The year is 2014. From an apartment in Hong Kong, an iMac screen lights up with a row of tabs all displaying YouTube videos of 60s Western music. With a guitar in her lap, Emma Wong ’24 , aged 12, strums on a scratched tape of the Beatles, familiarizing herself with the instrument she has just received for her birthday. As she shapes new chords in her memory, she eventually does the same with American culture — an environment Wong would find herself immersed in six years later as a freshman at Stanford.
For Wong, speaking a multitude of languages was a daily occurrence in Hong Kong. From conducting family dinner conversations in Cantonese to learning Spanish and Mandarin in his classes, Wong has come to appreciate the melodies of many languages.
“I feel like growing up in Hong Kong was so wonderful because it’s such a globalized city — there’s so much diversity,” she said. “[With] my extended family on my mother’s side, we [can] sing happy birthday in eight languages. So we always sing it in all the languages we know.
With a strumming of the first chord on his guitar, Wong discovered a new language to add to his collection – the language of music.
In 2020, Wong arrives in the United States for her studies at Stanford, bringing with her her passion for music. During her first exploration of Palo Alto, she encountered a woman standing in the center of the street — closed for COVID-19 outdoor dining — singing for passers-by and playing an instrument similar to Wong’s guitar: a ukulele.
“She sounded so good,” Wong recounted. “Halfway through his set, I went up to talk to him and said, ‘I think it’s so awesome that you’re doing this. Tell me more about yourself.
The street singer-musician turned out to be a biochemistry researcher at Stanford, who shared tips and advice with Wong on navigating the avenues of musical performance.
“I sent him a little text. I was like, ‘What app are you using? Do you need a permit to do this? “Wong said. “She gave me all the answers.”
Shortly after her conversation, Wong was inspired to share her music in the same way. However, her concerns increased when she heard the stories of violence and hatred towards Asian Americans in the United States due to COVID. These types of crimes have increased drastically in 2020 – the first year of the pandemic – especially in major cities, such as neighboring San Jose.
“I was so scared to face this kind of reaction from my audience when I first came out,” Wong said.
Still, Wong walked around the corner past the Salt and Straw ice cream shop on University Avenue. Laying her guitar case uncovered on the sidewalk, she prepares for her very first set.
“I was singing so softly and didn’t want to turn up the volume on my amplifier,” Wong said, recalling his experience. “But then this guy came over and he just started dancing, and he said, ‘You should be more relaxed, you sound really good. You should sing louder. And because he was dancing, it got people involved and definitely caught the public’s attention.
After the interaction, Wong began returning to his downtown spot each Sunday, a guitar strap over his shoulder and his lips behind a microphone. Almost every time she performs, her first fan always heads to her booth to dance.
Drawing inspiration from her hometown of Hong Kong, Wong introduced Chinese songs alongside English songs in her performances. She found that her audience loved listening to her songs in Chinese – even if they didn’t understand – as much as she loved sharing them.
“It’s wonderful because there are so many travelers who visit Stanford and pass through Palo Alto, and so meeting those people and talking to them and singing songs in their language is really nice,” Wong said.
During her performances, many listeners approached Wong to start conversations about their passions and life experiences. The stories struck Wong, who was inspired to give back to her community.
Wong donates proceeds from his performances to a different charity each month, chosen by his listeners; a QR code she displays allows members of the public to share suggestions on causes important to them.
Wong’s music also touched Stanford students. Jessica Chen ’24, a friend of Wong’s, said Wong enjoys teaching other students how to get involved in music. For Chen, her friend’s songs have a calming and refreshing effect. “I heard her play guitar and sing, and it was really, really beautiful,” she said.
His friend Sze En Tan ’24 also pointed out Wong’s quick ability to incorporate songwriting even into academic work. Instead of writing a poem for an introductory seminar on polar exploration, Wong wrote a song. “I was stunned because I thought that [writing a song] was much harder than writing a poem, but she shared that she had been writing songs for a while and really enjoyed the process,” Tan wrote.
As for his next steps, Wong certainly sees himself continuing in music in the future, hoping to record his original songs and learn how to produce music. “I know there are a bunch of new skills involved, but I’m excited to learn.”