Our Story

All about folk arts and enduring traditions

Our Mission

Mencius Society for the Arts is devoted to the advance of enduring folk practice and performance of the arts as rooted in Chinese and other old-world traditions that make up the rich tapestry of what it means to be a New Yorker and a world citizen. We are committed to fostering genuine community and intergenerational connectivity through lifelong practice in the arts. We are driven by the mission to help build a diverse, compassionate, and more equitable American society.

Founding and History

Mencius Society for the Arts is named for the philosopher Mengzi (“Mencius”), who advocated social contract and personal cultivation as keys to a humane society. Mencius Society for the Arts began as a musical group (named East River Ensemble) under the then small business entity Wossing Center for Chinese. Founded in 2003 by Julie Tay and Xiao Xiannian and headquarted with Wossing on Grand Street in the heart of China, Mencius has evolved to be an arts performance service center as partner with Grand Street Settlement on New York’s Lower East Side, providing a wide range of learning and performance programs in traditional/folk arts for all ages, as well as consultation and translation services. Mencius Society for the Arts is devoted to fostering life-long practice and engagement in music and theatrical arts and to giving voice and building agency on behalf of local communities. Our organization is committed to the teaching and performance of folk and traditional arts with a special focus on Chinese folk music, theatre, storytelling, calligraphy, and martial arts. As a redress of the inequity and social alienation that come with the digital era our programs emphasize oral transmission and local, in-person and mixed-aged interaction. We seek to valorize bi- and trans- lingualism as we pursue translation and documentation as key instruments for inter-generational and -cultural transmission in building a diverse, compassionate, and more equitable American society.

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In Essence

Mencius strives to be a local space where creativity enlivens tradition and where folks code-switch, translate, revise and refine meaning, and make genuine connections.Mencius is, by all accounts, the only arts organization dedicated to the advance of both southern and northern Chinese musical arts in New York City (and possibly on the US East Coast). We are also the first and only Chinese orchestra program that provides free lessons to youth and seniors year-round in New York, Manhattan.

Mencius’ primary activities include year-round weekly practice sessions of the Chinese orchestra (ELESCO) and the Cantonese opera club, offered year-round and seasonal and on-demand classes and workshops featuring Chinese painting, calligraphy, martial arts and other genres of folk art expressions.

From the beginning, Mencius was committed to providing northern-styled Chinese music and southern Cantonese opera vocal arts as two main genres of musical arts that were taking root among Chinese immigrants in New York City.

In as early as 2000 (as Mencius was still formative), founder/executive director Julie Tay drew on her native connection and organized the Singapore Dun Huang Cantonese Opera Company to showcase for the first time in New York City. Tay (herself a folk musician specializing in Cantonese opera accompaniment) has since see the flourishing of this genre in constituting the Mencius Cantonese Opera Club. Meanwhile, our artists of northern China soon came under the banner East River Ensemble and, in 2006, became a touring artist group of the established conduit Center for Traditional Music and Dance (CTMD), also partnering to implement and develop what is today our flagship youth program in Chinese music-a free learning program for born and bred American youth to study traditional Chinese instruments.

Mencius Youth Chinese Orchestra has since 2009 received continuous support from the New York City Council through the Department of Youth and Community Development and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

The program, renamed EastRiver Lower Eastside Chinese Orchestra and now expanded to include all ages, has performed city-wide at events and locations such as the Brooklyn Jalopy Festival, the Harlem Multicultural Arts Festival, Asian-American & Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration, the Museum at Eldridge Street, the Hamilton Madison House, and South Bridge Senior Center. Over the years, Mencius has also provided public school-based music and art learning and performance, most notably a Beijing opera program at IS 87 in 2010, and an afterschool youth orchestra at Shuang Wen Dual Language School (IS 184) in 2015-16, and a Zoom workshop serious (for CTMD) during the COVID-19 lockdown (in 2020). From 2017 and up to the COVID-19 pandemic, our programming steadily expanded in scope and genre to in-person, duo-language socialization and dialogue in Chinese (Mandarin) and English through singing, musical, and drama activities that are inherently tactile, oral, and interactive. Through a New York State Council on the Arts grant, we have integrated interview, translation, and dual language oral narrative into our musical performances.

Mencius is a Chinese folk arts leader in New York City, providing a unique and necessary connection to history and culture for hundreds of New Yorkers of or associated with the Chinese heritage.

