American William Boyd is steeped in China and surrounded by love
in five generations of his Shanghainese family, including his wife
and three children. He acts in local comedy-dramas and sings
Huju Opera in a TV contest this Friday.
Chinese culture used to be a mystery for William Boyd when he
was a little boy in Ohio in the United States. He was fascinated by
his grandmother's ink-wash painting and the fables she told him
that conveyed Oriental philosophy and wit.
China may not have been in his blood, but it was definitely in
Now Boyd, a 28-year-old PhD in musical arts, has become a China
hand. The Irish-American has mastered Mandarin and several regional
dialects, and he plays a few traditional Chinese instruments, such
as erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instrument). He also
has a lovely Shanghai wife, Victoria Yin, and three children, one
girl and two boys.
"I feel more comfortable in Shanghai than I ever imagined I
could be, while I was in the West," says Boyd, a musicologist. He
says his affinity with China is something like destiny. He feels
surrounded by love in a family of five generations in which the
great grandmother graciously corrects his steadily improving
Shanghainese and he works for his father-in-law's costume
Boyd won the third prize in last year's TV show "Laugh to Fame,"
which selects "Comedy Kings" from the public after testing their
performing ability, ballad singing and ability to speak in
dialects, such as Shanghainese, Suzhou dialect.
His later performance in popular local TV comedy-dramas "The Old
Uncle" and "The Happy Apartment" was impressive. This year,
however, Boyd aims for a tougher challenge. He entered for the TV
opera contest, "The Grand Stage."
"Traditional Chinese opera features a harmonious fusion of
singing, dancing, performing and musical dialogues," Boyd says. "I
enjoy it immensely because it frees me to become a part of the
A student of Huju Opera master Chen Yu and his own
mother-in-law -- a Huju Opera fan -- Boyd also receives
instructions from farmers and housewives, all opera fans.
Huju Opera, or literally Shanghai opera, is around 200
years old; it is generally realistic, not symbolic, and portrays
"I don't know how many times a farmer or a housewife has come up
to me and helped me understand some obscure point in the opera that
I was singing," recalls Boyd. "Each time this happens, the audience
member does it with such interest and friendliness that it
genuinely moves me and helps me to improve."
Boyd's hard work paid off. After the two-month competition, Boyd
has successfully entered the semifinal with his beautiful singing
and compelling presence on stage. The semifinal will be aired on
Dragon TV this Friday at 7:30 PM when Boyd will present a
famous Huju excerpt from "Meeting in the Buddhist
However, Boyd is saddened that Chinese opera is not as popular
with younger generation as it was with their parents and
"I don't pretend that my involvement will preserve or diffuse it
to the West, but I do believe that you can learn the ideas that
make Chinese people distinctly Chinese in their philosophy and
worldview by participating in the opera scene," he says. "There is
no place where traditional culture and modes of thought have been
Boyd's fascination with Chinese culture was fueled by his
His American grandmother collected Chinese art, ceramics,
paintings and statues of the Buddha statues. Another aspect of his
family's connection with China was the experience of his
grandfather, who helped China in World War II and told Boyd many
stories about the courage of the Chinese.
Boyd's great great-grandfather was a friend of Wu Tingfang,
China's ambassador to the United States during the late Qing
Dynasty (1644-1911). He opened the Chinese Embassy in Washington,
The influence of my grandparents was so great that the first
book that I read, cover to cover, was one about Chinese history,"
Born in Ohio, Boyd earned a bachelor's and then a master's
degrees in music education from South Indiana University, and a
doctorate in music education from Louisiana University.
However, as an Irish-American, he had a hard time making friends
on campus at first. "It seemed that the only people who took me
under their wings were the Chinese and South Korean students around
me," Boyd says. He eventually became part of the Asian community on
campus. "This started me on my course to becoming deeply involved
with Asian culture, and sympathetic to the historical and cultural
background that made them think differently from Americans."
He became such a fixture in the campus' Asian community that his
Chinese friends gave him a nickname, Jidan, or "egg," which meant
that, like an egg, he was white on the outside and yellow on the
inside, essentially Chinese or Asian.
"Although I fully embrace my own heritage and love the classical
European tradition, I consider being called an 'egg' a great
compliment," Boyd smiles.
