Remembering Larry Ching, 'Till the End of Time
It was typical Larry Ching.
As producer of his CD, I had just presented him with a dinky Plexiglas plaque that displayed his CD cover and the disk itself, both showing him as the star he was back in the 1940s at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco. Then, George Yamasaki, his pianist, lauded Larry and presented him with a proclamation from Mayor Willie L. Brown, declaring that day, June 28, as "Larry Ching Day" in San Francisco.
It was typical Larry Ching.
As producer of his CD, I'd just presented him with a dinky Plexiglas plaque that displayed his CD cover and the disk itself, both showing him as the star he was back in the 1940s at the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco. Then, George Yamasaki, his pianist, lauded Larry and presented him with a proclamation from Mayor Willie L. Brown, declaring that day, June 28, as "Larry Ching Day" in San Francisco.
In front of him, some 150 family members, fans and friends, among them a number of women who had performed with him at Forbidden City, cheered. Here at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in Chinatown, they had been buzzing about Larry, delighted with his latest accomplishment: recording a debut album at the age of 82. He had been showered with media attention. That very day, the San Jose Mercury News ran a long profile, written by Marian Liu and featuring a large photo of Larry back in the day, surrounded by four Forbidden beauties. My own article about the project, in the San Francisco Chronicle 's Sunday magazine, was out and on display. KRON-TVs Vic Lee had done a wonderful piece on Larry, and Vic was there to add to the applause. Sydnie Kohara of KPIX-TV, there to do a feature for NPRs Pacific Time show, held up her Minidisc recorder to capture the moment.
Larry approached the microphone and said, simply, "I'll let my songs speak for me."
They always did, and they always will.
Almost exactly one week after this festive celebration of Larry and his CD, Till the End of Time , the end came. Larry died during the early morning of July 5th from a brain aneurysm. He'd been living -- quite capably, actually -- with Alzheimer's for several years.
Needless to say, the family and many friends were shocked by the news. But, one after another, they came to realize that Larry had accomplished something few people get to do: to go out with a perfect, final flourish. As Dianne, my wife, said, the CHSA party, which was presented with the help of NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association) and a donation from Diana and Johnson Chiang, turned out to be "a living memorial."
And as Jane Seid Ching, his wife, told me, "It was like he had a checklist, and everything had been checked off." She would tell Angelina Wong of KTSF-TV, "He went out with a big bang."
I got numerous messages of condolence carrying a similar message, perhaps put best by my playwright friend, Philip Kan Gotanda, who attended the CHSA event.
"I think it was so fitting that he was given this last wonderful opportunity to shine as an artist and performer," he wrote. "One could say his heart was finally full and that that fulfillment can sometimes allow the body and spirit to release and let go, willfully and by a kind of choosing that is good. I think you gave Larry a wonderful, wonderful gift. He lived a full life and saw it culminated and defined in his final performance and CD release. You're a good man, Ben. You'll get heaven points for this one."
I'll need them. But here's the thing. Jane, a few days after her husband's death, wrote, in an e-mail, "Larry has really been treated as a celebrity because of your efforts." My response: Larry's been treated as a celebrity because he had the talent and charm. I only provided a stage (a late stage, at that) and some media for him to shine through.
The important thing is that the family is at peace.
Actually, there was one matter that had worried Larry, that I knew of. He was aware that I had put my own money into producing, manufacturing and promoting the CD, and he was concerned that I would sell enough copies to break even.
When he died, I decided to check. We had had some great moments in this first month out; on Amazon, which carries more than 250,000 titles, Larry was actually in the Top 200 two days after the Museum party, one day after my piece ran in the Chronicle. (Of course, depending on the traffic on the site, it's possible to jump up in the rankings just by selling a big fistful of CDs within an hour or two.) If you want a copy, I'd just as soon you grab it right here at AsianConnections, and at a lower total price.
Anyway, sales reports were a little slow because of the Fourth of July. But I was able to figure out that we had, in fact, broken even on July 3, the day before he was stricken with the aneurysm.
Timing. He had it to the end.
While looking forward to seeing what various writers and broadcasters might have to say about Larry, I was pleasantly surprised to run across a review, of sorts, from out of the wayback machine.
It was a back issue of the Jewish Bulletin News , about a performance troupe called Montefiore Follies, and its spring 2001 show at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. Larry was a guest performer, and Joshua Brandt, the writer for the Bulletin , introduced him this way: "The man with the velvet pipes, about whom Herb Caen once said, 'Frank Sinatra is really the Italian Larry Ching.'"
Herb Caen! The late, legendary Chronicle columnist whose word was The Word, from the 40s into the 90s. Man, I wish I'd read that a month or so ago. With every single interviewer having referred to Larry by his Forbidden City nickname, "the Chinese Sinatra," and with Larry having made it clear that he never liked that handle, it would've been so sweet to have been able to hurl Herb's line at one or two of them.
Another great review, of sorts, came from my good friend Jackie DeShannon, whose hits include "Put a Little Love In Your Heart," "What the World Needs Now is Love," and "Bette Davis Eyes," which she wrote. I'd sent her Larry's CD in response to her sending me a great new reissue of her album entitled Jackie . She heard about Larry's passing and called.
"He's remarkable," she said. "I'm stunned with his phrasing. It's like when Ella Fitzgerald sings. It's as if he's saying, casually, "I can sing that. What's the problem?'"
As for reviews in the media: This CD was never meant to be tossed out there to be judged by critics. This was a personal project, for Larry, for his family, for his legacy. Still, that means making it available to the public, so you're open to scrutiny. One of the first to weigh in was Wayne Harada, the long-time entertainment writer for the Honolulu Advertiser . He liked the CD. "Pianist George Yamasaki fronts a terrific combo," he said. "If you dig nostalgia, you'll find treasures and pleasures a-plenty."
And Gil Asakawa, writer of the online column, Nikkei View , said, "The CD is a fabulous debut. Ching instinctively caresses the microphone." Marian Liu, the San Jose Mercury News ' spirited young music critic, profiled Larry and noted: "The grandfather of 11 shows few signs of slowing down. He remains a vibrant singer."
From Honolulu and San Francisco to New York, where Wayman Wong, an editor at the Daily News , plans to write about Larry for his "Leading Men" column in Playbill , Larry has been treated with respect.
Gil Asakawa was especially graceful with his piece, which he updated at the last minute to fold in the news of Larry's passing. Here's a sample of his writing: He's praising the Arthur Dong documentary, Forbidden City U.S.A. , and writes:
"One of the most powerful themes that emerges from the documentary is how this first generation of American-born Chinese consciously pursued careers performing Western-style entertainment. Some of the performers recall the scandal they caused and the criticism they received from the local immigrant Chinese community. These were Asian American pioneers, accepting their identities as Americans even while understanding their heritage as Asians."
"There's one more reason to watch this film: At the end, Larry Ching plucks a ukulele and sings 'Hawaiian Wedding Song' for the camera. It's a sweet, heartbreaking moment as the song stops and he says quietly, 'That's it.'"
Visit Larry Ching's home page at www.larryching.com for audio and video clips from his CD. Larry Ching's Till the End of Time is available here at AsianConnections. Gil Asakawa's column can be found at NikkeiView.com.