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Portland-China musical exchange trips are first of their kind; Portland Gay Men's Chorus makes a trip to China in September

COURTESY: PORTLAND GAY MEN'S CHORUS - The Portland Gay Men's Chorus will host the Beijing Queer Chorus later this month in the Chinese group's first public tour of the United States, and then PGMC will be the first LGBTQ chorus to ever tour China in September.A group of 85 Portlanders will make history when they travel to China later this summer. 

The members of the Portland Gay Men's Chorus will be the first LGBTQ chorus to tour the People's Republic of China, a nation where that country's first LGBTQ chorus only named itself that in 2016.

And with the current world climate, the tour couldn't come at a better time, says Richard Jung, executive director of the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, now in its 38th year. 

"There's an amazing parallel" between Portland's and China's experience, he says. "When Portland Gay Men's Chorus was founded in 1980, there were members in the chorus who were listed as 'name withheld,' and often stepped out of chorus photographs for fear of losing their job or being ostracized by their family. We've come a long way." 

The Portland chorus has been to Canada, but this is their first tour outside of North America. The chorus is composed of 250 members, both singing and non-singing volunteers. 

For this tour, the chorus will perform music from across the Pacific Ocean, sung in Spanish, Hawaiian, Aboriginal, Korean and Chinese, Jung says. 

"We're calling upon our membership to embrace different languages. We're trained to sing Latin, French and make bold attempts at German. Singing in Chinese and Korean requires a stronger commitment to being engaged, learning and struggling through languages we're just not that familiar with," he says. 

It's a bit more stressful, Jung says, but so far the "the chorus is sounding fabulous and they have definitely risen to the challenge."

In China, the Portland chorus will be performing in four cities — Beijing and in Shanghai, where the queer chorus in each of those cities will join them on stage to perform a few numbers, and in Xi'an and Suzhou, Portland's Sister City.

"The gay chorale movement has grown significantly across Asia," Jung says. "There are now 33 LGBTQ-identified choruses across Asia, including 11 in China."

Just 10 years ago, there were hardly any. 

The Portland chorus is working with a travel tour company to ensure that the concert tour goes smoothly. They're also connecting with other LGBTQ and allied groups such as PFLAG China to ensure that this trip achieves its artistic and educational goals.

It's also a watershed moment for the Beijing Queer Chorus, who will visit Portland in March and perform two shows for the public: March 17 and 18 at Reed College. 

The Beijing Queer Chorus was founded in 2008, 10 years after homosexuality was decriminalized and seven years after it was declassified as a mental disorder in the country. 

Then known as the Shiny Jazzy Chorus, it began with just 12 members, male and female, and in 2016 took its current name after traveling to the United States to participate at the GALA Festival 2016 in Denver.

GALA, held every four years, is an international festival featuring 180 LGBTQ choruses from around the world, performing to a crowd of more than 7,000.

Next month's concerts at Reed College will be the Beijing choir's first public shows in the U.S. 

Today, the Beijing chorus has grown to more than 40 singers — a total of 100 rehearse with them.

A contingent of 10 women and 13 men will visit Portland on tour, staying with chorus members and friends as they rehearse, see the sights and perform at a number of public and private concerts.

They'll also be performing at a closed event at Grant High School, "using the message of music and historical perspective in helping young people understand the power and impact of the creative arts in life," Jung says. It'll be their first performance in a school auditorium. 

Some of the Beijing members still perform in masks, but more and more are comfortable being out and open, Jung says.

"As with any movement, there is an evolution that allows the collective members to become comfortable with who they are and a stronger willingness to be open and out," he says. 

Jung says the chorus has faced its share of bigotry over its 38 years, with protesters and picketers at concerts, nasty letters to the editors and editorials in the newspaper. 

"But things change," he says. "Community's evolve. Music is a way for us to live out our mission. Music provides opportunities for engagement, conversation and change. Music touches one on an emotional level — it isn't something you can ignore. "

The gay choral movement, he believes, has the power to unite people — as it's doing this year, with the two exchanges. 

"We work today to ensure that the next generation can live in an open and accepting environment that affirms the worth of all people," Jung says. "Our work this year is a testament to that vision. PGMC does one thing well — we sing. Our song reflects a simple message: It gets better."

"Pacific Voices," featuring Beijing Queer Chorus, takes place at 8 p.m. March 17 and 3 p.m. March 18 at Reed College Kaul Auditorium, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd. For details: www.pdxgmc.org

@jenmomanderson

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