Merwin Siu is the artistic administrator and principal second violin at the Toledo Symphony. He currently resides in Ottawa Hills, Ohio and was born in Canada to parents from Hong Kong.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Merwin, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Logan Sander (editorial director at Midstory) on January 30, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): We should just get straight to it. How do you identify your ethnicity? How do you self-identify?
Merwin Siu (MS): Typically when asked, I say I was born in Canada, but my parents were born in Hong Kong. So I will say Chinese Canadian. That’s probably the way I would self-identify. But definitely kind of Asian American at this point, as well.
RC: Great. And so and when people say, “Where are you from?” — would you say Toledo?
MS: I do that now? This has been kind of a momentous year for me because I realized I’ve been living in Toledo for half of my life. I’ve crossed the 50% mark. And so yeah, I am definitely a Toledoan at this point.
RC: And maybe we can describe the path that led you here to Toledo. Is it now half of your life?
MS: Yeah, it was pretty circuitous. I think, for people who study music, your individual teacher, in your college years is, you know, a very defining figure. And I originally went to McGill University in Montreal. And when that teacher, professor Mauricio Fuks, was hired at Indiana University, I felt like I still had more to learn from him. So I ended up following him to Bloomington, which is where I feel like I started putting roots down in the Midwest. Then I, you know, after a couple of little detours here and there, I took a position with the Toledo Symphony and was able to get that job and I’ve been here ever since.
RC: Yeah. So growing up, were you in Montreal?
MS: I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, which is kind of like Denverish West, and quite far north. It’s Moscow latitude. So it’s pretty cold, but I loved growing up there. It was a really cool place to grow up.
RC: Can you describe the neighborhood a little bit? What was it like?
MS: It was a fairly new neighborhood. I was born in 1977. And the neighborhood was not that much older. Edmonton had a pretty strong, booming town kind of feel in the ’70s. Oil was very important in Alberta. And Edmonton was kind of the major city for oil exploration in northern Alberta. My dad was an engineer, and he moved there kind of following that oil, money and stuff like that. And so the neighborhood I grew up in was a lot of fairly newly built houses from people who were not from the area. So, a lot of immigrant households, and not of any particular ethnicity. It was really a large mosaic of different people. One of the things I remember about Edmonton is they have this multicultural festival called “Heritage Days.” And they take over this entire very, very large city park. And they have these huge tents of all of these different ethnicities. And so there’ll be 60 different tents where you could taste the difference between Laotian food and Indonesian food and Malaysian food. I always, at first, thought of this kind of mosaic of different ethnicities as being very much part of Edmonton and part of how I grew up.
RC: Your parents, what ethnicity, where did they come from?
MS: They both came from Hong Kong. Yeah, so they’re both Cantonese Chinese.
Logan Sander (LS): Did you grow up eating more like traditional foods from your parents?
MS: We generally grew up eating Chinese food. It was maybe five days Chinese, two days, not so much. Give or take?
LS: And did your parents speak to you in Cantonese?
MS: We speak this very weird mixture of English grammatical sentences with whatever word pops up first. So the sentences are English grammar. But the vocabulary words, depending on who’s speaking, can be Chinese or English. For me, it’s like 95% English. For my mother, It’s about 60% English, but if the first word that pops to mind is a Chinese word she’ll say it in Chinese.
LS: I think there are sometimes general notions or stereotypes — not necessarily intentionally negative — of the kind of experience you should be having, right? You should speak Cantonese, or you should eat a certain way. Or you should have these kinds of associations that you may or may not have. I’m curious about how you’ve grappled with that.
MS: I generally try to attribute positive motivations behind a presented stereotype, or if somebody’s approaching me with the wrong language, I feel like they’re trying to find that I have familiarity. I generally attempt to meet those people where I think they were coming from. So if there’s a sense of — they’re asking me where I’m from, and I’m sensing that that’s a question about that ethnicity, I don’t really do a dance around it. I just mention where my parents are from, and then I was born in Canada.
LS: When you think about what food to feed your children, how do you pass on these kinds of cultural experiences, or choose to (or not to), depending on how much you really relate to those experiences?
MS: In terms of how to kind of impart cultural identity to my children — that’s a really tricky question. One of the things that is kind of a bit of a tradition in my family is to have Chinese names that have commonalities between the siblings. So my brother’s name is Merek. And mine’s Merwin. So the mun is the first syllable of that zhong-mun — in Cantonese, it’s like Chinese — the mun part is the language, part of that. And so that’s the first syllable of my name and my brother’s name. And so we try to do that with my kids’ names. So Kai’s name is Siu Kai Tai, and his middle name is Taylor. So Kai Tai is Kai Taylor. It’s kind of an expression that people use to — it’s actually kind of a New Year’s thing. But it’s kind of a thing about prosperity. And Matthias is Mun Tai. So the first part of my name plus the last part of Kai’s name. But the thing that was really interesting, too, is that my wife was born in Taylor, Michigan. So Kai’s Chinese name speaks to both of our home traditions. We don’t speak Chinese in the house. My kids don’t eat… So Matthias loves certain types of Chinese foods. And Kai eats very much like a 10-year-old who grew up in Toledo, Ohio: “This food is fine, but can it be nuggeted?”
