I paused before deciding whether or not to share a picture I took of Uncle Yee last Saturday on social media. I remembered he’s not courting a low profile and the debate was superfluous. How do I know Uncle Yee enjoys attention? Just stop for a moment to listen to him play the erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument resembling a fiddle, and he’ll proudly point to a sign boasting his film and television appearances. He co-starred with Will Smith in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, and I use the term “co-star” purposefully. However brief his scene, Uncle Yee is an attention grabber. Just look at the spring he puts in this little girl’s step.
The ancient narrow San Franciscan street where Uncle Yee plays his erhu has a violent history: indentured teenaged prostitutes in “cribs” (cages), Tong war battles and Gold Rush-related crime. When one grasps the chronicled backdrop against which Uncle Yee entertains Chinatown crowds, his peaceful aura seems almost ironic. Yet Uncle Yee doesn’t have a sardonic bone in his body.
My friend Andrea and I encountered Uncle Yee as a stop on a Drag Me Along Tour of the former Barbary Coast area, which includes the ethnic neighborhood. The tour is hosted by the “infamous Countess Lola Montez” (Bay Area resident Rick Shelton in fabulous period dress). It’s a journey into the past – stories of lurid sex, pirating and blood lust – that can’t be experienced online or in primary school textbooks. As sort of a history and experience junkie by nature, it was the perfect union. The untold tales of San Francisco shared by a drag queen with encyclopedic knowledge of the city, as we traipsed through the recesses of Chinatown. Though we tend to brand Asian cultures as conservative ones, my heart delighted in the reception the Countess received wherever she walked. She is a C-town treasure and she knows it.
Over the course of two hours and 40 minutes (and truthfully, the Countess could have gone on all day – indefatigable of foot and tongue, that one) there was so much to enjoy: the inside of the nation’s oldest Buddhist temple with its burning incense, a traditional Chinese funeral procession with full marching band, the sights and smells and delicacies of all kinds. But it was Uncle Yee who burrowed a hole in my spirit.
It started with the cuddly moon pie face, continued in the skilled precision with which he played an instrument I’d never heard of or seen before, and ended with the simple joy that emanates from Uncle Yee when he has a captive audience of any size. Have you ever experienced something so beautiful that it’s almost painful? There was a stretch during Uncle Yee’s rendition of “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” a tune that sounded so mournful as he expertly moved the bow across the strings, that I literally had to shut my eyes. I couldn’t keep my gaze trained on him. There was only one sensory overload to be coped with at a time, and it was sound.
As Uncle Yee wrapped his mini-concert, and the tour resumed walking, I sidled up to Andrea, tears still streaming from under my sunglasses. I tried to whisper a thought that was only beginning to formulate. Without words, just a smile and some perfect musical notes, Uncle Yee shared his love for life – his own and those surrounding the makeshift stage. The ultimate paradox – achieving such a complicated pursuit by means so deceptively easy in appearance.
I make the world convoluted. Not sure I have it in me to be satisfied with just instruments (a pen and paper or laptop in this case) and a beatific smile. But I love that Uncle Yee does. It’s hopeful and comforting – almost shatteringly so. Is his a wisdom that comes with the maturity and experience etched in the lines of his sweet face? Is it hiding inside the erhu, released incrementally when Uncle Yee touches the strings? This is a rare moment when I don’t need the answers. Satisfaction is found in tears of wonderment, in the mystical magnetism of his song.