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The Song in My Memory—An In-Depth Interview with Fu-mei LIU

The Song in My Memory—An In-Depth Interview with Fu-mei LIU

A photo of Chu-shui CHEN and Fu-mei LIU(©Fu-mei LIU)

 

Interviewed by Lu-fen YEN

Written by Ping-chen HSIEH

“I feel alive whenever I hear music. Music is my religion,” the graceful woman before me said softly as she adjusted her sleeves and picked up a cup of hot tea in her hands.

It was ten after seven. The coffee house basked in a warm yellow glow infused with the sound of classical music and the smell of roasted coffee. The interviewee sitting in front of me was the curator for the Chu-shui CHEN [1] Composition Concert. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ministry of Education in 2016 and is an incumbent director of the National Performing Arts Center, the first chair of the Pier-2 Art Center, and the founder of the Kaohsiung Music Education Association. She is Fu-mei LIU, the widow of the late musician Chu-Shui CHEN.

 

A Musician with a Type O Personality—Chu-shui CHEN

“I was impressed with him the first time I laid eyes on him,” said LIU with a smile. “On our first day at the academy, we—the freshmen—were all happily talking amongst ourselves and introducing ourselves to one another. However, one of the freshmen, a handsome young man, was quietly reading in the corner. That was when I first noticed him,” LIU continued, describing her romantic first encounter with CHEN in their first year at the Academy of Arts[1].

CHEN Chu-Shui was born in Dashu Village, Kaohsiung County in 1942 to a well-respected family involved in local politics. His parents had been members of the Kaohsiung County Council for over twenty years and his late grandfather had been a Qing dynasty company commander (qianzong) stationed in Fongshan. Born after three daughters, CHEN was an only son, and was doted on by his family. He had no experience with classical music until junior high school, but he developed an interest in it when, as a high school student, he heard his uncle playing the guitar, forever tying his fate to the world of music.

Rural Kaohsiung in the 1950s was not a good environment for a musical education, and CHEN had to take lessons from Mr. Yu-chung CHENG in Pingtung each week to learn the violin. At the time, CHEN was in his second year at Provincial Feng-Shan Senior High School, and he fell completely in love with music once he started learning the violin. He often skipped class to practice, and his grades suffered; he went from being a model student with straight A's to a late graduate forced to repeat a year. “Chu-shui had a type O personality. Once he set his mind on something, he would always see it through,” said LIU. When CHEN decided to apply to the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, his family reacted strongly against the idea of him pursuing studies in music, wanting him to become a lawyer or doctor instead. However, stubborn as he was, CHEN packed up and left home on a moonless, windy night with only his violin, some books, a bedroll, and a washbowl.

The following day, the entire CHEN family fell into a panic when they discovered the disappearance of their youngest child and only son. They looked everywhere until they found him staying at the home of a friend in Taichung. After an unsuccessful attempt to get him to return home, his family finally recognized the strength of CHEN's determination to study music and agreed to let him apply to the Academy of Arts. No longer held back by his family, CHEN finally agreed to come home.

 

The Red Thread of Fate—The Song in My Memory

“Unlike Chu-shui, my music education went smoothly from the start,” said LIU, who was born into a wealthy family in Taipei. When she was eight, LIU's grandfather had someone buy a NT$20,000 piano in Germany and ship it to Taiwan for her to practice on. “It was rare for a family even to own a piano back then, so you can imagine what a fuss this gesture of my grandfather's caused,” she said, her eyes wide. Having received an excellent music education from childhood, LIU was accepted by the Academy of Arts when she graduated from junior high school.

Chu-shui CHEN and Fu-mei LIU became acquainted through their duets together. During their time studying at the Academy of Arts, one of their seniors was LI Tai-xiang[2], who was an exceptional violinist. After LI asked LIU to play accompaniment to his violin performances to great success, many students and even instructors at the academy began to ask her to do so as well, making her the most popular accompanying pianist at the academy at the time.

“Chu-shui also wanted to ask me to play accompaniment for him, but being too shy to say so himself, he actually asked another girl to make the request for him. I remember thinking to myself how timid and adorable he was,” said LIU with a slight flush in her cheeks. “We began to grow closer as friends after we started performing together. We would often practice together at my home, and Chu-shui made a great impression on my family, who found him to be a decent, well-mannered young man.”

“In our sophomore year, Chu-shui dedicated his first composition, The Song in My Memory, to me as a birthday present. I was pleasantly surprised by this gift and we started going out,” said LIU with a smile and glistening eyes. Most people express their feelings in love letters, but Chu-shui CHEN chose to express his love for Fu-mei LIU through their common language of music.

Chu-shui CHEN loved to hum and compose his own songs and, as a student at the Academy of Arts, sought out Professor Tsang-houei HSU[3] to study composition with him. Fu-mei LIU would often play the musical pieces composed by CHEN. Professor HSU once remarked, “Chu-shui is an adept at composing melodies.”

 

I Will Wait for You

In their last year at the academy, the couple had to make the biggest decision of their lives. CHEN's parents wanted him to study abroad in Japan, while LIU had harbored a dream to study in Germany ever since she was a child. That year, Professor Wei-liang SHIH[4] secured a scholarship from a German music academy for LIU, bringing her childhood dream within reach. However, at the same time, she knew that if she left for Germany, she and CHEN would slowly drift apart.