RC: So, then you went off to college? McGill, Montreal.
RC: So, that environment there — was there any revelation about your ethnicity or race at that time?
MS: Not really. It actually didn’t come until my grad school years more. Montreal was as much a part of my education as McGill. Actually, the city was amazing. It was a really interesting place to examine senses of majority and minority otherness. And because you’re within an English language university within a very bilingual part of a French-speaking province, so it was always something you were considering and thinking about. But my sense of Asianness really didn’t — it’s not something I remember very much as being part of those years. Just, you know, occasional remarks, but very, relatively benign. It was the first time I discovered pho. So that was very important. You know, I think that’s a life-changing experience for anybody who hasn’t had Vietnamese food. So, I guess that’s part of it.
RC: So tell me about [your graduate school years in] Indiana.
MS: Bloomington, Indiana is a really interesting college town. There’s a fairly large Tibetan Buddhist community there. There’s also a lot of white supremacist organizations that happened to be relatively near to that area. And I think one time when kind of my Asianess hit in a fairly jarring manner was — I want to say it was a July 4 concert in 1999. And the music school is right opposite a Korean Methodist church, kitty-corner to it. So I was playing the July 4 concert off campus. And then a shooter had parked themselves near the Korean church. And my partner at the time saw on television that there had been a shooting, and somebody who was very much in my description had been killed. And I remember just how panicked she was because the only description that she had was, you know, a young, slim Asian about 5 feet, 8 inches or 5 feet, 9 inches, and right where my partner thought I would be — right next to the music school. And I wasn’t there. But that was really kind of an eye-opening moment for me, because, you know, ultimately, that’s why the shooter was there, was just — they wanted to find somebody of minority. In this case, they saw this church and parked there. And so that was the first time it kind of opened my eyes to in a way how people saw that aspect of me. And it was pretty jarring. And so, it’s still hard for me to drive into Bloomington. I went there about seven years ago and drove by that church. It’s right by the music school where I was going and it takes me back a little bit to that day. Yeah, I think that’s what America sort of does to you.
RC: Music is also not as traditional as I’d say…you’re not a doctor, you’re not a scientist. What was that like growing up getting into music? And your parents — did they have thoughts about that?
MS: It’s actually really funny. My dad’s an engineer. And he had an engineering company, which he very subtly named after me. He never really pressured me to follow in his footsteps. He did when I was an undergraduate, going to McGill. He supported my education, too — he very strongly encouraged me to have a double degree. He’s a very honorable man. And he lives by what he says. And so, I took a second degree, but it was in English literature, which might not have been what he had in mind. And at a certain point, I kind of cut myself off a little bit from that, but that was not because of their lack of support. They were always pretty supportive — they just always wanted me to have a fallback option of some sort. But it was definitely something that was part of our family culture — even if it wasn’t a joke, it was in a joking way. I had cousins who had a doctor and a lawyer and an engineer in their family — that kind of thing. So it was something that was kind of part of our cultural fabric, but not something that was actually part of my expectation.
RC: What do they think about you being in the Midwest?
MS: Again, I think that they’ve always been supportive of — they know it’s hard to get into orchestra as they know that it’s a very unusual job interview sort of process, that the openings are few and far between… And they were very aware of the life I’ve been able to carve out here. It’s one of the amazing things about Toledo is that if you have an idea, there’s very little red tape in the way of you pursuing that idea. It’s large enough that you can always find willing companions and partners in crime to do things. But it’s small enough that if you have a fairly original idea, maybe you might be the first person to have done it. When I was coming out of school and starting with the orchestra, it was great for me to be able to do festivals and new music concerts and forum groups and find a little platform to be able to express myself. Whereas if I was in a larger city or a smaller city, one or the other elements might have been — I might not have had the people to support me. And conversely, several other people might have been — I might have had a lot more competition. So I really enjoyed that part of being in Toledo and the ability to work administratively with the organization that helped put together the concerts that I perform, and it’s something that I find really enjoyable. That’s a very hard mix to find anywhere else.
RC: And maybe I can ask now, what it’s like to be Asian American, Chinese Canadian, in Toledo.
