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Monday, March 17, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Homemade Opera Stirs Homesick Soul -- Hitting The High Notes With Passion, Spirit

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Every Friday and Saturday around midnight, a cacophony of clanging, banging and wailing blares from behind the red door of the Luck Ngi Music Club.

It's a surreal sound in the otherwise silent streets of the International District.

Furiously bowing on a two-string fiddle inside is 82-year-old Henry Louie, happily oblivious to everything around him. Eyebrows knit in deep concentration, Louie sweeps through a Cantonese opera about a scholar saying goodbye to his wife, then launches into another melodrama about a man who drinks himself into a stupor to forget a lost love.

The music god, who resides in a tiny altar next to the music stands, should be pretty happy about now. Not only does he have tangerines and glasses of vodka on his altar, the music is passionate, spirited - and spectacularly loud.

One by one, enthusiastic singers take their turn at the microphone and, in front of a bright-red backdrop festooned with silver dragons, belt out their favorite tunes, reacquainting themselves with stories about heroes, lost souls and the distressed.

The songs, they say, remind them of their homeland.

"It's something I do that reminds me I'm Chinese," says Monisa Jung, one of the club's newest members.

Mostly middle-aged and immigrant, the 90-plus club members practice weekly, singing Cantonese opera rarely performed in this country. Some members are business owners, others are restaurant workers; most have little or no professional musical training.

Chinese restaurants overshadow the plain-looking storefront on Seventh Avenue South where they perform. The oldest Chinese music organization in Washington, the Luck Ngi Musical Club began in 1938 when a group of immigrants raised money to send to war victims in China. Club members at first performed plays, but later switched to opera.

"We wanted to help the families," recalls Louie, a slender, quiet-spoken man who is now the club's elder. Like others in the club, Louie teaches new members the intricacies of Cantonese opera, in which eye movement and stylized hand gestures are as important as hitting the high notes.

As a youngster in the rural village of Thlom Woh, Louie played the harmonica. He later learned the saxophone after arriving in the United States at age 18. Drafted by the Navy, he played dance music in the officers' clubs.

But he never sings. When the club first tinkered with opera, Louie was supposed to play the role of a damsel in distress - female members were in short supply then. But when he got on stage, his mouth felt as if he had swallowed a giant cotton ball. He could not utter a sound. From that moment on, Louie decided the orchestra was best for him. Along the walls of the club are dozens of yellowed photographs of singers in heavy white makeup, flowing silk costumes and elaborate headdresses, with musicians in suits and ties. Louie appears in many of the photos, cherubic and happily playing in his younger days.

Members are older now and there are fewer young singers. And as new generations of Chinese become accustomed to Western-style music, club members say it is important to continue the tradition of Cantonese opera, which dates to the 16th century, when traveling drama troupes used local singers and blended several opera styles.

Unlike Peking opera, which often has military themes and uses acrobatic performers, Cantonese opera is characterized by stories of love and broken relationships. Music clubs like the Luck Ngi have thrived in North American Chinese enclaves because of such opera enthusiasts, says Peter Lovrick, author of "Chinese Opera: Images and Stories." For first-generation Chinese in particular, the music is their link to home. So, they keep singing. At the Luck Ngi each week, they patiently wait their turn, passing their time by reading opera magazines, gossiping and playing mah-jongg. They perform only bits and pieces of Cantonese opera - the classic kungu has up to 40 acts and can last as long as several days if sung in its entirety.

It can be a humbling experience. If you sing poorly, members are apt to laugh. If a singer really stinks, there's always the fear that the musicians may refuse to play.

One night, a kung fu champion belted out his rendition of heartache. As he heaved his way through, club members were merciless, good-naturedly skewering him.

"You're out of tune!"

"You're out of practice!"

"Get out!"

Lucy Lee still gets the jitters before she sings: Her heart pumps faster, her hands sweat profusely and she can't stop shaking until she's way into her first set.

Her specialty is sad songs - the more miserable and sappy the better. "I forget the problems I have," Lee explains. "I go into another world."

Shortly after 9 p.m. on a recent night, Louie walks into the club and sits behind his stand. He shuffles his music sheets, glances at the group of singers eager to perform and settles in for the night.

At the end of their practice, the singers and musicians share a midnight snack of roast pork and tea. Then they turn off the lights, close the red door and patiently wait to perform another night.

Next month, the Wing Luke Asian Museum will feature "A Bridge Home: Music in the Lives of Asian Pacific Americans," an exhibit spotlighting clubs like the Luck Ngi.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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