture in America.

I am hoping the New Year of the Water Naga is a good one!

The official New Year is celebrated world-wide April 13-15. Other area events this coming month include:

New Year Festival at the Oakland Branch of International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center (King Monks Maha Ghosananda): 633 Douglas Avenue, Oakland, CA: April 13–chanting for the New Year; April 14-food, music, and dancing from 8:30 am to night; April 15-final ceremony. (call 510-924-7189 for more information)

New Year Festival at the Stockton Cambodian Temple: the weekend of April 13-15, when 1000s of California-based Cambodians gather for larger-scale musical performances and dances. Food stands will be open to provide many kinds of Cambodian dishes.

Members of the public are welcome to attend.

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Saw the most thrilling concert by the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, the famed Chinese pipa player, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

First they performed “Ghost Opera,” an original work composed by Tan Dun (1994) and a new multimedia work entitled “A Chinese Home.”

I had heard “Ghost Opera” on CD but nothing compares to the live performance. The musicians from Kronos Quartet started out playing from various sections of the small gallery theater at YBCA while Wu Man sat stage right, later moving to center stage where she performed behind a long, ghostly white veil.

“Ghost Opera” combines traditional Western-style symphonic music and Chinese pipa solos as well as Chinese opera vocalizations. There were snippets of a Chinese folk song as well as lines from Shakespeare, shouts (meant to evoke the cries of a traditional shaman), the shaking of paper, gongs, and dripping water as the musicians dipped their hands into clear bowls of water positioned around the stage.

I personally love “Ghost Opera” and find its music transcendent of any place or time, although of course it strongly evokes many Chinese musical traditions. But like many of Tan Dun’s more experimental works (for example, his score for the opera “Peony Pavilion,” which had its debut in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in the 1990s [available on CD as “Bitter Love”]), the music stands as its own uniquely modern composition, a hybrid that would have been impossible in any other time period.

The second half of the performance was a newer, multimedia work called “A Chinese Home,” inspired by the rebuilding of a traditional Chinese house that was shipped and re-assembled in the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. The musicians played in four segments, each meant to evoke different periods of time in Chinese history while video images flashed on the screen behind the performers.

Personally, I found the video distracted me from the music, especially in the first segment, called “Return,” which was meant to evoke “traditional” China. The images showed contemporary scenes from rural China and minority groups living in China’s southwestern provinces. Furthermore, the handheld video was shaky and a little hard to watch. Yet the screen was so large, it was hard to ignore the video and watch the live performers, which was a shame.

The second segment was entitled “Shanghai” and featured some of the great jazz and pop music of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. Here Kronos Quartet and Wu Man seemed more clearly to be playing music meant to “accompany” the images, which ranged from the U.S. Deparment of War’s newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937 (edited by Frank Capra) as to clips from the best of Shanghai’s silent films from the 1920s and 30s. Here I didn’t even try to focus on the musicians; the images were too compelling and featured both scenes of actual suffering as well as some of the era’s most famous movie stars. The emphasis on suffering (as opposed to the hybrid quality of life in Shanghai or open-minded nature of its residents) did not account for any of the creative brilliance that was clearly evident in the music. To juxtapose the suffering of war with the brilliance of Shanghai’s culture is an artistic choice that I’ve seen a lot of recently in Chinese mainland works about Shanghai.

The third segment, “The East Is Red,”  opened with a quote from Mao, and featured images of kitschy Cultural Revolution operas and ballets while the musicians played rollicking folk music that seemed to come directly from the era. There was no hint whatsoever of the suffering of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution or Mao era.

The final segment entitled “Made in China”  had the most sophisticated, abstract video imagery of China’s fast-growing cities, featuring modern skyscrapers, billboards, Shanghai monorail, and people engaged in leisure activities from singing to sitting to shopping, but there were also hints of destruction in the image of China’s ubiquitous wrecking cranes. While the Kronos Quartet literally unleashed boxes of Chinese-made electronic toys that crawled across the stage, Wu Man plugged her pipa into an amp and synthesizer and literally rocked it like an electric guitar!

