Thor's China Diary


Chinese Medley

I received an invitation in gold lettering to attend a concert "in honour of the School of Informatics Engineering" at the student activity centre. The student activity centre was a cavernous hall with tiered seats reaching up into the gloom. Very rickety seats and grubby walls, but there must have been a couple of thousand people in it. As one of the only two surviving long-noses on campus (the other one is tone deaf but came anyway), I was escorted to a seat of honour about 5 metres from what turned out to be a full symphony orchestra. Only later did I find out how special the whole exercise was -- they had never ever tried it before, and much of the audience had never heard an orchestra live.

The printed program was in Chinese, of course, and my attempts to get some kind of translation met with even more charming evasion than usual. The words were unfamiliar, my hostess said. I would naturally be able to tell THEM as soon as I heard the music. Hmm. I know what I like when I hear it, but my musical literacy is almost as sketchy as my Chinese literacy. The musical literati are apt to drift out of my presence with tight little smiles as I effortlessly fail their secret society passwords ... Here, in China, our mutually confused small talk might preserve my digity a little longer. They orchestra did what they probably had to do with an audience like this - fed them tidbits. We just settled down to what seemed some Sebelius, when Carmen wandered in from left field, then something out of Swan Lake dropped from the clouds and Dvorak stomped up from the pit. From time to time a Chinese addition would slip in. My hostess looked at me expectantly. We were certainly getting a musical education. I had to hand it to the orchestra. Whatever professional indignities they were suffering, they played superbly. To my crude ear the phrasing seemed perfect, and nobody slipped. A gent with extraordinary lung power sang the Chinese national anthem. Then hardly pausing for breath he launched into Figaro -- in Chinese. I did a double take. You get quite used to seeing Clint Eastwood or any international sports star you care to name on TV, speaking fluent Chinese. Italian opera in Chinese took unreality to new heights. If ever Chinese get to tour the world enmasse, a lot of 'em are going to go into deep shock when they rock up against their TV idols speaking one of  the other barbarous five thousand tongues on the planet. The intermission was taken up by a bloke who could just manage a saxophone (only just) playing the theme from the film, Titanic, and backed by a CD played through the PA system. This earned rapturous applause. Clearly the top billing of the night. Oh well. I once went to a performance of MacBeth in Goroka, PNG where the audience screamed with laughter....

In the second half we got a very credible bite out of a Beethoven symphony. No, don't ask me which one, but it was Beethoven, and not the 9th (which I know indelibly from hearing railway stations all over Japan play it again, and again, and again .... one Christmas). Then a lady wearing a white wedding dress and a crucifix came onto the stage. Now she did sing in Italian, and she was phenomenal. Opera is not my kind of stuff, usually. But this dame could have cracked a wine glass at a hundred yards. Her voice ran from the rafters to a whisper and back again without a tremor and without rush. China is the kitsch capital of the world. The place is built on junk, and from junk. It is full of facades hiding empty interiors, glossy products that break after a day, and imposing professors who can't actually do anything. But amongst all the junk you stumble over real treasures. The dame with the crystal voice is certainly one of them. But nope, I have no idea of her name. None of my guides had ever heard of her.

"Chinese Medley" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 17 October 1998