Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jay Liu in SF Chronicle

SFS Associate Principal Violist Jay Liu is featured in today's SF Chronicle in a wonderful tour piece.

SF Symphony violist savors taste of home

 November 19, 2012

Taipei --
- Settling into an upholstered chair at a fancy restaurant in downtown Taipei, Jay Liu orders simple snacks: pan-fried pork buns, sliced chicken and savory fried bran dough.

As dishes arrive, Liu points to the sizzling, sesame-dotted buns, an upscale reinvention of Shanghai street food. His singular focus is impressive for a man who, in two hours' time, will be onstage leading the San Francisco Symphony's viola section through Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, part of a tour running from Hong Kong to Taipei to Shanghai to Beijing and finally Tokyo. "These buns are special - you can't get them done properly in America, even San Francisco's Chinatown."

Shanghai's history is as tricky as its cuisine. For a native like Liu - raised in a Westernized family and trained at the European-style Shanghai Conservatory - "the city of my youth no longer exists in Shanghai. All the fast development, the big streets and shiny buildings are nothing like what I remember," though a few colonial buildings that became his high school survive.

But a visit to Taipei - inaccessible for decades on the other side of the Cold War's "Bamboo Curtain" - feels more like a homecoming. "When I got my American passport in 1997, the first thing I did was visit Taiwan." He gestures out the window, toward Taipei's distinctive alleyways and dingy, low-key architecture: "This reminds me more of home."

And it's not just the buildings: Facing Communist expropriation, much of Shanghai's financial elite decamped to Taipei in 1949 along with Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist Party. Their iconic culture came with them: stylish qipao dresses, warbling LPs, glamorous pinup calendars, cosmopolitan writers and musicians, cafe culture and the haute cuisine chefs who saw no future under communism.

To this day, the most authentic Shanghai food can be found in exile enclaves like Taipei. We are sitting in one such restaurant now. Founded by a refugee in 1949, it is decorated with photos of prewar Shanghai and stylishly antique accents.

"The flavors here are so much more subtle and authentic than most restaurants in Shanghai itself - the real traditional flavors," Liu explains, savoring a lightly sauced dish of leeks.

He would know. Liu's family decided to remain in Shanghai under the Communists (though one aunt joined the exodus to Taiwan). As members of the intelligentsia, they were prime targets in the Cultural Revolution, which broke out four years after Liu's birth in 1962. But music saved them.

"We were very, very lucky," he explains. "My father was a high school physics teacher and self-taught violinist. He would wake me up every morning with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. We had violins, a piano, scores at home" - just the sort of bourgeois items targeted by marauding Red Guards. "But we survived; our neighbors did not denounce us. They had all taken music lessons from my father."

Another stroke of luck landed Liu in the Shanghai Conservatory's Affiliated Middle School in 1978, when schools reopened after a full decade of Maoist upheaval. "I was fortunate - it was difficult to get into that school if you were not the child of faculty or came from a professional musical family."
Studies at the high school smoothed the way into the conservatory, where "I switched to the viola - it is a bigger instrument, and as a taller person, I was better able to handle it."

China's gradual opening up put Liu on a path that eventually brought him to America - he has played viola with the Symphony for over 20 years. Meanwhile, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased, and since 2008 it has even been possible to fly direct from Taipei to Shanghai, between the onetime Cold War rivals' biggest cities.

We pay the bill and Liu is off, out the door and back to the hotel to change into his tuxedo. He will play two concerts in Taipei, and then he and his San Francisco colleagues will hop a direct flight to the next stop of the tour: a glittering Shanghai he barely knows.

Nick Frisch is a freelance writer in Taiwan. E-mail:

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