I still need time to think about this exciting program.

Meanwhile, “Ghost Opera” with its delicate and nuanced score will remain one of my most precious musical memories and I feel infinitely grateful that I was able to hear and see it performed live. Perhaps the abstract quality made it easier for me to appreciate than the almost documentary nature of the second program.

However, I also have a purely personal reason to love Tan Dun’s work. When I was a student at Nanjing University in 1988, our American coordinator for CIEE (Rich Lufrano) played for us a casette tape of music recorded by Tan Dun called “Mong Dong.” In those days, Tan Dun was not famous but rather happened to live down the hall in New York City from Rich (who was a Ph.D. student at Columbia) and they had become friends. As a result, Tan Dun had given Rich a copy of his composition. The name is made up of invented, nonsense characters, and the music included chanting, moaning, singing that evoked not only Han Chinese musical traditions but ethnic minority music that Tan Dun had heard when he had traveled in the south of China. I loved “Mong Dong.” As we listened in our unheated classroom to the crackly tape player, I was transported by the power and inventiveness of this new kind of musical composition. In those days, I never imagined that one day Tan Dun would become a famous, Oscar-winning composer nor that I would get to hear Tan Dun’s music performed live by amazing musicians like the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man as I sat in a chair mere feet from the performers. Such a life seemed very far away.


The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also opened to concert goers its gallery exhibit by Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong “Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well.” The exhibit featured video displays of the artist’s family and a spectacular full-room installation of literally 10,000 items his mother had been hoarding in their house in Beijing. (For the New York Times review and photos of the installation “Waste Not,” click here .) The artist was able to get his mother to give up the items after his father died by promising to turn her possessions into a work of art. And indeed he did. From balls of ordinary twine, displays of bottle caps, neatly arranged pairs of shoes, hats, shirts, even shopping bags, Song Dong has made a beautiful tribute to his mother, his family, and to a generation of Chinese who learned never to throw anything away because of the terrible shortages they faced. (In fact, seeing the mother’s collection of styrofoam containers, I thought of my own grandmother, who had survived the Sino-Japanese War and Civil War in China when starvation and deprivation were common. Even after immigrating to the U.S., she could not bring herself to throw away newspapers, twist ties, old clothes, slippers or even styrofoam containers. These items of so-called “junk” stand as a testament to the suffering of people who have lived through war and hardship, but also the resilience of women like Song Dong’s mother and my grandmother, who saved everything and lived so thriftily so that their own children would have a better life.)

The exhibit is open until June 12. I highly recommend it.

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What a beautiful Cambodian New Year Festival this year at the Tenderloin Recreation Center in San Francisco! Although the official Cambodian New Year begins April 13, communities in the Bay Area will be holding celebrations all April long. I was very fortunate to attend the SF festival on April 2.

2011 Festival in San Francisco

The community-organized event included traditional dance performances, breakdancing, a spoken word performance, food, a fashion show, and music music music! There was the amazing electric guitar stylings of Khmer pop that was in vogue in Cambodia in the 1960s and early 1970s before the Khmer Rouge, traditional flute (khui), xylophone (krim), mouth organ (kaen), and drum (gong) performances as well as many local singers.

Wuttihan Bussabokon playing the krim

One of my favorite performances was the traditional girls dance known as “Robam Neary Chea Jour,” which is meant to celebrate the beauty and grace of Cambodian women.

The five little girls practiced this dance for four hours every Saturday for the past two months. This was their very first performance!

Their amazing teacher is Ratha Chuon Kim, who volunteers with the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage and Musical Performing Arts center in Oakland, www.seachampa.org, where she teaches Khmer social dance. “I am not a professional dancer, I just love dance and learning about it!” says the ever modest Ratha. “I first learned social dance from my dad, an art form that’s easily learned through observation and asking questions.” Later Ratha studied folk dance at the Nagara Dhamma Temple for two years, where the head teacher–Theap Kong–had studied dance before the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, a rare teacher indeed! Ratha later started a classical Khmer dance program with the Cambodian Community Development Inc. and for the next four years went to every practice so that she could assist and learn from the classically trained dancers.

