Alejandro introduces us to his buddy. He tells us Fermin was the
Mambo King of Havana in his youthful hay days. We found the
lonely old dude in a rocking chair hidden in a corner. I said
hello and say “I hear you’re a great dancer”. The cute little
old Henry Fonda look alike smiles at me pointing at his walker
and says “Not anymore… but I can still carry a tune”. Then just
like in those old 50’s musicals, Fermin breaks out in a song. I
was caught totally off guard missing a few seconds of his
opening as I turned my camera on quickly without any proper set
up. He sang a beautiful rendition of “Fascination” without
We were without our sound guy. So we ask him if
we could come back the next day to film some more of him and
maybe bring him some back up accompaniment. His cute comeback
was “I ain’t goin’ anywhere fast” as he taps his walker against
the wooden floor.
We invite Frank and Jorge to join in a jam session today. I made
the mistake of asking if they can improvise. They laugh at me
and tell me that’s it’s in their Cuban blood to improvise. As I
shoot them walking down the dusty streets with guitars strapped
to their back, I’m reminded of Roberto Rodrigues’ “El Mariachi”.
Cheuk wishes tumbleweed would magically blow across the set.
We find Fermin waiting calmly… playing it cool… rocking in the
same rocking chair this morning as if time had stood still since
yesterday. But I bet he’s been worked up for this all night.
Fermin has some reservations at first about the guitar
accompaniment saying he would rather have a piano. But he warms
up to the guys and they also get into the groove with him after
finding his key.
We quickly draw a crowd as passers-by hear the
music along the street and peer thru the windows and doors to
watch. Other seniors join in the fun toe tapping and rocking
their rocking chairs to the rhythm. Fermin gets more and more
animated waving his hands, tapping his chair, mimicking the
violin with his hands as well as an interesting vocal technique
that reminds me of throat singing.
Cheuk and I are totally blown away by this 70-year-old “Chinese
Frank Sinatra” with the velvety… passionate voice. He has a
forlorn melancholy in his eyes and I hear a sad longing in his
voice. I wonder what he is still longing for. We started talking
about coming back to shoot a longer length stand-alone piece on
Fermin. A kind of Chinese “Buena Vista Social Club”.
We’re back at the Lung Kong to meet up with Fermin who’s waiting
for us patiently with a cassette of his songs, some old news
clippings and a faded black and white of him doing the conga in
a dashing white tuxedo. The inscription on the photo reads “El
Chino Del Carnaval”.
As Fermin’s songs come thru the crackly sound system, the
restaurant is transported in a time warp back to a 40’s Shanghai
or 50’s Macao or Hong Kong. I catch Fermin framed around the
flaking edges of worn out old mirrors around the room. Like this
room, Fermin has seen better days. Now they both sit still with
time as they get left behind faded by history. I’m sadden by
this melancholic image of a lonely old man sitting by himself in
this echoing empty dance hall, straining his voice to his
youthful past, listening to his songs of longing from another
era, living out his twilight years, without family, without