A Violinist on How to Empower Asian Musicians

I have not been surprised by the recent violence toward Asian Americans. I palpably remember being afraid when I was a child in Illinois, in the 1980s.

At that time, Japan was seen as a looming economic force invading the United States. In 1982, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man, was beaten to death by two white men who thought he was Japanese, here to steal American jobs. The perpetrators received a $3,000 fine and probation for killing a man who looked like my father. The message was clear: Asian American lives had little value.

This message trickled down to my elementary school, where my classmates broke eggs into my hair and hit me on an almost daily basis for five years because I was not white. And yet I was grateful to be Asian American. After all, we were the model minority.

This myth that all Asian Americans are quiet, diligent and successful was invented to pit minority groups against each other, making racism palatable by giving Asians distorted praise and falsely promising them access to the white American dream. The myth defers the kind of solidarity between minorities that could threaten entrenched racial power structures.

This myth also hides truths: Currently in New York City, nearly a quarter of the Asian population lives below the poverty line; Asian immigrants have among the highest poverty rates in the city.

A beneficiary of changes to American immigration policies that had placed quotas on nonwhite immigrants, I am the daughter of Korean War refugees. During her childhood, my mother witnessed horrific violence and experienced overwhelming fear and hunger. Although my family’s history is a common one for Korean Americans, it is a part of Asian American history largely ignored in this country. But perhaps even less known is what it is like to be an Asian American woman in classical music.

Having had few opportunities in their childhoods, my parents provided me with numerous extracurricular activities, one of which was violin lessons. But when I was growing up, I saw very few people in music who looked like me. In 1980, according to the League of American Orchestras, 96.6 percent of orchestral players in the country were white. At that time, the “Oriental presence in classical music,” as a New York Times article put it, was a topic of discussion.

These days, Asians are often referred to as overrepresented minorities. In the League of American Orchestras’s most recent data, 86.8 percent of orchestral musicians are white and 9.1 percent are of Asian descent. Among executives in classical music, 91.7 percent are white. The percentage of ethnic Asians in these management positions is too small to be included.

It is highly misleading to say that Asian Americans are overrepresented in what remains an overwhelmingly white and male field.

Classical music is often called “universal,” but what does universality mean when the field was built for white men who still hold much of the power? In my nearly 30-year career, I have seen not even a handful of ethnic Asians — much less Asian American women — ascend to executive or leadership positions.

I have witnessed throughout my career that those of us who are ethnically Asian but were born, raised or trained in America and Europe, are burdened with the belief that musicians of Asian descent are diligent, hard-working and technically perfect — but cannot understand the true essence of music, have no soul and ultimately cannot be true artists. In the beginning of my career, I was told by an influential conductor — who had never heard me play — that I could never be a true artist because he did not understand Chinese music and therefore Chinese people could never understand classical music.

The American historian Grace Wang uses the term “innate capacity” to describe the belief that different types of music originate from, and therefore belong to, specific groups of people from specific places. The assumption that a musician can be a great interpreter of a composer because he or she is from the country where the composer once lived is often expressed, both implicitly and explicitly. Technique can be learned, according to this perspective, but the ability to truly understand the essence of classical music can only be acquired through bloodline and race.

In 2007, it was revealed that Joyce Hatto, a white British pianist, had stolen recordings of other pianists — including those of Yuki Matsuzawa, a Japanese woman — and released them as her own. Tom Deacon, long considered a gatekeeper in classical music, a former record executive and a well-traveled competitions judge, had written on a classical music message board about both Hatto’s and Matsuzawa’s recordings, without knowing they were the same.

Of what he believed to be Hatto, Deacon wrote: “My oh my, this is a beautiful recording of Chopin’s music. The pieces flow so naturally and so completely, without precious effects.” Hatto, he added, played “the octaves so incredibly smoothly that they seem to flow from her fingers”

Of what was labeled, correctly, as Matsuzawa: “Faceless, typewriter, neat as a pin but utterly flaccid performances with small, tiny poetic gestures added like so much rouge on the face of a Russian doll.”

A Rise in Anti-Asian Attacks

A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

    • Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
    • Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
    • Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.
    • In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.

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