Augusta's Chinese groups celebrate ancient traditions, modern adaptations

  • Follow Metro

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.

Back | Next
Truman Woo practices the erhu, a traditional Chinese folk instrument. Augus­ta's Chinese community is one of the South's oldest, dating back more than 130 years.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Truman Woo practices the erhu, a traditional Chinese folk instrument. Augus­ta's Chinese community is one of the South's oldest, dating back more than 130 years.

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.”

THE SERIES

Each April the world comes to Augusta and often finds the world is already here. We take a look at seven cultures and the impact each has on the Augusta area:

SATURDAY: British

TODAY: Chinese

MONDAY: French

TUESDAY: Irish

WEDNESDAY: Japanese

THURSDAY: Korean

FRIDAY: German

APRIL 7: Greek

APRIL 8: African

BOAT FESTIVAL

WHAT: Good Boats for Goodwill Dragon Boat Festival (vendors, performances and boat races); proceeds benefit the Building Goodwill Campaign to complete the Augusta Career Campus

WHERE: Lake Olmstead Park

WHEN: 9 a.m-3 p.m., April 28

LEARN MORE: good
boats.org

Comments (2) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
daviddunagan
343
Points
daviddunagan 04/01/12 - 08:22 am
0
0
Based on a false rumor,

Based on a false rumor, rioters burned downed THEIR neighborhood grocery stores. Who thought that was a good idea?

raul
5729
Points
raul 04/01/12 - 07:56 pm
1
0
I have a lot of respect for

I have a lot of respect for the Chinese community. They are smart, hard working, and law abiding. Always amazed me that asian immigrants could come to america speaking little English, establish businesses and the next generation of children would be college educated and major contributers to american society. They followed the "American dream". Too bad a lot of other Americans don't have that same work ethic.

Back to Top

Top headlines

Daniel Field removes trees, lights structures in airspace

Daniel Field, managed by operations company Augusta Aviation, has spent more than $30,000 conducting land surveys, removing 30 trees and installing red blinking lights on top of the Newman Tennis ...
Search Augusta jobs