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To make learning Chinese fun for kids, an Irvine couple started a school, composed songs, formed an orchestra

A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra
A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra of Irvine performs at Disney California Adventure Park on Nov. 10. The kids, ages 5 to 13, play the ruan (left), pipa (center), erhu (in background), guzheng (right) and other instruments.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

When I first heard that Irvine’s A Little Dynasty Chinese School (where my daughter is a student) has a traditional Chinese children’s orchestra, I was surprised.

I grew up in San Jose, where there were sizable Chinese and Taiwanese populations, and as kids, many of us took piano lessons or learned how to play other Western instruments.

But I didn’t know anyone who played a traditional Chinese instrument, other than one of my parents’ friends, a guzheng player from China.

George Shaw, an L.A.-based composer who grew up in a large Taiwanese American community in Houston, was also unaware of many opportunities to learn Chinese instruments as a kid, let alone join a children’s orchestra. He didn’t learn how to play the bawu and hulusi until adulthood, wanting to expand his skillset as a professional musician.

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“It makes sense that it’d happen at a Chinese school though,” Shaw says.

A Little Dynasty Chinese School Chinese Children’s Orchestra
Students from A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra play the suona, a double-reeded horn which was brought to China more than 1,500 years ago, right, and the sheng, a hand-held reed instrument with vertical pipes, which dates back 3,000 years.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

For many children of Chinese and Taiwanese American immigrants, Saturday morning is for Chinese school.

The joke is that everyone hates it.

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You imagine your other friends are sleeping in or watching Saturday morning cartoons. Your parents tell you that you’ll regret it if you don’t become fluent in the language, but you don’t listen.

And then you do regret it. I did, especially when I had kids. And when people asked if I planned to make my kids go to Chinese school, I’d say, “100% yes.”

I did not spend a lot of time thinking about whether my kids were going to like Chinese school. But Charles and Angie Liu, founders of A Little Dynasty, did.

Charles Liu of A Little Dynasty Chinese School
Charles Liu, founder and principal of A Little Dynasty Chinese School, provides Chinese instrument lessons for his students as a fun way to help them learn Mandarin. Once they had enough students, they started an orchestra.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

“I didn’t find it to be a very productive experience,” says Charles, who emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. when he was 5 and attended Chinese school in Cerritos.

“I was thinking, ‘why is learning Chinese so hard for kids growing up here?’ ” says Angie, who was born and raised in Taiwan. “Why does going to Chinese school [feel like] suffering? Why can’t Chinese school be fun?”

In 2010, they decided to start their own Chinese preschool for kids their daughter’s age. They created their own series of books with English translations, with the goal of making their lessons more accessible to non-Chinese families.

At the time, Charles worked as a bankruptcy lawyer, while Angie was a computer systems analyst at a bank. A Little Dynasty was only ever meant to be a side gig. But each year, the other parents asked them to continue another year.

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Now open from Mondays to Saturdays, with about 700 students, the school offers daytime classes for younger kids and after-school programs up to the level of the inaugural class, which includes their daughter, now 13.

tn-wknd-et-chinese-childrens-orchestra-20191110-1.JPG
A traditional Chinese orchestra includes four sections: bow-stringed instruments, plucked instruments, woodwind instruments and percussion, including drums (pictured). It’s similar to an American orchestra, except it has a plucked string section instead of a brass section.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

“The whole class is singing, dancing, playing,” says Angie.

“Instead of having students sit in their seats and memorize, we’re going to go bake a cake and speak Chinese while doing it,” says Charles. “We’re going to launch a rocket and speak Chinese while doing it.”

Soon, Angie started writing songs for the kids to sing.

Charles says that before then, he had no idea his wife could compose music.

“Suddenly, it’s like I have Elton John in our living room,” he says.

A Little Dynasty Chinese School books
“Boo Boo’s Chinese Grooves for Kids” and “The Greatest Chinese Festival Album” are full of songs that A Little Dynasty co-founder Angie Liu wrote for their students to help them learn Mandarin and Chinese culture.
(Roger Wilson)
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With the help of a producer in Taiwan, Angie has recorded multiple CDs, including original songs about Chinese holidays, night market shopping and a tribute to mothers, inspired by hers.

She and Charles collaborated on one of their school’s signature songs, “My Name is Boo Boo,” a hip-hop-style nod to the school mascot, Boo Boo the water buffalo.

When asked if she previously had any desire to pursue music, Angie is quick to say no.

“It’s all about the kids,” she says.

A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra
A student in A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra plays the guzheng, known as the Chinese zither. It’s played with finger picks.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

In 2013, they learned one of their language teachers was a pipa player who dabbled in erhu and guzheng.

To the Lius, it was just another opportunity for the students to do something fun in class and speak Mandarin while doing it, but the kids (and their parents) wanted more.

They invited professional instructors to teach private lessons, and once they had enough students, they started a Chinese children’s orchestra.

A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra
A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra uses Chinese instruments to perform folk songs, Taiwanese classics, modern Mandopop hits, as well as Western music including songs from “Mary Poppins” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

They hired Yunhe Liang, who studied at Beijing’s prestigious Central Conservatory of Music and performed the erhu music for Shanghai Disneyland’s theme music, as the orchestra’s music director.

For each show, Liang arranges the music for each instrument, while taking into account the skill level of each student. If the regular way of playing a song is too complicated, he’ll simplify it for the individual musicians.

“The kids absolutely love him,” Charles says of the 40 students in their weekly orchestra class. “When we go perform at Disneyland, they’ll always grab him and drag him onto the roller coasters.”

Yunhe Liang
ALD Children’s Orchestra music director Yunhe Liang performed erhu music for video games like “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and previously performed with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl for an orchestral performance of “The Last Emperor.”
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

While full Chinese orchestras made up entirely of kids are still less common in the U.S., there are more opportunities now to learn the instruments, even as adults.

There are Chinese instrument ensembles at UCLA and Pasadena City College; orchestras like String and Bamboo Music in Walnut and the South Coast Chinese Orchestra at Irvine Chinese School; and a Galaxy Youth Art Performing Group in Tustin.

Mary Zhao, a Beijing-born, Fullerton-based guzheng player who started the American Gu Zheng Institute in 2011, has been teaching the instrument in Southern California for decades.

She says her students enjoy getting in touch with Chinese culture and impressing their peers at talent shows.

“It’s different than learning piano,” she says. “It’s special.”

A Little Dynasty Children’s Orchestra
Students from A Little Dynasty Chinese Children’s Orchestra play the erhu, a two-stringed bow instrument often referred to as the Chinese violin that dates back to the Tang Dynasty.
(Libby Cline-Birmingham)

Shaw agrees. He first composed an album, “Legendary Warriors,” using Chinese instruments over a decade ago, and he’s currently working on follow-up. He says his ability to compose with both Chinese and Western instruments is a way to distinguish himself as a musician.

Meanwhile, A Little Dynasty Children’s Orchestra is doing its part to spread Chinese culture, performing at Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Huntington Library, Knott’s Berry Farm, South Coast Plaza and other venues. They have a full schedule ahead as Lunar New Year approaches.

“Whenever I listen to the orchestra, I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how good these young kids are,” says Charles. “We’re not a music school where you come here and just learn to play instrument ... but our kids really loved it and they got better and better.”

For information, visit chinesechildrensorchestra.com.

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