If it hadn't been for a near-fatal car accident when she was 17, Winnie Cheung might currently be an engineer instead of a pianist.
"That (accident) was right before I was going to college, so I decided to change my whole trajectory," she says. "I realized ... you can die at 17. Nobody told us that. That means you don't have much time left. So that means whatever you really want to do, please do it now because you will be the only one to regret it. So I dropped all my engineering, science—all those things that were smart, but I didn't love. I was like, 'You know what? I want to play music.'"
So, she began training as a classical pianist, eventually earning a doctorate in contemporary classical composition from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY.
After that, she and her husband—whom she met at school—settled in Bloomington, Indiana where she taught and performed—until a (much more pleasant) event changed her career trajectory again.
"We found tango by dance first," Cheung says. "We had children. Then we had diapers for way too long—daddy and mommy needed an activity. So we found tango and tango found us. I saw the live band (at dance lessons) and thought, 'Dancing is cool, but I want to play.'"
The difference between playing classical music and playing tango was dramatic, she explains. In particular, she was drawn to Argentine tango. "I do concert halls, dances, preschools, Alzheimer's homes—anywhere I go," Cheung says. "I never liked the formal settings. It makes me nervous. It makes me self-conscious. And then the teachers beat you up. It's a lot of this self-inflicted guilt that you shouldn't have (with classical music) because you worked really hard to the walls of the practice room."
But Argentine tango was different. It was less rigid, filled with passion and emotion and could be played anywhere from a bar to a concert hall and everywhere in between. "It's deliberately melodramatic," she says. "If you appreciate it, it's melodramatic. If you don't it's cheesy."
Originally from Hong Kong (she moved to Vancouver as a teen where she would often travel up to Whistler to ski), Cheung says it might seem strange to see a Chinese pianist playing Argentinian music, but the cultures have a lot in common.
"I'm part of the global south. Every country south of the equator are united by their climate or climate tendencies and cultures and personalities ... Other than their Spanish, I understand them exactly. We behave the same with food, music, friendship, family, with what's important to you. To keep your emotions in—'I'll only be mad at you later in a passive, northern way'—we don't do that," she says, with a laugh.
Cheung will be bringing that passion to The Point Artist-Run Centre on Sunday, July 8 for Tango Night. The evening will feature an "Argentine BBQ" by chef Karin Civitella, followed by a tango lesson led by two Vancouver dancers, Amy Cheung and Greg Dombowsky.
Cheung will participate in some dancing, but also looks forward to trying out The Point's 100-year-old Howard upright piano—part of her motivation for reaching out to organize the show while visiting her cousin in Whistler—to provide the music. Sarah Kwok, a Vancouver violist, will also accompany her.
"I saw (the) piano (artistic director Stephen Vogler) renovated," she says. "I saw he took great care of this upright, which is the way it should be ... A piano is a living thing. I don't do pets well, but for me the pianos are my pet."
Catch the show on Sunday, July 8, with doors at 6 p.m. and dancing at 7 p.m. Tickets for the show are $30 with dinner or $15 for the show only, available at thepointartists.com.