Wednesday, December 12, 2007

May 4th Singers: Building Bridges

A Remembrance by V. Wong

I'll never forget that rainy night gig in Santa Cruz. I was a co-founder of the May 4th Singers, the first Asian American anti-imperialist singing group. We performed without pay at all kinds of events, from picket-line rallies to fundraising concerts. We were another of the many groups that sprouted in the 1970s from San Francisco Chinatown’s Asian Community Center (ACC), where we met and practiced regularly. We often had several gigs a week all over California, and we’d go at our own expense to whatever and wherever we were asked. We’d cover other musicians’ songs like Prairie Fire as well as original songs we’d collectively write for contemporary struggles. We’d also participate with other workers and artists to create and perform skits, like “We Won’t Scoop Your Poop” where we re-cast Norton from the Honeymooners TV series to join an ongoing garbage workers strike.

We’d been booked for a cultural event celebrating Chicano heritage in Santa Cruz. But when we got there, it wasn't the usual welcoming scene. The crowd was mainly Latino teenagers, some in gangs, some high-school dropouts, some college students, and most all children of migrant workers. A couple of fights had already broken out and we were told the police had threatened to bust the whole thing. Some in our group wondered out loud why we were there, afraid the crowd would find us corny at best, or more likely targets of their jeers and beer bottles.

We were a dorky-looking group, all right, with our white-shirts and dark-pants outfits. Even we jokingly referred to ourselves as the Asian Serendipity Singers because we sang folk songs accompanied by acoustic guitars. We'd vary in size from 5 to 50 people, depending on who could show up for a gig. And you didn't have to undergo any "American Idol"-type audition to join, so our singing ability ranged from tone-deaf to ok-(but-don't-quit-your-day-job).

The moment had arrived. The MC tried with little success to get the crowd's attention, then introduced us. We took the stage and went into our first song, "It Isn't Nice," by Malvina Reynolds about civil disobedience when facing injustice. Some people actually started to listen while others continued ignoring us, some couples making out in the darkness. We plowed through our set, getting scattered and increased applause, a lot just for our perseverance, we thought.

Then we got to our grand finale - our favorite song, "Stand Together," that we'd written about being sons and daughters of immigrants ourselves, generational conflicts with our parents and society, starting to understand what our parents went through to raise us, and instead of fighting and blaming each other and other nationalities, we should unite all our struggles and fight together – like the Lee Mah electronic workers and Jung Sai garment workers who joined their strikes together.

Most of the kids were really listening, and gave us stomping applause at the end. Many came up and thanked us for expressing what they've gone through. Some were inspired to form a music group or write songs about their experiences. We were all deeply moved by their genuinely warm response, and felt ashamed of our initial trepidation they'd think us uncool and hokey. We underestimated them, and ourselves. They taught us how deeply music can be the best instant bridge to a multinational mass audience and to never underestimate people’s intense desire to transform the world for the better.