In a Time of Red Lanterns

In a Time of Red Lanterns »Play Video

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - From Boise to Beijing, the arrival of Chinese New Year, also called "The Spring Festival," is cause for celebration for anyone with a Chinese background.

The holiday always begins on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar and runs until the 15th day, making it the longest of the year.

It is a time for extravagant displays which often take the form of fireworks that light up the sky on New Year's Eve, as well as quiet rituals, like cleaning the house to rid it of bad luck and make room for the good luck expected in the coming year.

As Eagle resident John Liu will tell you, it's a time for families to gather in the glow of red lanterns, often in defiance of geographic conditions or the weather.

"It's crazy, he says, "just like the American Thanksgiving. Everybody going home. So it will be hard to get a ticket for the plane, train, you know, the highway will be congested."

Liu was born in Taiwan, but in the 1960's, moved with his missionary father to the United States. Their first port of call was San Francisco.
He grows wistful at the memory.

"I remember my first impression is 'Wow, this country is beautiful.'"

Liu says he fell in love with the Bay area right away. 

This new transplant wasn't alone. The migration of Chinese to America in the 50's and 60's helped West Coast cities to thrive in the period. San Francisco, for one, grew rapidly.

But the new arrivals soon found that assimilation wasn't easy. In fact, the yearning for acceptance among Chinese immigrants was the focus of the 1950's-era Broadway musical "Flower Drum Song." It later became a hit movie.

A signature song, "Chop Suey," the brainchild of Broadway's dynamic duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, summed up the mixed bag that was the Chinese experience in their adopted homeland. 

For John Liu, finding acceptance was just another rung in the ladder of success he had to climb in order to make his way in the world. But the story never seems quite finished.

We talked late one afternoon at his home in Eagle. From his living room, Liu looks out on a sanctuary of spindly trees that surround a small pond. Ducks are floating in the still water, as though painted in place.

"I love Idaho," he says quietly. "Different scenery every evening when I come home."

Dressed in a smartly-tailored, embroidered jacket with a high collar, he looks every bit the pastor he is at a local church. And to demonstrate his  devotion to the Christian faith, he reads from a Chinese bible, one that is both dog-eared and elegant.

He reads the 23rd Psalm in Mandarin. And it sounds like soft music.

"The Bible taught us to be respectful of authority and pray for rulers and presidents and kings and be a good citizen and to contribute back to society," he says without apology.

And then he offers to demonstrate the ancient art of calligraphy. Liu apologizes because it isn't something he performs on a regular basis.  Still, he has the proper tools lined up on the dining room table: a shallow carved dish, a set of brushes with bamboo handles and an ink stick about the size of a candy bar.

Liu pours water from a pitcher that nearly fills the dish in front of him. Then he takes the ink stick and quickly stirs it until the liquid is properly inky.

"The way we write our characters," he says, "can be related back to some physical truth."

He continues spinning the ink stick, like he's trying to create a mystic fire. After a few more minutes, he's satisfied.

Then, gripping a brush made expressly for the purpose, he brings the tip to paper and applies a series of elegant strokes. 

"We studied from when we were small," he explains, "and when you begin to understand and break it down, that character-how they will form-then it begins to make sense."

The brush strokes are applied slowly, from the top of the large sheet of paper in front of him to the bottom. They are as much pictures as words.  But this, too, is Chinese and a bit disorienting.

They represent as much a memory fragment as a language. Then Liu stops and looks at his work. 

"I think I will start this again."

He takes another long sheet of paper and begins a second series of characters. His attention to detail and goal of perfection seems right for a man whose steel-gray hair is brushed to a fine sheen.

At last he is finished. He beams as he surveys his work.

"It's kind of an art, and when you practice it, it's kind of a discipline also for your character. Because you have to be really quiet and concentrated and then you have to bring out what they call the spirit of the word."

There are four characters on the page. Taken together, they spell out a simple message: Happy New Year.

And just as easily as he coaxes art from dark water and a rude brush, John Liu creates harmonies from the raw talent he nourishes as conductor of a Treasure Valley youth orchestra.

The day before the start of the Year of the Snake, Liu stands before the talented group and admonishes them: "I need all your eyes looking at me, okay?"

He lifts his arms and then on the downbeat, the children begin playing--confidently, exquisitely. John Liu is in his element, an immigrant from Taiwan, who after many years, has found his way.

Like his favorite jasmine tea, Liu's sense of self is brewed from an ancient recipe.  And it finds renewal in a time of ritual and red lanterns.