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Blind singers in tune with society

By Zhang Yi and Hu Meidong | China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-11


Chen Jincan (center) sings with other band members in a rehearsal room in Fuzhou. HU MEIDONG/CHINA DAILY

Band members inspire peers to overcome disability and spread their wings. Zhang Yi and Hu Meidong report from Fuzhou.

Every Saturday night, music lover Huang Yanping gets together with friends and logs on to a livestreaming platform to give a concert lasting three hours. Sometimes, the friends are so excited that they play till midnight.

On the screen, six people sit huddled together with microphones in front of them. They are all visually impaired and most can barely see. Over the years, members of the band in Fuzhou, Fujian province, have included masseurs, piano tuners, computer teachers and music producers. For the love of music, they come together to play as a group.

The name of the band is See, and its aim is to encourage visually impaired people to integrate into society. "We cannot see, but we can be seen by others. I hope more people will be brave enough to walk under the sun and into the crowd," Huang said.

The 37-year-old composer and keyboard player is the soul of the outfit, and he sings and coaches the others. Since he launched the band in 2009, Huang has seen members come and go, with many returning to the massage industry, a profession that attracts a high number of visually impaired people.

"My goal is to keep the band going. I hope blind people can find comfort from singing and pursue their musical dreams. I also hope more people can see us via the band," he said.

Musical careers

Unlike most of his blind friends who work in the massage industry, Huang chose a different profession as a music producer as a result of lessons he took as a child.

When he was studying at a school for the blind in Fuzhou at about age 10, he learned piano in addition to vocational courses such as massage techniques. Thus, he discovered his musical talent.

One summer vacation, like most of his schoolmates, he worked in a massage salon as an intern. "After massaging a large number of feet every day, I realized that I didn't like the job. As blind people, we were always told that our future employment was in the massage industry, and there was no second path. However, I always think anything is possible," he said. "I am just the 1 percent who pursued a musical career."

Through his own efforts, Huang was admitted to a music performance major for the blind at Beijing Union University in 2005 — one of the only two colleges that enrolled visually impaired people at the time — and he formed a rock band with other blind students. They performed with professional bands and played at many colleges.

Huang remembers that his craziest, coolest performance came when he slung a keyboard over his shoulder and put one leg on an amplifier. "I was so excited that I fell off the stage, but amazingly, I landed on both feet," he recalled. "Without that experience of playing in a band, I would not have had the passion to create or have any understanding about music."

To his regret, most of his talented college classmates didn't pursue careers in music, choosing the massage industry instead. "Reality defeats the dream," he said.

Postgraduation activity

After graduating in 2008, he returned to Fuzhou. The following year, he started a band to continue his musical dream. Many of the founding members were masseurs who were fond of singing.

Chen Jincan, who was born blind, is one of them. In addition to playing in the band, he earns money at a friend's massage parlor in his spare time.

He has a northern accent, despite being a Fujian native who has seldom left the eastern province. That's because Chen spent almost all his childhood listening to the radio and imitating the Beijing accent. Now, he enjoys reciting the scripts of TV dramas along with the actors, while imagining the scenes. His favorite activity is singing, so he learns all the songs in the TV series he most enjoys.

He loves the feeling of being on stage. "When I stand there and the applause comes from all directions, I feel lifted up by it," he said. "We should not neglect our hobbies, but should make ourselves happy through them."

The band often sings the theme song of the famous TV series The Legend of the White Snake. The song, depicting a legendary romance, is band leader Huang's favorite. While listening to the TV series as a teenager, he longed to find a woman like the female lead, even though he was unable to see what she looked like.

Last year, the band occasionally posted a video online of themselves singing the song. It gained more than 270,000 likes and gave them a wider audience. Netizens are attracted to their professional singing, but more importantly to their optimism. The sudden popularity made them decide to stream on social media three nights a week.

Pleasure, friendship

The band brightens the members' lives, and gives them musical pleasure and friendship. Most of them are unmarried, but they consider each other as family. They live in adjacent dormitories, with a canteen and rehearsal room nearby.

Li Yanbin, one of the two female members, had eye surgery many years ago that extended her vision. During that period, she sold shoes, worked at a supermarket and learned massage, but she quit as overwork would accelerate the deterioration of her vision.

She joined the band in 2017 as she loves singing, despite a lack of professional training.

However, one morning in 2020, when she woke and discovered she couldn't see the text on her phone, she calmly accepted that her sight had gone.

"It was like the 'snowflake screen' on TV and I could only feel the light, but now I have even lost that," the 30-year-old said.

"Knowing I would lose my sight was a huge blow. My father blames himself for not spotting the problem earlier, so I have to hide my sadness so as not to affect my family," she said. "I would have felt even worse if I hadn't joined the group. The other members, who have not been able to see since childhood, gave me a lot of comfort and encouragement, so when the fateful day came I accepted it peacefully."

When she could still see a little, Li often took Chen Jincan, her best friend in the band, to walk on the lawn in front of their residential building and enjoy the sunset. She also helped the other members.

But since she lost her sight and has difficulty adapting to walking in darkness, she has to take Chen's hands to go downstairs and to the canteen.

"I was their 'eyes', but now they are my 'stick'," she said. She has also developed the habit of speaking the lines of TV programs out loud with Chen.

Although she can't see, Li maintains a sense of ritual: she wears clothes in her favorite color and sweeps every corner of her room, even though she can't see where it's dirty. She had a manicure during Spring Festival and got her nails painted with rabbit patterns to usher in the Year of the Rabbit.

Zheng Xuan, the other female member, has some vision in her right eye. The 20-something can see her phone by holding it up close, so when the band is livestreaming she reads netizens' messages to the other members.

With her eyesight deteriorating, the other members have helped her learn to use screen-reading software to prepare for the day when her vision goes completely.

Though Zhu Weixian, the band's deputy leader, has normal vision, one of his legs is crippled due to polio. He takes care of the band's daily routines, including costumes and travel.

Support, success

The band receives a lot of support, including free accommodations and a rehearsal room provided by the local disabled persons' federation, as well as opportunities to perform. The members' ability to take planes to travel outside the province to perform is a source of encouragement and pride, Huang said, adding that he expects more performances this year as the COVID-19 epidemic is over.

Chen, who has been living on his own for 20 years, said visually impaired people should work hard to be independent and show their ability to society."I learned to make mobile payments and I can call a taxi on my phone. If the driver wonders how a blind person can find the car when picking me up at the gate, I tell him to just honk the horn so I can locate it by sound," he said.

Huang said he is happy to see there are more choices for blind people, including more colleges and new types of employment, such as becoming accessibility testers for tech companies. He said he just finished his dream of holding a concert featuring various TV theme songs.

He dotes on his 6-year-old son, and even though the child was born blind, and Huang's wife only has sight in one eye, Huang said the family is still full of enthusiasm and hope for life.

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