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Retired entrepreneur recognized for bridges built by music and art

Updated: 2020-10-20 07:28:39


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Shirley Young poses in a 2011 file photo while attending a cultural event in New York. CHINA DAILY

WASHINGTON-When it comes to building cultural bridges between the United States and China through music and art, retired Chinese American entrepreneur Shirley Young's passionate energy is so appealing that she seems ageless.

Young, who was corporate vice-president of General Motors Corp from 1988 to 1999, has been honored by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at its 50th anniversary celebrations for her help in building a presence for the society in China in the last five years. She was the first Chinese American to receive the award.

"They (the CMS) said, actually, that they wanted to help develop long-term chamber music in China. This is a whole new field and China can develop it. I said, well, that's a good goal," says Young when recalling how she got involved with the CMS project.

She has been involved with many of the Lincoln Center organizations. As a board member of the New York Philharmonic, she was behind many of the symphony orchestra's gala concerts celebrating Chinese New Year.

She is also on the Juilliard Advisory Council for the Juilliard Tianjin effort.

"My interest always is something long-term. What I want to spend my time on is not individual projects, but something in which we use culture and connection, particularly between young people and through the human connection of the arts, to help people understand each other better between China and the United States," says Young, a former founding chair of the Committee of 100, a national Chinese American leadership resource.

In addition to her China-market experience as GM's vice-president, Young learned in childhood the importance of building connections between countries through people, as her father, Clarence Kuangson Young, was a Chinese diplomat in the Philippines during World War II.

"It is the human connection that makes people trust each other, understand each other and respect each other's interests. So that's why I decided to focus more on what I call long-term fundamental relations, which is with younger people," says Young, who founded the US-China Cultural Institute in 2000.

"I think when we look at politics and all the conflicts today, in my view, in 20 years I don't think we'll remember them. But I think the connections that people make on a human basis, connections between young people, connections through understanding the culture and the arts of the other side, will last," she says.

Young provided financial support to a dozen young Chinese artists from her US-China Cultural Institute during the COVID-19 pandemic when performances were canceled in the US and Europe.

Over the years, she has offered assistance to young artists, including pianists Lang Lang and Zhang Haochen, and dancer Huang Doudou.

"They're our future, and they are the best representatives. When I'm gone and when you're gone, they will continue on. And they really represent, I believe, the best of what China has to offer. So, they are the best, probably even better than the diplomats, in the sense of connecting with people," she says.

In 2002, Young facilitated famous violinist Itzhak Perlman to take his music program for teenagers to China and that trip ended up becoming a PBS special called Perlman in Shanghai.

Under the program, a group of about 25 students and 10 teachers from the US visited China and played with a similar number of Chinese peers.

Before they left, the Americans thought the Chinese might be very stiff, probably very serious, or sort of boring. And the Chinese expected the visiting Americans to be very raucous, but most likely interesting, according to Young.

"But when they came together, it wasn't long before they were playing Frisbee together. They're all the same, and they're all very good musicians. And so, it was a great experience. One of the things that they actually helped to introduce was chamber music," Young says.

Arnaud Sussmann, who was on that China trip at the age of 18, is now an outstanding musician, who played at the CMS celebration gala honoring Young and others.

"It's nice to see something like that happen," Young says.

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