Ratha and me

If you watch the video of the little girls dancing closely, you can see several women in the background wiping tears from their eyes. It truly was moving to see these young girls learning about the beauty of their culture and heritage.

The vicious Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians during the 4 years of their reign of terror. During that time, 90 percent of Cambodia’s educated population as well as artists, dancers, and trained musicians died.

Despite the tragedies that almost every single Cambodian family in America has experienced, many in the community are coming together to pass on the rich and beautiful traditions of Khmer culture.

As you can see from the pictures, there was nothing but joy at this Cambodian New Year Festival!

Check out this breakdancing performance:

Breakdance Video

Great food…

Good friends…

Tamiko Wong trying on a krama

And good krama (from the folks at www.goodkrama.com), who buy these traditional scarves directly from the women who make them in Cambodia and donate a portion of the proceeds to help women and children in Cambodia.

krama scarves

Last but not least, I was thrilled to see Sandra Sengdara Siharath, the founder of www.seachampa.org.

Sandra holding a kaen and Philip Siharath holding a traditional drum (gong)Sandra has been a major force in promoting Southeast Asian culture and arts in the Bay Area. She comes from a very talented family. In fact, her father, Philip Siharath, is the man in the green shirt in the videos playing the drum!

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Much thanks to www.LargeHeartedBoy.com, the amazing music and book blog, for featuring my new novel! Here’s my essay on the musical playlist (w/ links to the actual music) that I imagined the characters would listen to and that inspired me as I was writing Dragon Chica!

Book Notes – May-lee Chai (“Dragon Chica”)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In a year filled with moving coming-of-age novels, May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica stands apart with its gripping story of the young Chinese-Cambodian girl, Nea. Her tale of facing bigotry as an immigrant to the United States after surviving the Cambodian civil war and Khmer Rouge is skillfully told and enlightening.

Dragon Chica is an important book both teens and adults will find fascinating, especially if they read (and discuss) it together.

Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:

“It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction. Dragon Chica does this with great aplomb. The book explores with subtlety and depth the mature, universal issues of identity and connection, but it also retains its direct appeal to younger readers. May-lee Chai has performed a remarkable act of literary magic.”

In her own words, here is May-lee Chai’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Dragon Chica:

When I first started writing my novel Dragon Chica, I knew music would play an important part in the life of the narrator, Nea Chhim. She comes to the U.S. as a young child, a refugee and survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Music (except for a few propaganda songs) was banned by the Khmer Rouge, so music will be a complete revelation to Nea. While many experiences about adapting to a new culture and a new language are painful, I know music would be like the American Dream wrapped up in a bow. Better than candy. Better than Christmas and New Year’s combined. Music unleashes the power of the soul to feel again, and Nea’s soul needs a lot of healing after all that she has been through.

At one point Nea’s mother berates her: “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded, and then before I could reply, she listed my sins herself: I wanted to be an American, I talked back to my mother, I never obeyed, I thought of myself before my family, I sang their songs, I danced around just like them.

But to Nea there is no “us” versus “them”: Music is for everyone. And that is precisely why regimes like the Khmer Rouge ban music. . . because totalitarian regimes fear the fundamentally democratic, rebellious, uncontrollable power of music.

As I wrote Dragon Chica, different songs came to mind for different scenes and different characters. Some of them ended up in the book, some still play only in my head as I read the passages to myself.

