Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Crimson Kings
By Jerome Chou

 

At the center of a small gym, fourteen students form a line, the youngest about half the size of the oldest. Drummers in the back, fife in the middle, bugles in front. At the drill instructor’s call, the drums begin their roll, and the line launches into “America the Beautiful.” The students march to one end of the gym, and where the song goes “America, America,” they stop and march back. “Repetition is the mother of skill,” the instructor says, and the students play the song ten, fifteen, twenty times. After each round, a team of coaches fine-tunes the placement of hands, a pivot of torso, the length of a stride.

It’s a typical rehearsal for the Crimson Kings, a drum, fife, and bugle corps now in its 57th year. Sunday afternoons, kids from all over the city gather in the 5th floor gym at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building on Mott Street to learn their instruments and prepare for competitions and performances.

Drum instructor Bryan Ong was 12 when he first joined Crimson Kings in 1989. “I was going to Chinese school on Saturdays, and failing my classes,” says Bryan Ong, one of the group’s drum instructors.  “My mom was threatening to send me to classes Saturday and Sunday. Then one day she took me to the main office and she said ‘You’re going to do this.’”

“This” was Crimson Kings. “I had no interest in learning an instrument,” says Ong. “I picked drums randomly. It turns out there were twenty people already on the drumline, so I played cymbals the first three years. Nothing else. It was really frustrating sometimes. But I was afraid my parents were going to enroll me in Sunday classes, so I stayed with it.” Ong later became an instructor, and has stayed involved with Crimson Kings ever since.

Bryan Ong

Crimson Kings enrollment has dwindled from its peak of fifty members in the 1980s, in part because more recent Chinese immigrants are settling in Queens and Brooklyn rather than Manhattan Chinatown. But Ong’s story remains common for new recruits: he says about half of the kids join because they want to learn an instrument, the other half are sent by a parent, teacher, or older sibling.

Although the band’s senior members have become accomplished musicians and performers, Ong says the group is not primarily a music school. “Some people see us babysitters,” admits Ong. “We become like another set of parents. A lot of our kids are from first generation families, it’s their first time interacting socially with other kids. Some of our members learn how to speak English here. Sometimes, we bring kids to Jersey and it’s their first time being in a park.” Repetition is the mother of skill, whether you’re practicing drums, fumbling with a new language, or learning to feel less alien in the world around you.

Paul Sheng

Paul Sheng, a Chinatown native, joined Crimson Kings in the 1970s, and later served as its director. “Chinatown was a very hostile environment back then,” he says. “You had gangs, older kids always starting fights with you. You learn fast to protect yourself. In order to get them off your back you have to act crazy, like you hate everybody.”

“Many times I’d be walking to practice and gangs would come over to bump me, just to cause trouble. When I was an instructor, I had to step in to prevent them from recruiting one of my students. I went to the head of the gang and told him, ‘This is a good kid, he’s with me.’”

hornline, 1985

“We used to get asked by all these different groups to play. Everywhere we went, the audience loved us. We’d enter competitions against these other groups, and everyone knew we blew them away. The other players would come up afterwards and tell us ‘You were awesome.’ They’d be singing our arrangements. But we would never win. The judging was so biased against us. We always came in 2nd place.”

“One year, we played the Puerto Rican Day Parade. We always play in formation: it’s very structured, everyone’s about arm’s length. When we started playing, people were throwing beer bottles and cans at us. The director yelled out ‘Move in!’ and we all condensed, like a group of penguins. Everyone started playing faster and marching faster, just to get out of there. Even today, if you say ‘Puerto Rican Day Parade’ to an old Crimson Kings member, they’ll just shake their head.”

2 Responses to Crimson Kings

  1. WWC says:

    Thanks for the interesting story! I wonder how many young people total know how to play the fife (let alone Chinatown residents)?

  2. Pingback: Open City: Blogging Urban Change » Archive » New Year’s Parade

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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