‘Free Like a Bird’: The Flight of Gregory Cheng, UNC’s Campus Whistler

Gregory Cheng, c. 1976. (via Facebook)

Gregory Cheng didn’t understand.

He tried — was trying — but he just couldn’t.

Chapel Hill was home to him. The UNC-Chapel Hill campus, the surrounding communities, all of it. It’s where he’d spent the last 10 years of his now 70-year-old life walking, each and every day, throughout the 729 acres of bricked labyrinths, tree-blanketed courtyards and lively student centers. It’s where he built a new life, where he found new friends, and, as he’s grown local fame for, it’s where he whistled.

For the eccentric man known as “The Campus Whistler,” this was home.

Chapel Hill was a far cry from Hsin-chu, Taiwan, where he grew up with five brothers and sisters in a strict Japanese-Taiwanese household, and was thousands of miles away from the city of Los Angeles, California, where he raised a family of his own so many years ago.

But it was home.

And on the afternoon of September 17, 2019, as Cheng shakily retreated from a mass of frustrated UNC Police officers, it was seemingly getting taken away from him.

As a kindergarten-aged Cheng shuffled over the cool marbled floors of his best friend’s Taipei home, something forced him to stop, alone, in a vacant room. Something harmonic, something sweet, something beautiful. His friend was in the other room, playing, but Cheng didn’t care. He was entranced.

His eyes followed his ears, darting toward a small portable radio, whose meager size managed to produce music of a divine magnitude. Opera was flowing through the small speakers and into the summer air, transporting Cheng into his own personal world. He stood there — still, listening, content — for nearly an hour, with his friend forgotten and the sound of music being the only thing he felt like attending to.

“What a heavenly…” Cheng stammered. He tried to get the words out, tried to describe the sensation that the music brought him, but he failed to find his voice. Stuttering was a problem he was born with, a vocal flaw that reduced the young boy to hiding behind his books in class, praying that he would never be asked to read aloud.

Cheng was not a talker, not at first.

But he was a listener.

“Through listening, you learn fast,” he says.

There was something angelic and heightened about opera and classical music that would lead Cheng to embracing music as his primary pursuit in life. Although his household was endowed with wealth from his grandfather, a nobleman, Cheng’s strict law-studying father still wished for his children to pursue more practical career paths instead of music. His focus for his children was straightforward: “You kids go to school. Only thing: Study hard, nothing else. No politics, no party, (no) sports.”

But, through listening, Cheng discovered his voice. He discovered his confidence. He discovered a future.

“Music helps me to overcome… it gives you comfort, gives you strength, and gives you confidence,” Cheng says.

While his brothers and sisters attended top universities for medicine and business, Cheng forged his own path. The College of Chinese Culture was one of the only two universities Cheng applied for during Taiwan’s national testing session and it would be a haven for his advancement in the arts.

He wanted to be free, and music gave him that opportunity.

She had only met him a week ago in a happenstance Franklin Street run-in, but UNC senior Joanna Zhang wasn’t dissuaded by unfamiliarity when she saw a distressed Cheng wander toward a bus stop in search of a way to his apartment.

They were strangers, but Zhang was empathetic. The daughter of two Chinese immigrants, she understood that cultural and language barriers can make unfortunate interactions turn into catastrophic blow-ups for non-native English speakers, and instinctively sought to calm Cheng down, speaking to him in familiar Mandarin Chinese.

“It was overwhelming because he was so upset,” she says. “It was honestly heartbreaking.”

As they talked, Cheng unloaded.

The Coker Arboretum and Morehead Planetarium are not separated by hard lines. They’re interconnected, with a 15-foot-wide path of maroon bricks standing between the faded white walls of the building and the lush foliage of UNC’s primary green space.

For Cheng, the contents of the arboretum — the quaint benches, the occasional squirrels and deer (whom he befriended, he says), and the Chinese plum tree whose blossom is emblazoned on his cap — are sacred. For him, this is his personal sanctuary.

But for the planetarium, whose Morehead Afterschool Program (MAP) regularly hosts scores of elementary-aged children year-round, these interconnected paths pose problems. Without defined boundaries, Cheng’s route passes through the grounds of the planetarium, slicing through the zone that minors are occupying — minors that adults are not allowed to talk to under any circumstances.

But Cheng is “free-minded.” He grew up hushed and soft spoken. Now, he’ll talk to anyone.

But that’s the problem.

As Cheng reclined on the cool stone ledge across from the rear entrance of the planetarium earlier that afternoon, the double-doors promptly unfolded to release a stream of energetic, screaming children. Congregating from the planetarium and to the Chapel of the Cross church was the result of internal renovations at the planetarium: some areas were inaccessible, so the children were regularly chaperoned over to the adjacent church building.

Which was directly in the path of Cheng.

He spoke out toward the children: “Why not use your voice for good, for music?”

Abruptly, planetarium staff escorted the children to their destination, telling Cheng that he wasn’t allowed to speak to them and that he should leave.

He remained in his seat, relaxed, claiming that the university was public property that he had the right to stay on.

For a few minutes, there was quiet.

Until UNC Police arrived.

