A Beautiful Voice And Cultural Bridge

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In the highly stylized world of Chinese opera, everything from the makeup to the manner of singing can seem mysterious, even impenetrable, to those of other cultures.

So how on Earth did 10-year-old Tyler Thompson of Oakland, Calif. come to be a young sensation of Chinese opera? He sings not just proficiently, but beautifully in a language he doesn't even speak, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"Singing pretty much runs in the family," Thompson says. "My dad sings. My mom sings. My grandmother sings."

But Thompson is the only one singing in Chinese.

The streets of Oakland can be a tough place to grow up. So Tyler's mother, Vanessa Ladson, chose to send him to a school with a good reputation in Oakland's Chinatown.

"It was close to work and, um, I like what they were doing," Ladson says simply.

But she had no idea her son would get mixed up with this gang.

"He started going to school and started singing in the choir and I'm thinking it was just the school choir," Ladson admits. "I didn't realize it was a special choir, this Purple Bamboo Orchestra."

The Purple Bamboo Orchestra was created by Sheryln Chew. She's part music director, part singing coach, part wardrobe manager, part second mom.

She started the Purple Bamboo Orchestra to teach children about their roots, to keep an old culture alive in a new land.

"I just tell them, 'I think you'll be fine. You're gonna be a star.' And they go up there and they do their best," Chew says.

Now, it seems to be part of Thompson's culture, too.

"I don't look at his skin color. I look at, can he reach those notes? Is his timing good? And he has all that," Chew says of Thompson.

Thompson and his classmate Carol Liu have been working on a duet. Liu plays a young maiden with Thompson as a cow herder.

"It's like when we sing together it's like one, one voice on one side, one voice on the other so it could become one. One whole voice," Thompson explains.

At first, Thompson's mother did not comprehend the magnitude of her son's musical gift. "I just thought he was just one of the kids, which he is, just singing a song. But I didn't – honestly -- realize it was such a big deal. I did not," she says.

Thompson has become a star at Chinese opera performances throughout California.

And the audiences are not all Chinese by any means. Part of Chew's mission with the Purple Bamboo Orchestra is to share her culture.

"To bring Chinese music to an African American church, it means that when we leave Chinatown, you know, we are promoting our culture. If we stay in Chinatown, we're only preserving it.

"And if you're going to promote cultural understanding it has to be to all people of all walks of life," Chew says.

Last Lunar New Year, Thompson sang before his biggest audience ever: a concert beamed by Chinese television to nearly two billion viewers all across Asia.

Asked what he imagine Chinese people thought of his performance, Thompson quipped, "Just wait till I get there. They'll be all over me."

His classmate, Liu, intervened with her own answer, saying she thought people in China were "amazed" with Thompson's singing.

Amazing indeed; that an energetic 10-year-old has become a bridge between two cultures.

Sharing the stage with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, this confident soloist does not seem a bit out of place in the clothing of an emperor.

To Thompson, he's just being himself. "I may be an African American, Chinese singer but still, I'm still that that same African American kid I was before."

An African American kid, Blackstone concludes, breathing life into somebody else's culture.
  • Sean Alfano

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