As she agonized over the decision, Chu-shui told her, “You should go ahead and study in Germany. My parents are no longer young, and I have to stay with them here. I'll bring you flowers when you come back to hold a concert.” At this point in the interview, I felt myself choking up. Across the table, Ms. LIU used a tissue to wipe away the tears in her eyes and said, “I've told this story countless times, but I still get emotional whenever I tell it.” In response to CHEN's kindness, LIU simply told him, “I'm not going. We'll both stay.”

上傳圖片

A photo of Chu-shui CHEN and Fu-mei LIU after a concert. (© Fu-mei LIU)

 

A Gathering of Artists—the Winter Month Assembly

After graduating from the academy, LIU decided to leave her life in Taipei behind and start over in Kaohsiung with CHEN. The couple married in 1967. “Chu-shui dedicated his piano piece, Autumn, to me as a wedding present. Autumn was his favorite season of the year,” said LIU, her eyes smiling.

They became acquainted with local artists in Kaohsiung, including Tyzen HSIAO[5], who later became CHEN's best friend. “In those days, after our evening classes ended at nine, we would tuck our children into bed and go out with a couple of friends to enjoy chatting over a late meal,” said LIU.

This group of artists founded the "Winter Month Assembly", an interdisciplinary arts group that combined music with fine arts, poetry, and calligraphy; the name was chosen due to their exhibition being held in December of each year. Members of the Assembly included painters Chao-chin LI and Che CHUANG , poets Hsiu-yueh CHEN and Lang-ping PAI (pen name; born TSAI Liang-Pa and later changed to Meng-che TSAI ), and musicians Tyzen HSIAO, CHEN Chu-Shui, and LIN Jung-Te (joined in the second year), with LIU Fu-Mei responsible for event planning and the administrative aspects of the Assembly's operations.

The "Winter Month Assembly" held two joint exhibitions at the Hotel Kingdom in Kaohsiung, once in 1974 and again in 1975. These exhibitions showcased pieces of painting and calligraphy while poets read their work accompanied by performances by musicians. It was quite a radical idea at the time to host an exhibition that allowed visitors to enjoy different artforms simultaneously. “Although the cost of renting the venue was so high that the money from the ticket sales mostly went to cover it, the artists were content simply to take part in the event,” LIU said with a laugh.

 

Those Whom the Gods Love Die Young

“In 1986, during a graduation trip to Hualien and Taitung with his students from Private Tainan Junior College of Home Economics[6], Chu-shui told me over the phone that he felt sick and was not eating or sleeping well. When he returned to Kaohsiung, we found a lump on his shoulder. We went to the hospital for an examination, and the doctor told me that Chu-shui had terminal lymphoma and only had six months left to live,” said LIU. As she finished speaking, there was a moment of silence in which we both sat with a sorrowful expression on our faces.

When he was diagnosed, Chu-shui CHEN was only 44 years old. He was a father to two children, a good husband, a well-respected teacher to his students, and a musician at the peak of his career. The news of his cancer diagnosis was a terrible shock to his friends and family. CHEN did not accept his fate and began chemotherapy under his oncologist, but nonetheless succumbed to the illness six months later. “Before he passed away, Chu-shui said to me, ‘There are still so many things I haven't done’,” said LIU.

A few months before his passing, the couple went on a trip to Kenting accompanied by his friend Hsiu-yueh CHEN. In these last months of his life, Chu-shui CHEN wished to talk to his poet friend about his deepest emotions, and asked him to put these feelings into lyrics. This was how CHEN's last piece—the Trials and Tribulations Suite—came to be written. The suite consists of five movements, but CHEN passed away before he could complete the last two. The second movement, My Beoved, was his last musical piece dedicated to his beloved wife.

上傳圖片

The couple had a son and a daughter who grew up to pursue careers in the academic and professional fields of art and design. (© Fu-mei LIU)

 

Leaving behind a Legacy of Love

“In the months after Chu-shui's passing, I felt as if my soul had left with him. I lay in bed, passing in and out of sleep, unwilling to face reality. But I had to pull myself together for my children and students,” said LIU. “It was about twenty years after Chu-shui's passing when I started going through his old manuscripts and books. I thought to myself that it would be better for these manuscripts and books to be used and preserved than to sit collecting dust in my home, so I donated them to our alma mater, National Taiwan University of Arts,” LIU said with a smile.

Ten years later, and thirty years after CHEN's passing, LIU donated his precious autograph manuscripts to the Taiwan Music Institute. Today, these documents are preserved in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment within the institute to preserve them and pass them on to future generations.

On my way back from the interview, I mulled over our heartwarming conversation. The soft yet unwavering look in LIU's eyes whenever she thought of CHEN was one filled with eternal love. As CHEN said in My Beloved, “Life is meaningless if love is only of the past instead of the future… Let our unbroken love live on.”

 


[1]Short for the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, now National Taiwan University of Arts

[2]Taiwanese musician, 1941-2014

[3]Taiwanese musician and educator, 1929-2001

[4]Ethnomusicologist and educator, 1926-1977

[5]Taiwanese musician, 1938-2015

[6]Now the Tainan University of Technology. Tyzen HSIAO, Chu-shui CHEN, and Fu-mei LIU all taught there

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