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.
“That changed everything, once I went into that world,” Richardson said.
Richardson learned to play national anthems, including the Republic of China’s, in the US Armed Forces School of Music, where he trained after interrupting his college education to join the US Marine Corps in 1999. Stationed in Okinawa, Richardson served as a member of the corps’ marching band and also began studying Japanese, he said.
But Richardson had always wanted to learn Mandarin, so he bought a ticket to visit Taiwan a year after leaving the corps in 2003.
“I immediately started studying Chinese when I came back from Taiwan,” he said. “When you are in Chinese class, besides learning about history and food, you also learn songs.”
Richardson further honed his interest in Chinese music after re-enrolling at City College in Manhattan to finish his bachelor’s in Asian Studies, studying Mandarin on scholarships in China and in Taiwan, where in 2008 he spent four months at National Taiwan Normal University also learning to play the guzheng, he said.
“Then I started to play at Brown Sugar, in Taipei, four nights a week as a sax player,” Richardson said. “I didn’t want to leave Taiwan, even more so than China.”
Eventually, though, he had to come home. To pay for language courses, instruments and other expenses in New York, Richardson began performing on city streets, perfecting his vast repertoire that includes at least three dozen Chinese and Taiwanese songs — many by his favorite singer, Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) — that he plays at the museum on his clarinet and saxophone, including his Taiwanese-made P. Mauriat.
“My performance of the songs is far beyond simple rendering of the melody,” Richardson explained. “It’s performed in the manner that only someone who listened and worked thousands of hours on Chinese music could perform it.”
Nowadays, Richardson’s schedule is jammed with gigs whose venues are as varied as his career. Besides playing regularly with his world-roots band, the Brown Rice Family, Richardson said he is also practicing for upcoming performances at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall, and is currently acting as a saxophone and clarinet player in the HBO hit series Boardwalk Empire.
Still, Richardson said he enjoys heading to the museum to “fundraise” and perform a selection of American, Chinese and Jewish songs that he identifies by holding up American, Republic of China and Israeli flags. Among the Chinese-language songs he played that Sunday were Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart (月亮代表我的心), Huang Zhan’s (黃霑) A Laughter from the Sea (滄海一聲笑), and a crowd-pleaser for virtually all Taiwanese museum patrons: the Republic of China’s national anthem.
“He’s so great,” said Wang Yi-feng (王億鳳) of Taoyuan, who was visiting New York City for the first time. “How did he learn to play all those songs?”
Wang, who applauded after Richardson saluted the audience, said she had not seen the 2011 YouTube video of Richardson performing the ROC national anthem at the West Fourth Street Station near NYU. That two-and-a-half minute clip recently began circulating anew on Facebook, drawing many positive comments from viewers like Chiu, who stopped to take a picture with Richardson.
But a few, written in Chinese and aimed at Richardson and Taiwan’s colonial past, were decidedly derisive.
“I just want everyone to stop fighting,” Richardson explained. “Honestly, in my head, I always hope that when people see and hear something beautiful, and realize that it comes from a country their country has tension with, then maybe they will see that country in a better light.”