The musician: Shen and his erhu outside of Melbourne Central Station. Photo by Joanne Amarisa.
(For The Swanston Gazette print edition one, 2019)
The musician is sitting on his stool. He plays and smiles, as commotion builds. Peak hour is approaching in Melbourne Central Station. Faintly, amidst the noise – an eerie sound of a violin.
It was windy on the day I met Shen. The 86-year-old was hauling an oversized backpack. In his hands was a tattered erhu case. On his head, a red baseball cap which read, “King of Beers.”
A long-time player of the erhu, Shen started when he was a factory worker in China. The erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, introduces Melbourne to his Chinese culture. Shen has been playing for the past 7 years, and since then, has made quite a name for himself. When I ask Melburnians about ‘the grandpa with the Chinese violin,’ faces light up in recollection.
Kevin, a staff of Melbourne Central Station, monitors the gates and often spots Shen by one of the pillars.
“I can’t tell you much about him, though,” says Kevin, “but all I know is he’s smiling all the time!”
Shen’s life in Australia began in 1999. It was the year his son, James, had just welcomed a second daughter.
“As Chinese, we usually [live together],” James said, “we’re always family-oriented, and we always support each other.”
The family now lives in Brighton, a total of 7 people in their household.
Shen told me he likes Australia.
“The environment is nice, the fishing conditions here are better,” he reasoned.
Before the erhu, fishing was his hobby. Shen’s hometown, Zhangjiagang, was one of the port cities along the Yangtze river. He enjoys fishing in Australia’s water streams. But one day, Shen noticed fish were disappearing.
“In my third year, there was basically no more striped bass in the waters, and there was only carp fish!” he recalled.
The Victorian Fisheries Authority has named carp fish “aquatic pest”. Since the late 1960s, they have caused declines in native fish populations. Nobody talks about carp fish. But Shen does. Often, and passionately. He has been studying about the issue for nearly as long as he’s lived in Australia.
“In these 20 years, I’ve dedicated my time to doing the research,” he claimed. Shen studies carp fish and rivers. He conducts his research alone.
In 2008, he wrote 12 letters to the government, especially the Minister for Water. “I wrote lots of detail about my research,” he said, “and my suggestions on how they can fix these issues.”
But even after translating his research from Mandarin to English, Shen still received unsatisfying responses. Sometimes, none at all.
It wasn’t until 2016 that the government formed the National Carp Control Plan (NCCP). Knowing this, Shen was told by his son there was finally no need to worry.
The NCCP’s webpage is captioned, “Carp need to be controlled in Australia – we’re working on how.” One of their listed methods was rotenone – a chemical normally found in pesticide. When Shen found out they were poisoning the fish, his sliver of hope turned into disappointment.
“After I heard that, I got really really angry!” he exclaimed – no longer a man smiling quietly behind an erhu.
There is a 5,000-year history on carp fish breeding in China, Shen says. Therefore, he argues the NCCP makes “the biggest waste of natural resources.”
Coins tossed into a felt pouch in Shen’s erhu case. Photo by Joanne Amarisa.
Shen dreams of creating a carp development facility, which he believes will build Australia’s economy. “Over 100,000 tons can be produced annually in one river stream,” he explained.
"This can sell for the equivalent price of 10 tons of gold.”
Though adamant on sharing his research, Shen doesn’t wish for merit in return.
“In the 20 years I’ve been here,” he said, “I’ve never taken a single cent from the Australian government.”
Knowing his method would be beneficial to Australia was enough to keep himself going.
“I just want to get to the bottom of this carp problem,” he continued, “and that will be my contribution to society.”
Through playing in the city three days a week, Shen hoped to raise money to make his dream a reality. But after calculating the amount a facility would need, he admits, “At this point, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reach it.”
“Not everyone can achieve greatness,” he told me, “but everyone can live spectacularly.”
He advised that people make their lives spectacular only by doing what they’re fully devoted to.
Shen continues to play nonetheless, his main reason being to meet new people. “My hobby was fishing, but it was very lonely,” he described. “With playing the erhu, lots of people can hear my music.”
Wrapping up the interview, I asked Shen if there was anything else he’d like to tell me. He answered, “Mainly about the carp fish.”
“If you’d like to hear me out, I have a lot to say.”