The Music of Chinatown San Francisco


West from Clay St; Chinatown SF

Alongside the tourists, wistful melodies meander the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The fluid tones are familiar to me, heard before in movie soundtracks and traditional Chinese music, but the instrument is not.

Erhu musicianThe “erhu” or two-stringed fiddle has the shape of a crude golf club or croquet mallet, but in the hands of a practiced musician, produces sweet haunting notes that glide like a soft insistent breeze. Played vertically with the sound box resting on the left upper thigh, the instrument has a range of three octaves. The bow hair is permanently inserted between two strings, and tones are produced as the musician slides the bow against the strings at right angles to the upright neck.


The gentleman in the photograph played elegantly and kindly paused to show me how the erhu is played.

Listen: Traditional Chinese Erhu Music Samples

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15 Comments to The Music of Chinatown San Francisco

  1. It is quite mazing the know you heard playing of “erhu” before; I have a few CD’s on this.

  2. Great blog post, Transportation China provides everything needed for a worry-free business trip to China, from car service to travel tips.

  3. A delightful post. Very educational

  4. Your variation of subjects makes your blog a great read.

  5. Hi, Super post, Need to mark it on Digg

  6. I searched “erhu” n YouTube and found many examples of fantastic music being played on the erhu. We learn something new everyday when we visit the right bogs 🙂

  7. rino

    Hi Heather,
    We have our own Chinatown here in my country and every time I go there, I am fascinated by everything – the sights, the sounds and even the peculiar smell of the place. The last time I went there however was more than a year ago. I went with the Firefly Brigade bike group to eat at a small noodle house and it was great. It was the first time I actually witnessed hand-pulled noodles being made.

  8. Heather

    Rainfield: The erhu has a distinctive voice. When I heard it again in Chinatown, I was pleased to finally match the instrument to its lovely music!
    ChinaCarService: Thanks for the visit!
    Thanks Graham. It was interesting to me; glad you liked it too!

  9. Heather

    Thank you, Donald. It’s fun to explore alternate facets of the same place: geology, history, culture, biology…
    BodyC: Thanks for the visit and the “thumbs up!”
    Brian: Interesting sound, yes? For me, it was a “so THAT’s where that music comes from!” (Come back again soon!)
    Rino: San Francisco’s Chinatown is an almost overwhelming sensory experience if you let all your senses gather in the surroundings at once. I tend to walk those streets pretty slowly!
    I understand that “noodle pulling” is practically an art. ~Must have been quite entertaining!

  10. amer

    wow! amazing
    you know! last summer i’ve been to USA.
    I saw Chinatown in New York but Sanfran is not ,

    That’s pity for me !

  11. Glad to know that erhu is being brought into San Fran and you love it! Being a chinese and heard erhu so many times before, I have to admit that you have described it so wonderfully!

  12. Oh, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the first Chinatown I have visited outside China. Yeah, I has my breakfast every morning when I visited SF, Many Chinese food there. 🙂

    Erhu is one of my favorite tranditional instrument. The music erhu played sounds sad, isn’t it?

  13. Hi,
    You have a very interesting blog. You want to make a link exchange?


  14. Heather

    Amer: I’d be interested in your New York Chinatown experience as I haven’t been there yet.
    Thanks Cecil. The erhu has such a lovely plaintive sound. Simple, yet elegantly so.
    iWalk: ~Sounds like you have many good memories! The grocery stands and fish stores always fascinate me -I don’t think food could be much fresher (so much of it is still alive)!
    The erhu does have a sad sound. The depth and honesty of that sadness wrap around its tones in such a beautiful way.

  15. Heather

    Thank you, Ciprian. I’ll be in touch!

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