In the sunroom of a large home in Evans, three friends gathered to practice music on instruments invented 500 years before Christopher Columbus first sailed to America.
Truman Woo and Tim Lin pay careful attention to their teacher, Xiaomin Liu, as she leads them first through an old song about China’s Great Wall and then through a version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Edelweiss.
The 20th century tune from The Sound of Music sounds a bit odd coming from the ancient erhu, a two-stringed fiddle first described in writing more than 1,000 years ago during China’s Song Dynasty, but the trio plays it well enough that Liu seems pleased.
The erhu is widely played in China, said Lin, an engineer who works in Aiken.
“It’s very popular,” he said. “Many young people are learning to play it.”
The mixture of old and new, ancient and modern is typical of a culture that can trace its roots back 5,000 years. It’s also part of the Chinese community in Augusta, one of the oldest Chinese communities in the South but one that is also changing and growing with every passing year.
According to 2010 U.S. Census estimates, there were about 500 foreign-born Chinese people living in Richmond County. Local members of the community say that number is low.
Many who consider themselves to be Chinese were born in Augusta. That’s
because Augusta’s Chinese community got its start more than 130 years ago when the first laborers arrived to work on the Augusta Canal.
Since that time, there have been successive waves of Chinese immigrants who have come to Augusta seeking opportunity and establishing new roots.
THE 19TH CENTURY laborers were followed in the early 20th century by Cantonese merchants who established their own businesses – primarily grocery stores
that catered to the black community, said Gary Tom, a native Augustan whose grandfather emigrated from Malaysia.
Tom’s grandfather came to Augusta in 1927. That same year, he and 58 other local Chinese men signed a
petition to charter the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the oldest such organization in the South.
“A lot of Chinese came here to open grocery stores,” Tom said. “All my Chinese friends I grew up with, 90 percent of them had grocery stores.”
The 1940 Census reported a Chinese population of 224 and 63 grocery stores, according to Benevolent Association history. That number began a decline in the 1950s, as success and social changes allowed the
children of Chinese merchants to go to college and pursue other careers. Eventually, that segment of Augusta business faded away, Tom said.
“There are no more Chinese grocery stores here today,” he said. “What led to the real demise of the grocery stores was the 1970 riots. A lot of those stores were burned down.”
Tom said the next wave of Chinese immigrants came primarily from Taiwan, starting in the 1970s when many engineers and their families came to the area to work at Savannah River Site.
Another organization sprang up around that group, the CSRA Chinese Association. President Mei Lin Wang said the group remains primarily Taiwanese but has grown to include retired business owners and people from other areas and professions.
Wang said members meet for events three or four times a year and gather for other special interest activities, such as Tai Chi classes every Sunday morning, the Chinese Fun Club Chorus and a small investment club made
up of about 20 clever Chinese ladies and “a few dumb men.”
“We just went to Macon for the Cherry Blossom Festival,” Wang said.
THE NEXT BIG EVENT for the Chinese community will be on April 28, when Goodwill Industries will put on a Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Olmstead.
The event will be a celebration of Asian food and culture and feature dragon boat races – a 2,500-year tradition dating back to the death of famed Chinese patriot-poet Qu Yuan.
The colorful 30-foot-long, solid-teak boats weigh about 1,500 pounds and are crewed by 20 paddlers and a drummer. There will also be performances by groups, such as the erhu trio.
“We plan to have a group there,” said Guodong Pan, a medical researcher at Georgia Health Sciences University and president of the GHSU Chinese Student & Scholar Association.
With more than 400 members, the student organization has grown to become the largest Chinese group in Augusta.
Most of the medical students and researchers at GHSU are from the Wuhan area in central China, where the dominant dialect is Mandarin, Pan said. Many members will eventually return to China after attaining their Ph.D., but some intend to stay, including medical researchers Zhen Zheng and Nianlan Yang.
Since coming to Augusta, the two have learned to like some aspects of American life. Their oldest son, Yangqi, joined a Cub Scout pack at Aldersgate United Methodist Church and is about to transition to the Boys Scouts, Zheng said.
A little more than a year ago, the couple made another contribution to Augusta’s growing Chinese community – their second son, Ronald. Zheng said he is happy his son is a native Augustan and will likely grow up like most other American children. His name is a way of
embracing an American tradition.
“We named him after our American friend,” Zheng said. “In China, it is impolite to name your child after just one person.”