“Because You’re Able To Connect With People”: On Music and Cultural Experience

Merwin Siu is a violinist and Artistic Administrator in the Toledo Symphony Orchestra who enjoys introducing audiences to 20th- and 21st-century composers. In a conversation with Midstory, Siu described how his identity and experiences as a Chinese Canadian and Toledoan have informed his proactive and optimistic sense of artistic expression. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Drishti Bansal for Midstory.

This story is part of “Asian in Ohio,” an interactive gallery exploring the landscape of Ohio and the Asian and Asian American individuals who call it home through narratives, data, mapping and film.

He may have been born in Edmonton, Alberta, and his parents may have been Cantonese Chinese from Hong Kong — but today, Merwin Siu firmly declares himself a Toledoan.

“[2023] has been kind of a momentous year for me because I realized I’ve been living in Toledo for half of my life,” Siu, the Toledo Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Second Violin and Artistic Administrator at the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts, said. “And so yeah, I am definitely a Toledoan at this point.”

He looks back fondly on his childhood years in Edmonton, where an influx of jobs and newcomers followed the oil boom in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Siu’s father was one such immigrant — an engineer — and from a young age, Siu partook in a diverse and multicultural community.

“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,’” Siu said. “And so there’ll be 60 different tents where you could taste the difference between Laotian food and Indonesian food and Malaysian food.”

When Siu attended McGill University in Montreal, his cultural awareness endured, and he discovered that the city itself was as much a part of his education as the school.

“It was a really interesting place to examine senses of majority and minority otherness,” Siu said. “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.”

Siu had begun playing the violin at the age of five, and his passion for music continued at McGill. When a professor who had inspired him was hired at Indiana University in Bloomington, Siu followed, eager to further his education at graduate school. While there, he had a different kind of awakening about his identity.

On July 4, 1999, a young Asian man was fatally shot outside a church near the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. The crime was thought to be racially motivated. 

Siu, who had been playing in a July Fourth concert off campus, heard the news from his partner at the time, who had panicked after seeing a description that resembled Siu’s on the television. The experience was chilling.

“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,” Siu said. “It kind of opened my eyes to, in a way, how people saw that aspect of me. And it was pretty jarring.”

It’s still difficult for Siu to drive into Bloomington. 

But although he remembers, acknowledges and laments the adversities facing Asian communities, he is resolved to maintain a positive outlook. Following grad school, Siu has since made his way (“after a few detours here and there,” he said) to Toledo, where he found his place in the Symphony and in the community.

“Personally, I’ve 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,” Siu said. “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.”

As not only a performer, but also as an active member of the music community — teaching at the Toledo Symphony School of Music, adjudicating, lecturing, workshopping — Siu uses his voice and passion in the arts to bridge divides and explore the nuances of artistic-cultural expression.

“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,” Siu said.

Having observed the changing state of Asian American visibility in Toledo over many years, Siu is hopeful for the future.

“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.”

And he emphasizes how the nature of the city itself has aided his endeavors. 

“It’s one of the amazing things about Toledo. If you have an idea, there’s very little red tape in the way of you pursuing that idea. [Toledo]’s large enough that you can always find willing companions and partners in crime to do things,” Siu said. “But it’s small enough that if you have a fairly original idea, maybe you might be the first person to have done it.”

You can read a selected transcript from Merwin Siu’s interview here and explore other stories from this series here. “Asian in Ohio” is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Equity & Access Initiative Fund of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation.


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