Golden Dream: The Salt Lake Chinese Choir Builds Ties across America with Songs of the Chinese Diaspora

The story of the Salt Lake Chinese Choir, under the leadership of Yu-Feng Huang and board president Fan Kwan, offers a model of a community working together with a talented conductor to build a restorative space through choral music and a shared dedication to artistry and cultural pride.

This June, the Salt Lake Chinese Choir (鹽湖華人合唱團), directed by Yu-Feng Huang (黃育峰), presented their first concert since the pandemic: “For Many a Reason, I Sing” (我歌唱的理由). The concert, held at the Libby Gardiner Concert Hall at the University of Utah for a large, diverse, and enthusiastic audience from the local community, stood in marked and joyous contrast to the isolation and stigma faced by members of the Chinese American and larger Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the United States since COVID-19 emerged.

In partnership with musicians and leaders from Utah’s Chinese American community, Huang and the Salt Lake Chinese Choir have created a remarkable body of work leading up to and during the pandemic. Their programs showcase the choral music of the Chinese diaspora, building bridges between communities, while telling unsung stories of American history.


A Choir that Reflects a Diverse Diaspora

The Salt Lake Chinese Choir, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this November, seeks “to preserve, promote, and enhance Chinese culture through music and choral arts.” According to board president Fan Kwan (關麗芬) it is “the most diverse choir in Utah”—a statement that belies common assumptions about the homogeneity of Chinese Americans. Its singers have roots in Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Chinese communities across Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the United States.

Kwan herself was born and raised in Vietnam during the long Vietnam War. She recalls, as a young child, beginning to sing during an air raid over her family home and being immediately silenced by her mother. "When I get the chance, I WILL sing," Kwan remembers telling herself. This resolution eventually led her to the National Conservatory of Music, where she studied voice. After the fall of Saigon, Kwan left the Conservatory and eventually immigrated to the US with her family. Although war and exile had disrupted her operatic dreams, Kwan found fulfillment of her childhood determination to sing, and empowered others to do so, when she founded the community choir that would evolve into the Salt Lake Chinese Choir.

The Salt Lake Chinese Choir, with Kwan’s husband Todd Dam (談和碩) as its original conductor, was officially incorporated in 2002, following an invitation to sing a Chinese folk song from Taiwan, “Song on Mount Ali” (阿里山之歌), to celebrate the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Utah. The Salt Lake Chinese Choir became an important expression of shared roots for Utah’s Chinese American immigrant community, across their background, politics, or religions. “We may all be Chinese,” explains Kwan, “but we may have different political opinions. We don’t talk about politics in the group, however, so we can get along in harmony.” The diversity of the singers extends to their musical backgrounds as well. Kwan remembers that in the Choir’s early days, some altos from the People’s Republic of China, more familiar with patriotic anthems sung in unison, were initially resistant to the idea of singing four-part harmony at all. “They complained of having to serve as ‘handmaidens’ to the soprano ‘queens.’” says Kwan (a soprano herself). “For our repertoire, I chose mostly songs that were composed in the 1930s before the Communists took over, from classical Chinese artistic and folk traditions that more of our singers could relate to.”


Yu-Feng Huang’s Mission to Showcase Contemporary Chinese Choral Music

After her husband passed, Kwan worked hard to keep the Salt Lake Chinese Choir going with help from community members. The transformative moment arrived in 2017, when Kwan hosted Yu-Feng Huang, a young Taiwanese choral conductor visiting the University of Utah. Before coming to Salt Lake, Huang had earned a Master of Fine Arts in Choral Conducting under Dr. Ai-Kuang Sun (孫愛光) at the prestigious choral program at the National Taiwan Normal University and had been a protégé of famed choral conductor Fang-Pei (Tracy) Lien (連芳貝) of the National Taiwan University Chorus. Lien, a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, encouraged Huang to study in the United States but to look beyond East or West Coast schools, and find “a place that would expand my vision,” he explains. “Tracy said encountering totally different life experiences can help you create art” Huang obtained a doctorate at the University of Utah under the direction of Barlow Bradford and stayed on afterwards at Kwan’s request to direct the Salt Lake Chinese Choir.

