Closing Ceremony Day
Well there’s a day of my life I’ll never get back. We have done some impressive waiting while here in China but they had chosen our last full day in Chongqing to really show us how to do it properly.
We returned to the middle school one final time for what we were promised would be the highlight of the competition. On the way there one of our helpers, English name Phoebe, decided that she should probably have a go at talking to me. It looked as though we were going to run out of topics pretty quickly until she remembered that Harry Potter was British and asked me who my favourite character was. I said it was Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), which it turns out is her favourite character too, so, with common ground established, I got a lecture on the merits of Harry Potter for the rest of the journey. Mercifully, it was quite short.
At the venue the set had been spruced up a bit and it looked as if there were plenty of new graphics to play with. We started by rehearsing the prize giving ceremonies, and when I say rehearsing, I use the word quite wrongly. Whenever someone is talking or giving instructions out here there are always a significant number of people not listening, and it’s not usually the students. Our guides and Chinese helpers are often having discussions while important information is being given out. On the buses the person with the mic seems to assume that having a mic is enough to disseminate all the necessary information and won’t ask or wait for quiet, seemingly unaware of the fact that not being able to hear (and, for some us, not being able to understand when you can hear) is a hindrance to finding out what is going on. Well, this is how the rehearsal is working. There’s a poor fellow on stage who is not only trying to explain how the presentations will work, and having watched the show I’ve still no idea, but also what those receiving the prizes should do. He is doing this without being able to tell us who has won any of the prizes or, for that matter, what any of the prizes are, so he is on a bit of a hiding to nothing. He keeps repeating, “then group one winners will come and stand. Then off. Then group two. Then this way. Ok, understand?” He never gets an answer because no one is listening. Colm can’t take it anymore and shushes the crowd, but that just means they look to him to see if he knows what is going on and when the poor chap on the stage starts talking again, so do they. It will come as no surprise that, when it went to air, this part of the show was gloriously shambolic.
We do some runs of the repeat of the Splendid Stage shows that are being shown tonight and there is a new dance routine that looks particularly exciting. We’re about four hours into the rehearsal by now and I decide to go and have a wander about outside. There is what can only be described as a carnival feel outside the theatre. Serried ranks of children are practicing dance routines for I don’t know what and families seem to be wandering around taking in the atmosphere. A few of the foreign students have bunked off rehearsals, presumably realising that it really won’t make any difference to the quality of the show, and are having their photographs taken with local children and adults alike. I find a nice bakery which is serving proper coffee and order myself a large espresso. I’m not too surprised when I’m not given an espresso but am a little perplexed when, once the coffee has been prepared, the woman adds ice before giving it to me.
Back into the auditorium for what seems like another age. They have started putting the various teams in an order for the final number. It is literally a case of getting them to come on and stand in a line but the assistant director seems to be having problems with this and can’t decide where he wants the various lines to be, on the first level of staging, the floor, who knows? He must have swapped them round about four times before they start getting rebellious and stop listening to anything he says. It’s quite entertaining watching a cast on the edge of mutiny, at least, when it’s not your cast. They bring out the presenter of the show who speaks very good English. I’m imagining that the tv company are hoping that the presence of such a celebrity will calm the seething masses but, as none of them are regular viewers of Chongqing TV, this plan isn’t immediately successful. However, he seems like a very nice man and speaks good English so goes for the slightly more demeaning option of pleading with the contestants to do what they’re told. I imagine he’ll be having words with his agent this evening.
At this point Colm and I steal out of the auditorium as we have secret information that tea will be arriving at 5.15 and we’re going to make sure that we are first in the queue. We get our McDonalds burger and chicken pieces. It’s already cold.
