Busking is how they call it. It is the term for musicians playing in public places for voluntary donations. I see buskers in London everyday. Sometimes they’re just the right fillers for a Londoner’s short attention span, a pleasant entertainment for three seconds before rushing off to catch the train or the bus. I hear special ones sometimes, those that make me stop and listen for a while, but eventually I still leave.
The filmmaker Yutian He did not leave. It could have been because it was a familiar sound to him, or that because he was a musician himself, but when he heard a Chinese man playing the Sheng in the busy streets of Covent Garden, he knew this busker was unlike any other he had stopped and listened to before.
The instant musical connection led to the discovery of an extraordinary story of music, love, family and ultimately, a sense of home.
Guo Yi is a 63-year-old musician who came to London from Beijing in 1983 to “experiment.” In the film you will find out just how far this experiment has taken him, but that through all that, music has remained his constant.
The instrument Sheng is not even a common sight in China, Yutian tells me. So for a 63-year-old to play it so passionately in London come rain come shine, it was pretty special to Yutian.
Yutian played drums with his own band at the Shih Hsin University in Taipei. It was a pop rock band fit for the current trendy music of a guy his age, but Yutian had always felt he belonged to Chinese folk music.
When Yutian moved to London, he was determined to focus on Journalism in Graduate School. He could do a little bit of music, but not that much, though he admits he misses it a lot.
So just imagine what it must have been like for Yutian to hear not just Chinese music, but traditional Chinese music blasting from a street buzz, in London of all places.
I sat next to Yutian in our journalism class that day when we were asked to pitch stories. He hadn’t met Guo Yi yet, but a 14-year-old English girl who had just won a busking competition. Being new to London and the culture of busking, he was so keen not only to find out more about it, but to tell stories about it.
Our teacher shut that idea down. She didn’t think it was interesting, “Who would want to know?” was what she said. To her constant disapproval, Yutian kept on pursuing it.
And then he found Guo Yi, a Chinese man who speaks of busking as “desolate and miserable.” He comes from a culture whose definition of success will never be playing music in the streets.
“He thinks that in some Chinese opinion, busking is not a professional job so it may have a lower social position in Chinese society and can not be appreciated by public,” Yutian told me.
Guo Yi earns money from donations to his music, and the occasional gigs he scores around the city.
I often see Guo Yi in Covent Garden. He does look desolate and miserable, but I guess I do not understand music as much as he and Yutian do. This film tries to scratch the layers of Guo Yi and what happiness, and even success, really mean.
When Yutian finished the film, my classmates and I were beaming with pride. Who knew that our shy classmate, the unassuming guy always apologetic for his English, would be the brave one among the class to defy our teacher. And the result of that defiance being this beautiful story.
Guo Yi continues to play the Sheng in Covent Garden and we hope this film will give passerbys a whole new listening experience.
As for Yutian, we wish him well in his quest to find more stories to tell. But we also wish he’d find a home for his music in London, just like Guo Yi.
“London is the best place to do anything you like including music,” he said, “It means air to me , I can not leave it.”
[Entry 190, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Filmmaker:
Yutian He has a degree in Broadcast and Film from the Shih Hsin University in Taipei. He is currently in London taking up his MA in Digital Journalism at Goldsmiths University. He once belonged to a pop rock band in China playing the drums.
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.