“I could see right away that his is a big talent,” says Bradford of Huang. “When he took over the Salt Lake Chinese Choir, they were down to maybe 15 members, now they have 50. And they sound so different! What I love best is Yu-Feng’s investment in making sure the choir is able to actually sing well. They can stand on the stage with other good choirs that have been around this area for a long time.“

Under Huang, the Salt Lake Chinese Choir brings to a city rich in choral traditions a repertoire that showcases the renaissance of contemporary Chinese choral music. “Taiwainese choral music started to have a nice development after 1995,“ Huang explains “due to changes in the publishing industry and composers who were studying abroad beginning to come home.” This burgeoning movement spread to mainland China by 2010, bolstered by government investments in choral music festivals, conservatories, and commissions that encouraged composers. To encompass the diversity of the group, “I try to pick out a balance of both contemporary Taiwanese composers and composers from China. I choose art songs and settings of beautiful poetry, but we also sing folk song arrangements from different regions to reflect the diversity of the singers’ roots, as well as arrangements of pop songs to be accessible and to build bridges to new audiences,” says Huang.

The sound of Salt Lake Chinese Choir adds to the sonic diversity of the region while drawing on choral techniques from around the globe. “In working with this group, I have tried to get a more open vowel sound than the forward, bright sound associated with a stereotypical Chinese group especially in the higher voices, to produce a beautiful, ringing sound that still sounds Chinese,” says Huang. At the same time, I want to showcase a different kind of music to Western audiences, that combines Chinese musical elements, instruments, traditional arts, clothing, and even contemporary graphic design to create a complete concert experience.  

An offshoot of Huang’s advocacy is the choir’s Chinese Choral Repertoire Promotion Project, which emerged from his DMA dissertation, a new system for teaching native English speakers to sing Chinese authentically. “He pulled in students that didn’t know the language,” recounts Bradford, “and within 10 minutes, he had them singing authentic Chinese. What I would like to see happening in our choral community in this country is for Yu-Feng to go to various choirs and start spreading this ability. There is an enormous and beautiful set of Chinese choral repertoire out there that right now I think most people shy away from just because of the language.”


Pandemic Stigma: Reimagining the Choir as a Restorative Space

In 2020, as was the case for so many choruses across America, COVID-19 brought the rehearsals of the Salt Lake Chinese Choir to an abrupt and painful halt. In addition to what other choruses confronted—lockdown, isolation, fear of the virus, loss of community, and the inability to sing together safely—members of the Salt Lake Chinese Choir also faced the stigma of being scapegoated for the pandemic itself.

“During the first half year, the Chinese community felt very stressed,” says Huang, “due to the animosity between America and China and, I don’t like saying it, but anti-Asian hate. Even though Salt Lake usually feels safe, we heard so many stories of Chinese and Asian Americans across the country getting discriminated against or just attacked. The whole community was hesitant to go out, the elder members in particular. They didn’t even want to go get groceries.”

Huang started to host music appreciation sessions for the chorus every week on Zoom, strengthening the group’s musicianship. He found these allowed him and the singers to connect to each other on a deeper personal level. “When the choir had regular rehearsals before the pandemic, people came to sing and celebrate our culture, but didn’t really deeply connect to each other,” he says. “Normally in rehearsal, conductors need to get things done, but on Zoom, I could actually hear what the choir wanted to share with me.”

Huang’s work with the Salt Lake Chinese Choir during the pandemic gave him something as well—a new understanding of what it could mean to be a choir director. “I really love this choir because of what they taught me. Before I felt like I was just here to bring new music and share it with new people, but now I feel like I help people to heal during the process.” For Huang, the process affirmed how important the Salt Lake Chinese Choir is to its community: “Throughout the pandemic, we provided a restorative space for people to feel like, ‘Yes, we are not unsafe. We have support from our friends. We can stand together and face these difficulties.’”


