El Chino del Carnaval

Havana, Cuba
June 19, 2002

Fermin Huey-Lee
Fermin Huey-Lee

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 accompaniment.

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 love.