Chen Cong plays violin in the subway

Your day hasn’t gone well. Friday night you worked late hoping to avoid being the latest victim of office cutbacks, and Saturday’s drink-to-forget binge somehow extended to Sunday. Now, descending to the platform in the Monday evening rush home, you’re half asleep, hardly noticing the throng of people you pass coming the way; you’ve missed your train. It’s the F at 57th Street. You’ll have to wait another 15 minutes. A large man in a Mets cap almost knocks your metrocard out of your hand, and doesn’t even turn to look.


As you wander down to the end of the platform, hoping to get a seat, your mind starts to drift. You think of a fountain and moonlight, of pretty faces, and you realize your thoughts have been hijacked by the sweet sound of a violin. You follow its dreamlike inflections that resonate off the white tiled walls, louder as you near its maker. And there, behind a white column, you find the surprising source; a Chinese man in white tennis shoes, faded brown corduroys and a blue waterproof camping jacket with a neat comb-over. He’s cradling a cheap violin, swaying gently with its sound.

You stand there for ten minutes, enthralled. Every dollar he receives is greeted with a cheerful “thank you” and a nod—difficult, you think, considering he has a violin under his chin. As you wait a train comes and goes. You forget your tiredness and the economy. The fluorescent light no longer seems so jarring, shimmering like glitter on the glass and concrete mixture at your feet. The sprawling regiment of black gum boils are now the shadows of stars assembled there for the show. The grime-soaked porcelain walls seem specifically designed for their echoic acoustics. The trains are no longer late; they are waiting for an intermission.

People are no longer enemies. You make prolonged eye contact with strangers for the first time in months. Compulsive bouts of applause break out during songs, and enthusiastic “Bravos” are bellowed before the final note ends. Somehow the word “Bravo!” does not feel out of place on the subway. An emotional couple holds hands. During the next song children throw out ballet moves and giggle. More people miss their trains on purpose, while others reluctantly board, once more in transition, going towards their TVs and TV dinners, looking wistfully back over their shoulders as the train doors close.

When was the last time you were on a crowded platform where nobody was wearing headphones?


If you regularly stand on the 57th Street F-stop subway platform, you too have had this experience. Chen Cong, a subway violinist for nearing 20 years, has picked this spot because of the fewer trains, good acoustics and nicer atmosphere than busier platforms. It’s also the closest stop to Carnegie Hall, so he thinks he’ll get a more appreciative classical audience. If you sit next to him for long enough even the screech of metal on metal begins to sound planned, as if Debussey or Pachelbel had left a space for them on purpose.

But what is truly inspiring about his performance is not that it is so affecting—music’s control of our emotions is no secret—but its history. Cong, 54, son of a highly regarded musician, followed in his father’s footsteps on the violin, before Mao Zedong’s brand of cultural idealism threw out Western music in China. He was assigned a new roll: pig farming.

Eventually, after several arduous years that would fill a book with stories of scarcity and survival, and after the end of the Maoist policies associated with the revolution, an old friend of his father’s in the classical world managed to find him an American sponsor who was willing to pay for Chen’s musical education in New York.

There Chen completed a masters in performance at Mannes College of Music, living below a dry cleaners. Seeing a subway accordionist being handed a $10 bill, he thought “If he can make $10, so can I,” and started a lengthy career entertaining passersby for tips. He built a reputation. People brought chairs onto the platform to listen to him play. A ballerina took him for a…private performance in Central Park. And in the first hour that I watched him, during a time of economic strain, he made over $60.

He’s full of good stories about his time on the subway, but the most frustrating are the negatives. Yes, he was good enough to get a beggar to empty his cup into Chen’s violin case. But he also got spat on, told to get a real job, and even his greatest admirers would come up to him after a song, and breathlessly tell him “you’re so good you should be a professional!” It was intended to be a compliment, but is a reminder that at worst he’s thought of as a beggar with a gimmick, and at best as a failed artist.

Chen has also had to deal with the uneducated subway police. Despite breaking no laws, he’s had fines and enough violins be confiscated to force him to only perform on violins he can afford to lose – not that you can tell. Police harassment started early on. One week he was learning the names of different groceries in his English language classes. Down on the subway, two cops came up to him and wrote him a $65 summons to appear in court. He thought they were trying to sell him a $65 salmon.

Despite the ample income and continual daily praises, Cong has remained humble. Still he hand washes his clothes and cuts his own hair. I asked him whether he’d continue playing in the subway if he won a million dollars. He replied not much would change, but the first thing he’d do is get a professional haircut, the second would be to go to a launderette.

Chen said he doesn’t want a conductor telling him what or how to play; he could go back to China for that. His repertoire, from which he makes selections depending on his mood, includes three and a half hours of music without a repetition. For $2 a day (free with a monthly pass) you can watch one of the best talents in the city. And if he’s on your way home, the concert is essentially delivered to your feet. Perhaps if you meet him you should wait around, give him a dollar, even start up a conversation. It’s not every day you get to sit down with your very own concertmaster.