To get to know Isaiah Richardson Jr. is to learn what he is not. He is not a simple street musician. He is not some gimmicky hustler with a saxophone, clarinet and Republic of China flag who earns a living performing Chinese-language songs — including Taiwan’s national anthem — in front of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And he certainly is no uninformed American who confuses China with Taiwan.
“I want to show the audience that there is a Taiwan, and that Taiwan is a solid nation,” Richardson explained. “It’s not even for Taiwanese people. Other people — they just don’t get the message. They think I’m some crazy dude with a flag.”
Richardson, 33, first made headlines in 2011 when a YouTube video showing the former US Marine Corps soldier performing the Republic of China’s national anthem in a New York City subway station went viral in Taiwan. Now that clip is making the rounds again on social media, striking a chord with many Taiwanese netizens, including graduate student Otto Chiu (邱聖傑), who recently viewed it on Facebook.
“When I saw the clip online, I was so moved,” said Chiu, who happened to be at the museum with his wife and baby girl one recent Sunday afternoon while Richardson was performing.
For most visitors who jostle for seats on the museum steps with pesky pigeons in search of scraps, it is easy to gloss over Richardson’s eclectic and accomplished career, which has taken him from classes at Julliard to a role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and many places in between. To visually narrate his story for the audience, Richardson always travels with artifacts — a transcript from National Taiwan Normal University, proving he studied Chinese; a photo taken in Nanjing, proving he visited China; a book with songs to play on the guzheng (古箏), a large zither, proving he studied classical Chinese music — and lines them up symmetrically in front of a suitcase that doubles as an instrument bag and a donation box.
Then, the show begins.
“What’s that?” Faye Yang (楊文飛), a financial manager on vacation from Qingdao, asked as she pointed at a sign that Richardson, after finishing one song, unfurled and silently held aloft that read “It’s Time for Taiwan, the Heart of Asia.”
Confused, Yang continued to size up Richardson, dressed in a black tuxedo wearing bright red shoes, as he put down the Taiwan sign and deftly raised a larger Republic of China flag, signaling the start of another set of Chinese-language songs. But as soon as Richardson began playing the folksong Visiting Spring (拜訪春天), by Shi Xiao-rong (施孝榮), a slow smile crept across Yang’s face.
“To hear this type of music on the streets of New York is truly amazing,” she said. “In China, you don’t often hear songs from your childhood being performed. Today in Beijing or Qingdao, it is more common to hear pop music.”
Born and raised in the Bronx, Richardson was first introduced to Chinese culture at the age of 5, when his father, a fan of Kung Fu films from the ‘70s, took him to Chinatown once a month and forced him to eat with chopsticks, he said. In seventh grade, Richardson, who had studied the clarinet for only a few years, was accepted into Julliard’s Music Advancement Program, and one year later entered the prestigious Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, he said.