By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Warren Chang and Buyun Zhao, a husband and wife duo, have introduced the Chinese genre of music to the Seattle community over the last two decades. They founded the first organization dedicated to Chinese music in Washington state.
Chang arrived in Seattle in 1982 and Zhao in 1990. The two also met in 1990 in China. Ever since their arrival, the couple has been contributing their work to promote Chinese music to everyone.
Chang is one of China’s most prominent er-hu artists, contributing his accomplished talent to audiences in the United States. Zhao specializes in the yangqin but also plays the gu-zheng and pi-pa.
In May 1984, Chang started the Chinese Arts and Music Association. Within the association, there are four different groups: the Seattle Chinese Orchestra, Washington Chinese Youth Orchestra, U.S. China Music Ensemble, and Northwest Chinese Gu-Zheng Orchestra.
The purpose of the association was to introduce and teach Chinese music to the Western world.
Shortly before the association was established, Chang held the first Chinese music concert in Seattle in 1983.
In 1986, they started the Seattle Chinese Orchestra (SCO), which consisted of 22 members, half of whom were Chinese and the other half American. Their first performance was at the Broadway Performance Hall. Chang states that the SCO is the only traditional Chinese orchestra in the Pacific Northwest.
In December 1993, the couple established the first Washington Chinese Youth Orchestra, whose members range in age from 5 to 18 years.
Both Chang and Zhao were strongly influenced and encouraged by their parents to study music. Their families loved Chinese music and opera. Chang’s parents always brought him along to musical concerts, and one performance sparked his interest in music.
“This woman played such touching and powerful music,” Chang said of a concert he attended.
“During the cultural revolution, everything was destroyed except for music and sports. So it’s an important thing in China.”
Chang studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and began private lessons at the age of 6. Zhao attended the Shanghai Opera Music School when she was 9. She became a music teacher after she graduated from college and then she joined the Shanghai Orchestra.
Chang said that it was a life-changing experience when he became a professional musician.
Famous Chinese composer Chen Gang organized the first Chinese girls’ rock and roll band. The band was a very well-known musical group in China at the time. The seven ladies traveled throughout China and performed in various places in which they played both Western and Chinese music. Zhao was selected to play the drums because she played the yangqin so well. The instruments are similar tempo-wise, and Zhao possesses a very good technique on the yangqin, Chang said.
Upon arriving in Seattle, Chang had a brief stint teaching Chinese music at the Cornish College of Arts, but he had a tough time due to the language barrier. He said that he learned most of his English from his students.
Chang also had the honor of performing Chinese music for the first time at the governor’s award ceremony in 2005. The couple had previously performed at the Bumbershoot Festival as well.
Not only have they gained local fame, but their musical talents have been showcased at the grand opening ceremony for the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas in 2005.
Wynn was even asked why he invited people from Seattle to perform. Chang said that Wynn replied specifying that everything in his hotel was first-class including his musical acts.
Chang cooperated with the Japanese musicians, Kitaro and the Symphony Orchestra, and brought nine musicians along with him to perform at the prestigious hotel.
The couple returns to China every year to attend the music festival and sometimes brings the orchestra to perform. They also have a cultural exchange program with Shanghai University to which they brought the Olympia Youth Symphony and Northwest Chamber Orchestra to perform music, so that the groups can gain exposure to the culture. Chang said his goal is to promote both countries’ music and to have cultural exchanges in music and the arts.
Today, both Chang and Zhao continue to teach music to nearly 100 students. They also spend a good amount of time recording background music for Chinese films. They even work with Japanese films because of their collaboration with Kitaro.
“As representatives of Chinese musicians, we appreciate the community and their support, especially the Seattle Chinese Post for this honor,” Chang said.
“Music is always an important part of my life,” said Zhao. “And I would like to contribute my talent to our great community. I enjoy, so much, teaching music to all my students and hope everyone will continue to support and promote our beautiful Chinese music in this country.” ♦
Meet Chang and Zhao at NWAWF’s Pioneers in Music Awards Gala and Banquet on Oct. 16. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org. For more information on the couple, visit www.uschinamusic.com.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.