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Interview: Chen Jianxuan

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For many years, the pleasant sounds of the two-stringed erhu have echoed throughout the tree-lined alley outside Yunnan University's west gate. Silver-haired and with a well-kept goatee, Chen Jianxuan (陈健轩) sits on the sidewalk outside the foreign students' dormitory and plays his erhu, at his side is a duffel bag filled with small notes, waiting for the next tip.

Always quick with a nod and a smile for tippers or familiar passersby, Chen is one of the more easily recognizable faces in Kunming, but few of the countless people who hear his music know much about him. We sat down on the sidewalk with Chen to learn more about this man who has supported himself his entire life by playing the erhu:

GoKunming: Where are you from?

Chen Jianxuan: I'm from Hunan, from a place called Yiyang (益阳).

GK: When did you come to Kunming?

Chen: I first came here in 1998 and I've been here ever since.

GK: Why did you come to Kunming?

Chen: Well... I came here looking for my son. I never found him.

GK: Why didn't you go back to Hunan after a few years?

Chen: Once I realized I probably wasn't going to find my son, I looked at Kunming and, you know, the climate here is pretty nice – it's well-suited to old people like me. So I stayed.

GK: When did you learn to play the erhu?

Chen: When I was in my early teens.

GK: Who taught you?

Chen: Nobody taught me! (laughs) I taught myself!

In my home village I would play flower drum opera (huaguxi, 花鼓戏) and other people would sing along. Wanna smoke? (offers a cigarette)

GK: No thanks, I don't smoke.

Chen: (laughs) Yeah, that's a good habit.

GK: What are your favorite songs to play?

Chen: I like songs from the Ming Dynasty.

GK: Why's that?

Chen: They sell well.

GK: I've seen you playing here on Tianjundian Xiang over the last six years, how long have you been playing here?

Chen: I've been playing around this area for eight years now.

GK: I suppose you know a lot of people just from sitting here on the pavement and playing erhu over the years.

Chen: Yeah, I've got a lot of friends and recognize a lot of people because I see them almost every day. Foreigners are all very friendly to me. A lot of foreigners give me money to play songs on my erhu.

I've taught a lot of foreigners... French, Japanese, Thais, Koreans, I've taught 'em all how to play the erhu.

GK: Your dog is very friendly, what's her name? Is she a good companion?

Chen: Her name's Xixi (西西)... you know, I'm an old man living by myself... it's good to have a buddy. Xixi's about a year old, a friend gave her to me.

GK: Can you play us your favorite song?

Chen: Yeah, of course. Get over here Xixi!

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The most friendly man in Kunming. Having left Kunming, he is one of my favorite memories. I am so pleased that he has a new four-legged friend. I wonder if this publicity will help him to find his son - I hope so.
Thanks Chris.

Gokm - thanks for a really nice article. I've also passed him by wondering who he is, why he's there, and maybe more importantly - enjoyed his erhu.

First time in KM, I heard him sitting a block down from the Children's Hospital. I have some wonderful photos of him, and last time there I was hoping to find him to give him a print out.

Maybe his repertoire isnt my favorite of the Erhu-classics, but it was really nice listening to him regardless. A handsome man (very photogenic), friendly and a joy to hear him play un-amplified. I just can't stand those who take an erhu and shove through a cheap small portable combo-amp with lots of distortion, even if they do play my favorite erhu-classics.

I understand the subject is quite sensitive, but I wished we had learned more about his lost son. It's not inconceivable that his son could be found assuming that this kind Lao Chen is still interested. Regardless, Lao Chen is part of what makes Kunming special beyond the good climate.

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