Going Viral with the Restorative Power of Joy

Seeing a virtual choir on the news, the Salt Lake Chinese Choir decided to try one together. Like many other choruses, the group’s first attempt was variations on a simple grid of faces made with phones in people’s living rooms that took two and a half months to produce. “It was exciting and frustrating at the same time, but it brought us closer together as a group,” says Dongfang Zhang (张东方), a tenor, board member, and creative partner in the choir’s nine video programs. “You communicate as you troubleshoot together. And I don’t know how many times we watched it together.”

With a renewed commitment to their mission of promoting Chinese culture, the Salt Lake Chinese Choir has taken this vulnerable, moving process of virtual choirs to new levels. As Zhang explains, “For us, working together to do a joyful celebration of history and culture was very restorative. And the community responded, ‘Wow, this is good!’”

One of their early videos, New Year Medley (新年組曲) arranged by Wei-Chi Huang (黃威齊), surprised Huang and the Choir by gathering 119,000 views from as far afield as Taiwan. In addition to beautifully clear singing, the humanity of the Chinese immigrant community in Utah is on display. You see the singers getting ready for Chinese New Year that marks the beginning of the lunar calendar, enjoying winter sports, prepping holiday decorations, and yes, going out to do their grocery shopping with affirming humor, warmth, and courage in the face of pandemic stigma. “Let’s go against the fear” was the plan according to Zhang. “Let's just celebrate Chinese New Year with this production since we cannot meet each other! And so, we had this gift to offer everyone."

In contrast, Fairy of the Magpie Bridge (鵲橋仙·纖雲弄巧) is a showcase of Chinese artistry. Commissioned by the Salt Lake Chinese Choir in 2021, Taiwanese composer Chun-Da Huang’s (黃俊達) work sets a Song Dynasty poem by Qin Guan (秦觀) about star-crossed lovers who meet once a year on a bridge of magpies. This gorgeously produced virtual choir combines calligraphy, sand art, recitation, and song, accompanied by Yanqi Wang (王妍琦) on piano and I-Shan Lai (賴逸珊) playing the Gaohu (高胡) in a flowing red dress on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.


The Unsung Story of the Chinese Railroad Workers

The most powerful of the Choir’s virtual projects is Golden Dream (金色的夢), commissioned by the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (CRWDA) (鐵路華工後裔協會) to commemorate the 152nd anniversary of the Golden Spike. On May 10, 1869, a ceremonial 17.6-karat gold spike was driven to join the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad to create the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit in Utah. Nearly invisible in the famous photo of this scene were the Chinese workers who built the western leg of the railroad. Golden Dream tells their unsung story and seeks to right the historical wrong of their erasure.

They say, the Chinese built the railroad. The railroad built America,” says civil rights leader Margaret Yee (余黃鏗娟), chair of the CRWDA and an alto in the Salt Lake Chinese Choir. Yee remembers being fascinated as a little girl in China by stories of her great grandfather Wong who traveled across the ocean to “Gold Mountain” (as the US was known post the Gold Rush) to send money back to his family and build a great railroad which she longed one day to see. Yee’s great-grandfathers Wong and Ng were among the more than 12,000 workers, mainly from Guangdong Province, recruited by Central Pacific Railroad. “They sailed across the Pacific in a three-pole ship. Once in America, they were discriminated against,” says Yee. While their Irish counterparts were paid $35 per month and given room and board in train cars, Chinese workers were initially paid only $27 and had to provide their own food and tents. Yee’s Great Grandfather Wong worked as a chef. Great Grandfather Ng was never heard from again. Historians estimate that over 1,000 Chinese railroad workers were killed in hazardous conditions, hanging off mountains in reed baskets and blasting tunnels with nitroglycerin.

As an adult, Yee followed her ancestors across the ocean, landing in Salt Lake and founding the oldest existing Chinese restaurant in the state of Utah. As the representative to the AAPI community for two governors, Yee found herself in a position to honor the contributions of the Chinese railroad workers at the 100th commemoration of Golden Spike in 1969. “I arranged for Chinese American advocates from San Francisco to speak. My childhood dream was coming true.” When actor John Wayne wanted to speak at the ceremony, however, the Chinese Americans were cut from the program. “At the 100th anniversary, we were discriminated against again,” says Yee.

