The Year of the Ox

It’s Chinese New Year – the Year of the Ox – and these are images of the celebrations on Berry Street and in front of the Chinese Arch this lunchtime. The Chinese Arch that stands at the entrance to Liverpool’s Chinatown has four pillars, 5 roof sections and is covered in Chinese designs and calligraphy. It was constructed in 2000 by a number of craftsmen from Shanghai and is the biggest Chinese Arch outside of Asia.

The city of Liverpool has one of the oldest established Chinese communities in Europe.  During the establishment of the Chinese community trade links were strong between the ports of Shanghai and Liverpool.  The primary goods being traded were silk and cotton wool.  Many Chinese immigrants arrived in Liverpool in the late 1860’s and established the Blue Funnel Shipping Line that ran a line of steamers direct from Liverpool to China.  Chinese sailors who decided to stay and work from Liverpool settled in an area of the city that was close to the docks in Cleveland Square.

Chinese settlers began to construct their own businesses to supply certain goods to their countrymen who were settled in a strange city with people who spoke a different language.  Boarding houses, shops and cafes opened so that they could buy cooked food and groceries to prepare their own meals.  One of the first ever Chinese shops to open was in Pitt Street. After World War One, the Chinese community began to expand inland into the side streets such as Dickenson Street and Kent Street.

Most of the area was destroyed during World war II. This prompted the Chinese community to move out into the suburbs, with a few moving to Nelson Street and George Square, where the shipping company Holts had established a new seaman’s hostel to replace the boarding houses lost in Pitt Street and Cleveland Square. From here Chinatown grew organically to take in much of Berry Street, Duke Street and Upper Parliament Street.

The Chinese New Year is Celebrated in style and features street entertainers, music and dance. The celebrations include a number of parades in which locals are dressed in Chinese mythical costumes of Lions and dragons.

The Ox is the sign of prosperity through courage and hard work. People born under this sign are considered dependable, calm, and modest. Like their animal namesake, they are unswervingly patient, tireless in their work, and capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint.

Tan Dun, composer of In Distance
Tan Dun, composer of In Distance

Last night we attended a really enjoyable concert, Celebrating the Year of the Ox, at the Cornerstone. The place was packed and there was a party atmosphere. The programme featured music with a Chinese connection by composers living in the UK (Raymond Yiu – Night Shanghai; Sisi Feng – Tao Te Ching; and Ian Stephens – Oxbow for dai-hu and ensemble), USA (Tan Dun – In Distance) and France (Qiqang Chen – Extase II).  It was an Ensemble 10/10 event.

The piece by Merseyside composer Ian Stephens (who wrote the celebratory fanfare The World In One City for the RLPO) was written for a new instrument, the dai-hu developed by Mr Li, a resident of Liverpool’s Chinatown. It’s a bass version of the traditional Chinese two-stringed violin, the erhu.

Tan Dun’s In Distance Live in New York

In Distance for Piccolo, Harp and Bass Drum performed by the Maya Trio. Three western instruments – but the music is very far from the way these instruments usually sound.  The piccolo sounds more like the Chinese bamboo flute, the harp like the koto, whilst the bass drum is played only with palm and fingers. Tan Dun has composed  scores for films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

I called this piece In Distance because it was a kind of questioning of myself. On the simplest level, there is a wide distance between each of the instruments in register, timbre, and dynamics. Then, even though I used three western instruments, the music is often very far from the way these instruments might normally sound. The piccolo is treated more like the Chinese bamboo flute, the harp is treated like the koto, and the bass drum is made to sound like Indian Drums, played only with palms and fingers. A third meaning can be heard in the texture of music, which is very open with lots of space, as I began to use rests as a kind of musical language. Finally, I explored the distance, even the conflict between atonal writing and folk materials. Written just after I arrived in New York, I began to see myself with the clarity of distance.
Tan Dun



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