Taiwan was home for Cheng, but it didn’t have to stay that way. In the United States, Cheng saw opportunity. For personal growth, for educational goals, and for a new foundation for which to start a family.

In 1976 at the age of 26, he immigrated to the U.S., making brief stops at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York — where he studied vocal techniques under Yi-Kwei Sze — and in Saginaw, Michigan — where one of his brothers ran a restaurant — would ultimately guide him to the city of Los Angeles, California in 1981.

Los Angeles would be a place for creation.

A start-up, one-man picture framing shop in the San Fernando Valley.

A marriage with a woman whom his cousin had known for years.

And a family.

On Christmas Eve, 1984, an exhausted Cheng would wait for hours in a hospital waiting room. On Christmas Day, 1984, an overjoyed Cheng would welcome his first daughter into the world.

“When I hear doctor say, ‘Congratulations, you have a girl!’ I was so happy,” he recalls. “I was stunned… And I (was) so proud.”

They would name her Natalie. She was just like her mother.

In December of 1990, Emily would be born. She was just like her father.

Gregory Cheng was handed a trespassing notice by the UNC Police on September 17, 2019, effectively banning him from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Not just the Morehead Planetarium: The entire Carolina campus.

This was his home.

He walked for his wellbeing, to keep his legs strong as he aged. He whistled to improve at music, jokingly “cheating” by hitting notes beyond his natural tenor repertoire. He talked to students, making friends with them instead of people his age, because he wanted to befriend youthful, free-minded people that viewed the world with positivity and curiosity.

He’s been doing it all since he moved here in 2009.

And now he couldn’t do any of that anymore.

He felt wronged. He believed that the planetarium staff overreacted, unfairly twisting his words. “Those Morehead people, they treat you like a criminal. They try to exclude you. They try to twist everything,” Cheng said.

Additionally, Cheng noted that he was unaware of the rules, not understanding that the planetarium staff had the authority to remove him from the property.

Todd Boyette, the Planetarium Director, rejects the idea of any potential misunderstanding, citing previous instances of inappropriate remarks and critical statements directed toward both planetarium staff and children throughout the summer months. Cheng’s repeated contact with the children and refusal to leave the premises — not his whistling — was the behavior that concerned Boyette.

Cheng denies the planetarium’s accusations, claiming that, although he’s spoken to the children before, his behavior was friendly, complimentary, and nonconfrontational.

“I talk to anyone. I have a right to talk to stranger,” he said. “You have a right to refuse to answer.”

Ultimately, the incident falls on hearsay.

“I think that there were multiple interpretations of what happened and something did happen, but it’s hard to piece (everything) together,” says Daily Tar Heel senior writer Maydha Devarajan, who found difficulty in fairly reporting on the incident. “It’s kind of a mess.”

Things started falling apart in Los Angeles.

In 1997, after running his shop by himself for 14 years, Cheng was forced to shutter his doors for good. He was too kind — he didn’t care for money or material gains and, as a result, he undercharged his services, so much so that he was losing money.

With the family now struggling to gain a steady income, his wife became frustrated. Ultimately, she gave up on him, asking for a divorce. In 2000, they would get one, but their separation wasn’t the only lasting impact.

Cheng’s relationship with his daughters grew strained following the separation, with contact coming in waves. As Cheng jumped from job to job in California before moving into his sister’s apartment in Chapel Hill in 2009, he heard less and less from his daughters.

Natalie, who is strong and stern like her mother, doesn’t talk to her father. Her mother likes it that way.

Emily, who is light and perceptive like her father, still talks to him occasionally. They talk on the phone sometimes. They send each other cards. He flies to Los Angeles every year to visit.

It means a lot to him nowadays.

Because — with his brothers and sisters cutting off contact with one another, save for family emergencies — it’s the only family he really has left.

Cheng didn’t understand the appeals process. He didn’t understand what police department to contact. He didn’t understand where to mail the appeal. He didn’t even know how to mail a letter.

So he requested the help of Zhang, who got in touch with a mutual friend, Adam Hall, a 2018 UNC graduate who befriended Cheng as a freshman. Together, Zhang and Hall reached out to the local community, asking for assistance with crafting an appeal. In total, five students came together to support Cheng, representing him in writing before personally mailing it to the UNC Police.

“We were like, ‘Hey, look. This is a big misunderstanding,” says Hall “He’s been coming here for a long time, it’s really not a problem. We think this is really unjust and maybe racially motivated.”

Gregory Cheng isn’t religious, but he believes in destiny.

Three weeks following the submission of his appeal

“Right time, right person,” says Cheng. “Joanna, new chief. (They) change everything.”

Had he not met Joanna a week before the incident, or had UNC not hired a new police chief in David Perry in August, Cheng believes that his time in North Carolina would’ve come to an end following the trespassing warning. If his sanctuary was taken from him, he says, then a return to New York could’ve been in play.

Cheng was hurt, but he’s found peace with what happened.

“If you speak from your heart, you have peace. You forgive other people mistakes; you let it go,” he says. “You find love and kindness; that’s where the peace comes from.”

After everything that happened, he’s still at home.

That’s enough for him.

“In that way of thinking, you (did) not lose everything,” he said. “You still have (the) whole world.”

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