The Chicago Cantonese Amateur Musical Association occupies a somewhat ramshackle but acoustically sound apartment above a nondescript Asian gift store on Cermak Avenue. On any Sunday or Monday, the sounds of Chinese opera and folk songs drift down to the street. The musicians play banjo, guitar, zither, violin, and various percussion instruments, and there’s always singing.
The association was officially formed as a nonprofit in 1993 after several members walked away from other Chinese music clubs. “They were like coffee shops,” says Al Moi, the group’s current president. “You played two hours and you left.” The association’s members are largely from Hong Kong and the southern provinces. Some were master musicians and opera singers back in China, while others are amateurs with a mission. Many are over 50; all are over 30. “When I was in my teens, I played this kind of music,” Moi says, “but people that young aren’t interested anymore.”
Chinese musical associations are popular in North American cities with large Asian populations. Moi says an all-star team from the various clubs could rival any Chinese national orchestra. But there’s no money in performing, so the musicians support themselves any way they can. A lot of the Chicago members work in restaurants. They practice on Sundays and Mondays, because those are their days off.
The association’s repertoire includes Chinese operas from the 1700s, folk music from the early part of the 20th century, and contemporary Chinese pop. The group performs several times a year, including two elaborate operas, which are expensive to produce. They mostly pay for the shows themselves. “When I was young in China, my mother loved Chinese opera,” says Joe Leung, an association member who works as a banquet waiter at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. “When I got older, I took lessons, learned, and watched the tapes. Now I get to play a warlord. I think I spend $5,000 a year on opera costumes.”
The musicians come from all over the city and suburbs. They usually start practicing at 1 PM. The men, who play all the instruments, drink Old Style and smoke cigarettes between songs. Women do most of the singing, and since the club has many female members, they have a lot of downtime. They practice their phrasing, coach one another, drink tea, and enjoy pastries or other delicacies, such as pig’s stomach, which they’ve prepared.
At around 6 PM, the musicians take a break to order food. They steam extra rice, and more beer appears, as well as gin and cognac. Sometimes the musicians play cards. After dinner, whoever’s left plays music until 10 PM. The music is always most important. “We want to make it serious,” says Hau Kaum, a club member. “We want to make it perfect.”
The musicians are perhaps best known for their well-publicized concerts at Friendship, a Chinese restaurant in Logan Square where several of them work. Friendship’s young owner, Alan Yuen, lives in Chinatown and has known many of the musicians for years. Once a month on Wednesdays, several of the musicians, wearing suits, sit in the middle of the restaurant and play a one-hour set of folk music. They enjoy doing these shows, but their passion remains the Sunday and Monday get-togethers on Cermak.
“You work in a restaurant, it’s not really your interest,” says Al Moi. “For these guys, music is better than a restaurant.”
The Chicago Cantonese Amateur Musical Association will perform for the public this Sunday from 1 to 6 at the Chinese Community Center, 250 W. 22nd Place
(312-842-8010). Admission is free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.