Here’s my Dragon Chica playlist:
“Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys

What could be a more quintessentially American song? In my mind, Nea hears this song late at night on the radio on a Golden Oldies program as she tries but fails to sleep in her family’s too-hot trailer in their first American home in Texas. She can’t make out the words yet, but she loves the optimistic, almost silly beat, the simple rhymes, the carefree sound of this song. Will her life ever feel as happy as this song? She hopes so.
“La Llarona” by Lila Downs

Since Nea’s family first ends up in Texas, it makes sense she’ll hear Spanish-language music on the radio. In fact, her introduction to “American” is a mix of Spanish and English words (hence the title of the book, Dragon Chica). Nea won’t understand the words of “La Llarona” when she first hears them, but I imagine that later in life, when she revisits this song, with its tale of a beautiful woman whose ghost haunts the river banks where her children drowned, it will have a new poignancy, as it will recall her own family’s losses to war, the sacrifices of the women in her life, and the children who did and did not survive.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
(This video is of a live performance with Dolly and Mindy Smith)

By the time Nea moves with her mother and siblings to Nebraska in the early 1980s, the music scene changes dramatically. Here country/Western dominates the radio waves. Even though “Jolene” was written a decade earlier, it’s a song that has an eternal quality, as its many covers show. How could Nea not hear and like this song? Although the song at first seems like a plaintive lament from a woman with no confidence, Dolly’s subversive qualities—her outsize appearance, personality, and amazing voice—enable the listener to imagine a woman who may be in fact warning her rival to back off. There is steel behind Dolly’s lilting soprano. The song’s not in the book, but I bet you can hear it in the back of your mind as you read.
In the Mood for Love, Movie Soundtrack by various artists

As I was writing the novel, I thought of the music on this CD every time I wrote about Nea’s mysterious and once wealthy Uncle. He is ethnically Chinese and the embodiment of a tragic, romantic hero from a different era, one of prosperity, urbanity, and a sophisticated mix of many cultures. Now transplanted to running a Chinese restaurant in a small town in the Midwest, Uncle is too old and too injured to resemble the actor Tony Leung from the movie In the Mood for Love… except for his beautiful, sad eyes.

“The moon always reminds me,” Uncle says at one point, thinking of a lost child, a lost love, a lost way of life.
“Ces petits riens” by Serge Gainsbourg

This is the kind of sophisticated, French pop music that Uncle and Auntie would have listened to in Phnom Penh before the wars destroyed their life together.
“Glass of Wine” by Ros Sereysothea

Nea gets to hear only one Khmer pop song that Auntie has on an old cassette that she bought off a family who immigrated from Cambodia years earlier. Nea doesn’t recognize the song or the singer, but she is transported by its mix of electric guitar, go-go drums, and the soft voice of a woman singing about love. For me the song has to be by Ros Sereysothea, one of the most successful Khmer pop singers from the 1960s and early 70s. She was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, but her music lives on…in the soundtrack CD to the movie City of Ghosts, in online homages, and in covers by contemporary American bands like Dengue Fever and The Like Me’s.
“Walk This Way” by Run DMC

As rap music gains in popularity, in the late 80s even in Nea’s small town, this song will herald a turning point in Nea’s life, a moment when she must decide to save her beloved older sister, Sourdi, even though it means betraying her mother’s trust. On a symbolic level, the song shows the tug of war within Nea’s heart because ultimately she can’t follow in anyone else’s steps anymore; she must forge her own path.
“Lucky Star” by Madonna

As Nea drives in a borrowed pickup truck down an icy highway in the middle of the night, this song is playing on the radio. Yet all she can think of as the moonlight glints eerily off the patches of snow on the sides of the road is how the minefields in Cambodia looked at night as her sister, Sourdi, carried Nea as a child on her back. Sourdi stepped on the bones of the dead because she knew it was safer that way; after all, the dead had already exploded the mines that lay hidden in the ground. “Lucky Star” cannot seem farther away at this point in Nea’s life.
Chanting by Buddhist Monks

This type of music isn’t played on the radio, but it plays an important part in Nea’s life as she reaches adulthood. Visiting the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Des Moines, Iowa, as the monks chant, Nea is suddenly able to remember her father’s face. But what does this memory mean? As more revelations follow, Nea must decide if her heart has grown strong enough to forgive.
May-lee Chai and Dragon Chica links:

the author’s blog

Chien Route review
Librarian of Doom’s Chaos Lounge review
The Lost Entwife review
Marjoleinbookblog review
Medeia Sharif review
Paper Adventures review

Medeia Sharif interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week’s CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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