MS: It’s actually — I have felt very welcome. And I’ve kind of felt one degree of separation away from some concerns. But personally, I felt very fortunate. I feel like I’m in an environment where I have a little bit of a platform and can try to bring awareness to those issues. And I don’t encounter resistance in that at all. And I feel like there’s a small but vibrant community of people I can share that aspect of my identity with. But I have heard people in that community express concerns, interactions — that kind of thing — that had been more negative. But I personally have experienced very little of it, and it’s been half my life. And I’ve felt very comfortable. At times for fronting my Asianness. I certainly don’t feel any concerns about expressing myself in those ways. I mean it’s very visible; it’s not something I can hide. But it’s not something that I have felt really much concern. I was a little — again, those first few months of the pandemic were tricky. And I think those were mostly things that I was fearing, as opposed to things that actually happened to me.
RC: I think that especially with the symphony, there’s already a conversation happening about how often do we outreach communities of color. And so I’m curious about how maybe you’re at an advantage in some ways to outreach certain communities or use your Asian background.
MS: I’ve definitely been asked to do that with communities here, not as much as maybe some other members of our orchestra, as well, who are very active in that sphere. But it’s definitely a privilege whenever I’m able to do so. I think that it’s interesting in that Southeast Asian representation in orchestras is fairly strong, though it’s often grouped around certain instruments. But I do think that it’s an interesting situation in that there are some negative stereotypes about performers who look like us. People sometimes associate that with overly technical playing or a particular lack of ability to connect with the heritage of certain composers. I think that is much less the case in the United States or in a city like Toledo… But it is definitely something that is in the industry.
RC: How important is art in educating the public of social, ethnic issues, especially in America?
MS: There’s this really interesting formulation that a teacher and a thinker named Eric Booth talks about. He talks about how people tend to bifurcate art and entertainment. And he likes to think any cultural experience has artistic and entertainment elements. He talks about how artistic elements are fundamentally unfamiliar, challenging, perhaps, and entertainment elements are fundamentally familiar elements. And I think cultural experiences are really important. Because you’re able to connect with people. First, on a familiar level, you’re able to find points of similarity, and then introduce them to points of difference. So I think that’s critically important, because if you are able to communicate something musically, and people can hear that and find something in emotion that’s familiar, then that can open them up to something that may be unfamiliar, maybe a cultural experience that’s not shared. But that’s very important to communicate.
RC: When I moved here to Toledo, there was a sense of alienation for a person who just moved from like a really bustling city. Even today, a lot of things have changed. But do you think that in general Toledoans/Ohioans are conscious of AAPI culture as being in the Midwest — that we are here?
MS: That’s a really interesting question. And I think visibility has increased. But I would say that visibility has increased recently. To me, it’s something that I feel that our communities in Toledo are more visible over the last 10 years than over — I think there’s definitely been an increase in that, certainly, since I moved to Toledo in 2000. So I hear your sense of alienation. I understand it. I do think that there is a growing community and that people are more comfortable expressing themselves as part of that Asian community now than they may have been in the past.
RC: You find… in some ways, you’re different from an immigrant who just arrived here, right?
RC: But how do you find a community — who do you hang out with?
MS: I think because the type of profession that I lead is a fairly all-consuming profession, it’s something that very, very few musicians think of their job as only a job. It’s very much part of their identity a little bit. And so your coworkers are part of your identity in a way that I think It’s harder to separate — it’s hard to walk out of the door a little bit. So, I think that’s very much who I hang out with. Those are the people who are my people. When I think back to stand partners that I’ve had, these are people who I’m incredibly close to, and it’s the weirdest relationship that you can ever have. Because you are — especially by Midwestern standards — you’re violating each other’s personal space. You’re very, very close and you don’t say anything. You don’t say anything, you’re communicating largely through these nonverbal gestures. And yet, these are the people who are — who I would be speaking at their weddings, and they would be playing at mine, and we jokingly refer to “Oh, well, you know, we’ll be the first people that call about organ donation if we ever need it.” These are the people that you’re closest to — you don’t say anything. So it’s really interesting, but I think those are my people.
It’s interesting — when you were asking the question, it made me think about all of the different ways of performing because, in a weird way, it speaks to assimilation issues a little bit. If you’re a violinist in orchestra, you’re not supposed to stick out too much. And if you’re playing in a string quartet, you have this individual conversation where each voice is important. And when you’re playing as a soloist, you have to make yourself entirely vulnerable to an audience. And those are three very different skills. I think I’m fortunate that I get to explore each one of those a little bit. But I wonder if that has anything to do with how — if there’s any metaphor to be drawn between musically being able to do that, and then fitting into a culture? It’s like, choosing what jacket to wear at a ballgame versus a concert, things that may naturally come more easily to some people than others.
RC: Yeah, when someone asks you where you’re from, how you choose to answer that question, how vulnerable do you want to be in your response? I can say, “Oh, I’m totally a foreigner.” Or I can say, “I’m from Ohio.”
MS: Yeah. Midwestern. Absolutely.