Storytelling school

Traditional Chinese storytelling provides an opportunity for community connection

Caption 2: Henry Tang performs in the covered courtyard behind the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum on July 2. Its storytelling sessions take place every Saturday afternoon.

Every Saturday afternoon for the past few weeks, Jack Meng has found himself in the Chuang Garden behind the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum downtown.

In the shady pavilion on a hot summer day, he sits and waits impatiently for museum storyteller Henry Tang to strike the “wake-up wood” on the table, which officially begins his hour-long performance.

These popular Chinese stories, covering everything from the legend of Sun Wukong to the chapters of the Water’s Edge, are revisited by Tang, who was classically trained in Beijing for more than a decade.

Meng, 77, returns because he is drawn to the life Tang breathes into each story.

“Listening to it opens your eyes to something you’ve never heard before,” said Meng, who is also a regular volunteer at the museum. “He brings things together from different walks of life in a way you never imagine. Sometimes he mentions a (historical) character that I haven’t heard of for years, and I have the opportunity to revisit my memories.

The performances began in June after Tang proposed them as a way to attract visitors to the museum – located at 404 Third Ave. – which was closed for months at the height of the pandemic.

“We wanted to appeal to anyone who could speak Mandarin, those who are learning Mandarin, or even those who just hope to appreciate Chinese culture,” Tang said.

Crowds vary depending on the weekend, but an early July screening drew a few dozen spectators.

“In China, you would have to pay a lot to see an authentic performance like this,” Meng said in Chinese. “Here, however, we can enjoy something so rare for free.”

Henry Tang performs in the covered courtyard behind the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego in early July. Its storytelling sessions take place every Saturday afternoon.

(Amy Wang/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The men believe Tang is the only traditionally trained storyteller currently performing in the United States. After being apprenticed to the famous storyteller Lian Liru in China, Tang is now doing his best to spread the traditional practice as much as possible.

“Storytelling is a combination of telling a story, teaching history, analyzing human feelings, entertaining and educating the public,” said Tang, who works as the museum’s operations director. “I want to make performance available for free so people can really appreciate it as an art form.”

Each of Tang’s hour-long “episodes” is sprinkled with the unique color of traditional Chinese folklore and history. Listening to it is like revitalizing childhood memories, said audience member Shi Qing.

Qing, 65, and his wife traveled from Pacific Beach twice in July to see Tang’s performance. They hope to bring their daughter’s 2-year-old with them in the future, once she is older and can understand the family’s heritage, Qing said.

“It reminds me of the performances we used to watch when we were kids,” Qing said in Chinese. “There’s nothing like it in the United States anymore, but it’s heartwarming to hear the stories we grew up with.”

Operation Kang Hsi takes place every Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego. For more information, visit sdchm.org online.

Amy Wang is a member of the UT Community Journalism Scholars Program for high school students.