This act of exclusion only made Yee more determined to raise awareness. “I knew we must organize to let the people know about the Chinese railroad workers’ contribution and their hard work. Our voice must be heard,” she says. Together with Judge Michael Kwan (關維斌法官), an outspoken advocate for the rights of immigrants, and the advice of photographer Corky Lee (​​李揚國), who famously recreated the original photo of Golden Spike with descendants of the Chinese railroad workers as an act of “photographic justice,” Yee organized the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association in 2017. At the 150th anniversary of Golden Spike in May 2019, their ancestors’ contributions were finally recognized. Many members of the CRWDA, by then 20,000 strong, plus representatives of the media were present to witness a US Navy Blue Angels fly over, fireworks, a lion dance, and speeches by Chinese American leaders, as Yee, accompanied by the governor, representatives of both railroads, and a representative for the Irish workers, drove in the ceremonial spike.


They Too Sing America: A Golden Dream and Musical Justice

Two years later with the Chinese American community again facing discrimination, the CRWDA agreed to commission the Salt Lake Chinese Choir members to sing their ancestors’ story. The result is Golden Dream, composed by Xingzimin Pan (潘行紫旻) with lyrics by Yang Chen (陳阳). It opens with a fanfare for their memory with echoes of Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, played by AAPI trumpeter Bronson Pascual on Promontory Summit, over historic stills of Chinese Railroad workers and a photo of their descendants by the Chinese photographer and historian Li Ju (李炬). Filmed at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the Salt Lake Chinese Choir, supported by an ensemble of predominantly Chinese musicians, sings of the Chinese railroad workers’ epic journey to reshape America: “I get on the ship of my hope to cross the ocean…My hands draw the map of my life. I leave my mark on this vast country as I seek my dream.” 

Pan’s music and Chen’s lyrics tell this story in choruses whose Chinese consonance and alliteration combine with rhythmic string and piano writing and sonorous chords to evoke the sounds of a steam engine on a track, with whistle and bells. The video will soon be featured at the Golden Spike National Historic Park Visitor Museum at Promontory Summit. Says Yee, “Our song will be permanently there. You can push a button and you will hear it and see it.”

Golden Dream is an act of reparative musical justice for the Chinese workers, who were driven out and discriminated against through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but it also resonates with the dreams of other American immigrants. As Zhang reflects, “Generations after generations come to this place. You have dreams to fulfill. You imagine what you can do to contribute. Think about the railroad workers. They didn’t know the language, they didn’t know the culture, they worked so hard, some died, some were injured, some discriminated against, but some survived, some succeeded, and together they built this country.”

Huang’s vision for the future of the Salt Lake Chinese Choir includes a second tribute to the Golden Spike, this time by a Chinese Canadian composer, Cui Wei (崔薇), and an invitation to local American composers, Creed Riddle and Clifford King, to set works by contemporary Chinese poets. “The idea is to create a bridge to help Asian Chinese communities connect with the U.S. community across division, separation and racism,” he says.

That commitment to bridging communities through choral music is shared by the Salt Lake Chinese Choir’s members. “People ask: ‘Why do you guys do so many productions during the pandemic?’” Zhang says. “To me, the reason you join the choir is to join the choir. It’s not something you can do individually. You can be a good vocalist and sing alone, but when you join the choir, you sing together to create something beautiful. The joy level is way higher in that.” Zhang adds, “In the end, we are here. We are Americans. We are Asian Americans. Choral singing is not a traditional Chinese art form, but it is a beautiful art form so we are learning it and can contribute to and even transform it—to build something beautiful, something great, something good!”

Yoshi Campbell (she/her) is a writer, singer, and Executive Director of Coro Allegro, Boston’s LGBTQ+ and allied classical chorus. She serves on the Steering Committee of the Network for Arts Administrators of Color of ArtsBoston and the board of the Greater Boston Choral Consortium