Partnership with Grand Street Settlement

In 2019, the Mencius Society for the Arts entered a strategic partnership with Grand Street Settlement (GSS). Mencius was in need of program space, with the organization’s longtime Chinatown headquarters becoming prohibitively expensive. GSS sought dynamic programming for its new Essex Crossing Community Center-as the lead community partner in New York City’s historic Essex Crossing development project, GSS has the opportunity to launch a new, intergenerational hub within the Francis Goldin Senior Apartments (99 affordable rental residences for low-income seniors). This vital new partnership marks a critical turning point for Mencius as we have since given to draw on GSS’s infrastructural resources, receive mentorship and support, and establish stability in a new home.

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A person holding an umbrella on stage

Our Audience

Mencius primarily serves the immigrant communities living in Manhattan’s Chinatown and LES, predominantly recent immigrant families whose primary language is Mandarin or Cantonese who find themselves on the margins of mainstream America. We address the challenges of low-income and multi-generational housing, such as space limitation, lack of leisure or sleep time for youth, and sometimes absentee parents and domestic alienation as youth are left to themselves while parents work. Drawing on the founders’ organic connection with Chinese and SE Asian diasporas, MSA has an unbroken record of services in Cantonese opera, providing for scores of folk musicians and vocalists (otherwise mostly low-wage workers and retirees) to convene weekly in relaxed ‘open-mic’ sessions and bi-annual concerts at the New York Chinese Community Center. In the fall of 2019, MSA became an arts service partner with Grand Street Settlement (GSS) and began providing services within the GSS community in exchange for low-cost space at their Essex Street Crossing facility. This expanded our programming to include recreational arts for an adult/senior population predominantly Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) and Spanish-speaking in the immediate Lower Eastside vicinity, served by GSS. It has also presented opportunities for new programmed activities fostering intergenerational interaction between our folk artists and the youth (LES Preparatory HS) and children as part of GSS’s provision of afterschool and daycare services.

EastRiver Ensemble

There is no East River in China, but a Chinese ensemble named in honor of New York City’s East River has lived these 20 years on Manhattan’s Lower Eastside. Operating under the auspices of Mencius Society for the Arts, EastRiver Ensemble represents a loose congregation of old friends (typically appearing as a 4-6 piece band) reinventing traditional and folk Chinese music in a new idiom of the American immigrant experience. “We play classical and folk (period) tunes using Chinese instruments, usually,” says Julie Tay, co-founder of the group with Xiao Xiannian, “but in a more relaxed, sometimes improvised style that comes from taking in all the colors, smells, tastes, and stresses from living in the United States.” For this group, East River symbolizes the challenge of hanging in the balancing between practical survival and artistic freedom. “You are in a different setting each time, and the music needs to be as New York as it is Chinese. So, we are elastic in staging,” Julie adds. “At intimate parties, there may be room for only two instruments, just Xiao’s yangqin and a jembe on my lap. And then at a festival where people demand to hear and see everything, we’ll roll with 8, 10, or 12 performers – strings, winds, big drums, and even dancers and actors to add a highlight of Chinese opera.” In regrouping since the COVID-19 pandemic, EastRiver Ensemble is joined by a few new (younger) musicians to constitute the greater EastRiver Lower Eastside Chinese Orchestra (LESCO).

EastRiver at Minstrel Folk Project

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Our Teaching Artists

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Our organization

Our organization aspires to be a global setting where creativity enlivens tradition and where people establish sincere connections. We provide a platform for traditional arts to continue to thrive and evolve in our diverse and vibrant community.Rooted primarily in Chinese tradition, our offerings extend to other folk arts as well, in the belief that each tradition is a thread in the beautiful tapestry of human creativity.We are committed to fostering the enduring vitality of genuine community through lifelong practice in the arts.We facilitate a range of classes where you can immerse yourself in the beauty of Cantonese Opera, explore the depth of Cantonese Folk Arts, or learn the Chinese language through the medium of music. Our classes are designed to encourage active participation, promote cultural understanding, and build community.

Mencius Society For The Arts

Mencius Society For The Arts’ primary activities include year-round weekly practice sessions of the Chinese Orchestra. We also facilitate Cantonese Opera Club-offered annual, seasonal, and on-demand classes and workshops.We are proud to be the only arts service organization dedicated to the progress of both southern and northern Chinese musical arts in New York City.At Mencius Society For The Arts, we are driven by a mission to help build a diverse, compassionate, and more equitable society. We believe in the transformative power of the arts to inspire, educate, and bring people together.We invite you to join us on this journey. Explore our offerings and learn more about our classes today. Learn More

A woman is playing the cello and holding a bow.