the whistle man.

Ok, a week or so ago I mentioned my obsession with the Arboretum Whistler and how I finally met him.  Greatest day ever, really.  Anyway, here’s the rather long story I wrote for my feature writing class, which should hopefully give you a taste of how truly unique this man is, and a creeper cell phone picture I took one day.  Enjoy!

Is That a Bird or a Man?

He is a music man.  He talks more than he breathes.  He is vague.  He does not remember his age.  He is not a technological man.  He wears Panasonic headphones. He is a self-trained opera singer.  He is balanced.  He wears dentures.  He is an annoyance to some and a delight to others. He is a mystery.  He is infamous.  He is the Arboretum Whistler, and nobody knows who he is.

Gregory Cheng is a man of many talents, talking and whistling being his most evident.  His diction was a Chinese-accented rapid fire of words that never answered the questions I asked.  But like all great mysteries, Cheng has many stories to tell.

“I started whistling years ago,” Cheng told me as we walked to a nearby bench in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Arboretum.  I was out of breath from chasing his tune across the small Eden of tall trees and winding paths.  A Swedish opera ceaselessly hummed through his Panasonic headphones, the tunes he whistles along with.

Cheng’s passion for music began at a young age.  “When I was a kid, I stuttered worst time… but when I sing I’m free like a bird,” he said.  As he grew up, music was Cheng’s forte.  “I only studied what I was interested [in],” he said bluntly, recounting difficulties in other subjects.  Later, Cheng attended a private Chinese college where he admits, “I took three times to succeed.”

A fervor for music grew in Cheng.  He learned to play piano and cello and eventually trained himself to become an opera singer.  And while his voice never became a career, it provided a kind of meditative spirituality.  “So just breathe and hold,” he said. “The miracle will happen. The angels will descend from Heaven and you [will] see the beautiful picture because you open your Heaven to see the universe.”

The Arboretum Whistler’s secret?

Breathing.

The simplest and most basic task of all humans is the key to the unmistakable melody of this guru.  “If you control your breath, you control your voice,” he said.  He elaborated on breathing techniques and the Adam’s apple — both are essential to proper singing.  “If the diaphragm goes, the voice goes,” he stated.

He compared the breaths of singing to those of swimming.  “If you give up your breath, you sink and die,” he said, filling up his lungs with moist Southern air.  He leaned back with balloon-like cheeks and open arms, his striped polo stretching across his ribbed chest.   Then he caught himself on his thin leg just before falling backwards.  He looked at me, smiling.  Cheng does not know how to swim.

“Control your breath, you control your voice,” he continued teaching.  “You control your voice, you have artistic singing.”  Control is vital.  “Don’t you see I am so slim, so skinny?” he asks.  It is “all here,” he said, tapping the top of his head with his frail, but vein-laden arms.  “I know how to use every part.”

Despite his well-known presence on campus, Cheng is nearly unaware of his fame.  “I have no ego,” he said as I informed him of his reputation.  The man is the source for many Daily Tar Heel Kvetches as well as confused glances by hammockers who enjoy the serenity of the arboretum.  “I find him very amusing,” said Katy Charles, a junior at UNC-CH who frequents the arboretum.  “It’s a bit odd, but also a part of campus at the same time,” she said.

“People say ‘Oh, you whistle like a bird,’” Cheng mused.  There is “no such kind of opera except [what] I learn from earthman’s opera,” he said, scanning the canopy of pine, maple, and beech trees around him.  “I learn from tree; I learn from flower.  I learn from great pine,” he said, motioning to the tree where I tapped him on the shoulder.

While many see the mysterious whistling in the arboretum as a silly occurrence, Cheng takes his talent very seriously.  He focuses on the energy pulsing through his veins, the compressed air in his expanded lungs and the beauty of the nature around him. “Sing outside of [the] box,” he advised, “not only think, sing.”  He gazed at the nature around him, drawing a deep breath and stretching out his arms.  “You will see the universe.  Open your mind; open your eyes.”

People “feel my whistling is so perfect, like from [a] recording,” he said, “because I take [it] serious[ly].  Even in practice, I make every note count.”  Down the street, the crosswalk at Raleigh St. and Cameron Ave. beeped its little melody.

We spoke of opera, Hollywood and soccer as bushy shadows shifted with the dipping sun.  He dropped names like Franco Colletti, Jussi Björling and Luciano Pavarotti as if they were his best friends.  His headphones continued to buzz an unrecognizable aria.  An hour later, I still did not know his career; he never told me.

In the last 30 years, he has lived in Buffalo, N.Y.; Michigan; and Saigon, Vietnam.  His most recent home was Los Angeles, Calif.  He has two daughters, Emily and Natalie, whom he loves proudly and misses tenderly. He showed me their pictures. He is left-handed.

With his low-key attitude and curious behavior, Cheng will continue to be a somewhat enigmatic figure on the UNC-CH campus.  “People always wondering this guy, this strange guy, why he’s so happy,” Cheng said, his hands on his heart.  “Compassion, love and kindness,” he said, “you have to have that to achieve that beautiful sound.”

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4 Responses to “the whistle man.”

  1. Hey Emily,

    I know this is a bit random, but I googled “Arboretum whistler” and came across your blog post about him.

    I’m also a UNC student and work for Carolina Connection – a student-run radio show – and am interested in doing a story on the arboretum whistler. I’ve come across him before in years past and have had conversations with him, but never got his contact information or anything like that.

    I would LOVE to interview him and am wondering if you got any contact info from him that you could possibly share with me? I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks so much!

    You can email me back at rkhrais@email.unc.edu or give me a call at (919) 260-9778.

    great story btw!

  2. Emily,

    I am also trying to do a story on Gregory. I talked to Reema and she didn’t have any of his contact information.

    Are you in a place to forward me his email or phone #??

    If not I will continue wandering in search of him.

    Thanks!

    Josh

    Oh, my number is 704.634.4374

    josh.stilwell@gmail.com

    I need to be in touch with him by Thursday at the latest.

  3. We were on campus two weekends ago and heard this amazing whistling. It sounded so high and happy, like the music from Disney’s Snow White. We were almost expecting bunnies and bluebirds to follow him! It was a delight to hear him.

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