The throat singer of Zhuzihu

Consider the lilies of field: also consider the fact that, as one old crone bellowing ‘money, money!’ notifies you when you encroach onto her turf, you have to pay to enter some of these sections.

Though the blooms will be around for some time yet, this weekend is the official end of the Calla Lily festival up in the Zhuzihu (竹子湖) area of Yangmingshan (陽明山). Although I’ve lived in Beitou District (北投區) for over a decade and ridden and hiked around Yangmingshan countless times, there are still quite a few well-known tourist spots that I’ve not visited. Zhuzihu was one of these. In fact, a friend who, despite being a relative newcomer, puts me to shame with his knowledge of the intricate network of mountain switchbacks in Yangmingshan, took me up there a few months ago. I went back yesterday as part of the legwork for a travel piece.

It was hot, sticky, leg-burning climb in parts but there was some fantastic scenery. Though it’s very touristy and there are some annoying talk-dumb-to-foreigner types at the restaurants and lily-picking fields, Zhuzihu is still a lovely little spot. A late afternoon visit on a weekday like mine is probably optimal if you’re not big on jostling with the rabble.

A nice spot to do nothing while the kids splash around.

Alongside the lily fields, and the pleasant leisure area around them, runs a short main drag of shops selling flowers, cane sugar juice and those crappy “traditional” soft-scoop ice creams that one finds in small-town night markets and other tourist areas such as Danshui. There are also some not-too-outrageously overpriced cafes, flower shops and various eateries  stands and sit-down restaurants. Outside one fruit shop, I passed a couple of lads offering samples of orange segments and cherry tomatoes. One of them thrust his wares in my direction. “One second,” I said, as I pulled to a stop to park my bike.

It was then that I heard an incredible, almost ethereal sound. It was like the whistling of some mythical songbird, yet cracked and split into several distinct lines,  the chirping overlaying another wavering undertone. I turned back toward the young men from whence this noise appeared to have been issued and watched carefully to confirm that this was indeed where it was coming from. Although his mouth was not moving, and there was no real outward indication, it definitely seemed like the guy holding the tomatoes was producing this noise. Then it stopped. Then, a quite different sound a deeper, guttural vibration like a didgeridoo. This was more familiar. Then, once more, the higher pitched whistle.

“Again,” I demanded. “Do that again.” And he did.

A graduate of National Taiwan University of the Arts in Banqiao (板橋), Huang Yu-cheng (黃煜程) graduated became fascinated with Mongolian throat singing as he was majoring in performance. “When I heard it, I thought it was terrific, and I really wanted to know how to do it,” he says. “So I went to Mongolia to learn.” It took him about eight months to master the art. “It was hard at first,” he says. “But once I figured out the techniques, I quickly improved.”

One of the flower shops on the main drag.

There are several styles of throat-singing: the whistling, which is known as sygyt; the deep vibrating, growling sound, which is called kargyraa; and another softer technique called khoomei. For anyone vaguely interested, or even those who are not, as it’s just such a great story, check out the fabulous documentary Genghis Blues, which follows the late American musician Paul Pena’s journey to compete in the kargyraa category of the national throat-singing competition in Tuva. I stumbled upon this Oscar-nominated documentary quite by chance a few years ago, and it really is a beautiful film.

When not hawking wares outside the fruit shop in Zhuzihu, Huang is giving demonstrations of the singing. He also plays a bit of morin khuur, Mongolia’s national instrument, better known in the West as the horsehead fiddle. You can see some of his singing and playing here.

The fruit-store is just a part-time gig and requires Huang to slog all the way from his hometown Sanchong (三重). Long-term, he hopes to use his vocal skills to do some paid performances “in the street” or elsewhere.

This jolly fellow sells hats like the one he’s wearing and helps out with cleaning up at the cafes and restaurants around the fields.

Huang is a cheerful chap who seems to put his heart into whatever he does, whether it’s warbling the overtone harmonies of the Central Asian plains or serving up fruit freebies to tourists. When doing both at the same time, he is certainly adept at drawing attention, which  while it probably wasn’t part of the job description – will not not have been lost on his employer! 


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