Don't go looking for social catalyst Arlene Cheng to stage a ball on behalf of the Chinese American community in Orange County. She says gatherings shot with sparkle and splash just wouldn't work.
"Don't ask me why the Chinese don't like balls, " says Cheng, who came to the United States from Malaysia in 1956. "I'm so Americanized; I'm still learning the Chinese way of doing things."
But do watch for the Newport Beach arts philanthropist to build her "baby"--the Showcase of Young Musicians at the Irvine Barclay Theatre--into a national contest.
On Sunday, the three young winners of the second annual competition will perform in Cheng Hall (named after Arlene and her husband, George, an ophthalmologist, when they made a $750,000 donation to the Barclay in 1990).
More than 500 music lovers--many of them Chinese--are expected to attend the concert, which will feature the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Showcase winners Jennifer Bai, 21, a violinist, and pianists Brenda Lee Jones, 15, and Tiffany Kuo, 18.
The three musicians competed earlier this year in a field of 14 contestants from Southern California. Bai, who is from Los Angeles, will perform Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto No.5. Jones, a resident of Yorba Linda, will play Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1. And Kuo, who is from Claremont, will perform Liszt's "Hungarian Fantasy." Each was awarded a $1,000 prize.
Cheng hopes to take the competition, which is sponsored by the orchestra's Chinese-American League, statewide in two years. "And maybe nationwide in about five to seven years," says Cheng, who is a member of the orchestra board.
It is a dream, she admits, but a realistic one. "The Chinese have a love of classical music and they love to get their children into music. They know it gives them joy and discipline," Cheng says. "We need to build a solid foundation of support before we can go national. And we are still learning. But there is nothing like it in the country."
One of the hallmarks of the Chinese culture is a "great belief in education," says Ken Goldman, the orchestra's outgoing development director. "The Chinese are very proud of their young people and their skills."
Helen Lin of North Tustin agrees. "Music is an important part of life," says Lin, whose husband, Dr. Fitz Lin, is a professor at UCI Medical Center. She joined the Chinese-American League to help boost children with musical talent. "If we don't encourage them, who will?" she asks. "These days, people are always thinking about kids getting into science and computers.
"But these kids (with musical talent) are the ones who really need our support and encouragement. If we don't give it to this generation, there will be less music in the world for the next generation."
The orchestra was quick to recognize how Orange County's Chinese community might become a valuable resource in terms of audience support. "The symphony understands that Orange County is changing--that there are large and new population segments that are coming into prominence," Goldman says. "The Chinese American community is one of them. A great many Chinese live in Irvine and Newport Beach. We are trying to make them feel welcome and part of the symphony."
After the 3:30 p.m. concert, guests who have donated a minimum of $75 to the Showcase (tickets to the performance range from $15-$25) will gather backstage to dine on fare from Tsuru restaurant of Newport Beach and toast Dorothy and Henry Hwang of Pasadena, the event's honorary chairmen. Henry Hwang is president and CEO of Far East Bank.
With a generous donation ("They would be too modest to want you to know how much," Cheng says) the Hwangs have sponsored this year's Showcase.
After dinner, guests will participate in a karaoke fest. "The Chinese like karaoke," Cheng says. "They are crazy over it! It's very strong in Taiwan. And in Pasadena (where Cheng also has a home) they have karaoke parties. People build a social gathering around it in their homes."
Will she sing karaoke backstage at the Barclay? "Oh, they've asked me to," says Cheng, a pianist. "They're trying hard to get me to sing. I told them if they don't mind hearing me croak, it's OK."