For many foreign expatriates, studying Chinese is a headache.
However, it took Boyd only five months to grasp the language. In
addition to learning daily Chinese from his wife, he was also keen
on chatting with migrant workers. They taught him authentic
dialects from Jiangsu and Anhui provinces.
"'Being friends' is a knack for language," Boyd chuckles. "Don't
be afraid of making mistakes." He is also deeply drawn by the charm
of Chinese music and martial arts.
"Chinese music maintained its musical form to reflect its
philosophy of perfection and balance," he explains. "Opera,
therefore, is first and foremost a study in self-control. The
fabulous Chinese martial arts are also about self-control and
inherent balance rather than attacks."
Boyd's Shanghainese wife Yin is important in his close
connection with China. "It was love at first sight," Boyd says.
It was when a South Korean friend invited him to a Korean
student activity that he saw Yin for the first time. She introduced
herself as Chinese "and I responded with a horribly mangled
'tai bang le!' ('Great!)."
Now they have three children, Eden, 3, Liam, 2, and Isaac, one
month old. Boyd describes himself a dedicated family man who loves
doing everything with his kids. "My greatest pleasure in life is
watching my children grow up, and my greatest desire in life is to
be an awesome dad."
Now helping his father-in-law's costume company, Boyd learns
about Chinese culture in his leisure. He enjoys living in this
close Shanghai family. "There are five generations of our family
living under one roof -- my wife's great-grandmother is in her
90s," he says. "I feel like I have been embraced and respected as a
full family member and as a person, and I think that the
Shanghainese pattern of family life has much that it can teach to
modern America. The family-centered lifestyle is a must for giving
children a sense of security."
He loves getting up in the morning, eating dumplings with the
grandparents, watching the kids play with elderly relatives,
drinking tea with his father-in-law, singing Huju Opera
with his mother-in-law, and practicing his Shanghainese on
"All these things represent a kind of bliss for me," Boyd notes.
"Of course, they laugh at my Shanghainese pronunciation and correct
me a lot, but I am glad for their patience and kindness. I think
the thing that touched my parents-in-law the most was my
willingness to take their last name as my last name in China -- now
they consider me even closer than a son-in-law, and call me nitzi
He shares his funniest joke with Shanghai Daily,
cracked by his three-year-old daughter, Eden: "People on the
streets had been calling her yang nunu (beautiful, foreign-looking
child), and she came home to tell me about it. Abah, she said to me
in Shanghai dialect, gnou zi yang nunu ... na nong zi yang baba va?
(If I am a beautiful, foreign child, then are you a beautiful,
Boyd has already had some wonderful opportunities to act as an
ambassador for traditional Chinese art in America. In February he
went back to the States to host a bilingual Chinese New Year
celebration at California State University in Fresno. He was also
honored to perform several Chinese ancient pieces that he had
arranged and adapted for the keyboard and Western vocal style.
"The response was amazing," he says. "Dozens of American college
students came up to me afterward and expressed an intense interest
to learn about Chinese music and culture, and I encouraged all of
them to come here and learn for themselves. It was an exciting time
and I look forward to doing more along this line of work."
William Boyd's Huju Opera show
Date: April 13, 7:30 PM
Boyd's take on:
Chinese tend to stereotype Shanghainese a little too much. Of
course, there are wimpy men and unreasonable women in every city
worldwide, but people seem to look for proof of this fact in
Shanghai in particular. I think Yao Ming is a great example of
Shanghainese masculinity, not at all the madasoh (A term referring
to the group of Shanghainese men who do all the housework) that you
hear about. I see many graceful, modern, effective women all around
me in Shanghai who don't fit the stereotype, either.
A lot of foreigners live in relative isolation in this city, and
I think a lot can be done to encourage this community to embrace
Shanghai as their second hometown and become more involved with the
cultural and civic life.
The easiest thing is make other expat friends when you come to
Shanghai, but the most rewarding path is to ditch the bar scene,
get out on the street with a Chinese dictionary, and start making
local friends. Shanghainese people are some of the most hospitable
in the world, and you will find yourself quickly surrounded with a
real community that you couldn't imagine back home.
(Shanghai Daily April 11, 2007)