Back in the auditorium the cast are still being shouted at about these bloody lines. Most of them have just sat down and are chatting. It would be the simplest thing to do to get them to listen, stand up and stand in their teams and Colm and I both reckon we could do it in twenty minutes max, but we’re both feeling cussid so do bugger all. After three hours of line work they are all finally allowed to break for tea. The helpers come up to Colm and I to tell us we can go and eat too, and when we tell them that we’ve already had ours they look utterly shocked. How? We had not be told that we could go and eat, so how is it that we have had food? We decide not to try and bother explaining that we chose to do it of our own free will.
So it’s nearly show time and I am already aching from doing nothing. Rather irritatingly, some of the Chinese teachers from our hotel arrive at ten to seven having missed the pain of the afternoon. They must know someone.
I go out to stretch my legs and the carnival mood outside has turned into an actual carnival. The children, and there are more here than before, line the whole boulevard and are dancing to Pink and Lady Gaga while the spectators stand in the middle looking thoroughly perplexed and slightly fearful of the whole affair. There are flashing lights, more people in Chinese Bridge Doll suits, who are going the whole hog today and not taking the heads off or attacking each other, local dignitaries and people taking photographs everywhere. There are new boards outside the theatre with photographs of the contestants at various points of the competition. I appear on one of the shots at the tree planting ceremony and am looking cross. Not as cross as Colm though.
At seven o’clock we are let back into the overfamiliar theatre along with screaming crowds of Chinese students. This means that we only have an hour to wait before the show begins. The director dutifully warms everyone up, he’s earning his money today as well as the presenter, although I don’t think I could be more excited.
The show opens superbly with an excellent dance routine and new songs from some of the competitors. It is, with the obvious exception of the performances of my two students, a speedy descent from here. I have seen girl with hat without her hat today and she was unassuming and very pretty. The hat and the boots are back on for the show and Colm and I are wondering if the free bottles of water we have been given should be used a missiles for the good of all watching. She and her group redo the piece that we thought was underwhelming last time we saw it. Our review proved accurate.
Ollie’s group had become even camper than last time, which we hadn’t believed was possible and then we were treated to an American (who seems to have Chinese as a first language) banging some sticks and performing a poem. I understand that banging some sticks may sound pejorative but he did it very well. A Thai girl did a song while wearing what looked like someone else’s dress and finally, for this section, the Cambodian (it’s a big night for South East Asia) treated us to a bit more Wushu. He finished by telling us that he loved Chongqing and he loved China. There’s a man who knows how to play to the crowd.
Some award giving out was next. Our friends, the Canada 2nd team won something (they’re not quite sure what) but got up at the wrong time to receive it as one of the runners, who obviously also was not paying attention at this afternoon’s rehearsal, thrust them on stage. They dealt with it by looking as if they knew what they were doing, which put them in a league above everybody else.
Some more things happened before David’s group came on again, this time with an astonishing new outfit. They are all wearing Breton style stripy tops with white PVC trousers, hot pants for the girls, finished off with a black leather belt. I’m not sure what it’s meant to say about hotpot but I can’t imagine the trousers are very pleasant to dance in. I ask David if he can explain the decision, but I think he’s decided that it’s easiest just to do as he’s told. He’s becoming a native. When it comes to the bit where David has to appear on stage while everyone asks, “Where is David?” there was no sign of him. I guess the cast were lucky in that they did not have to ad lib too much and could just keep shouting, “Where’s David?” with a creeping sense of desperation. Knowing David as the consummate pro that he is I was sure there must be a reason and, sure enough, he tells me afterwards that there was no sound man there to give him a mic and eventually he had to run on without one before the cast on stage exploded with the ferocities of their “Where’s David?” Thank goodness we did all the rehearsal otherwise this could have looked shoddy.
Speaking of shoddy, more presentations, more bumping into each other.
It could be said that I wasn’t wholly enjoying it up to this point, but then it got worse. The Malawian lad came on and the giant screens behind started showing pictures of his orphanage. There were pictures of him with his teacher, or his Chinese mother as the presenter suggested, and a couple more shots of him and other orphans doing Chinese things (bouncing ping pong balls and touching a Fu were mysteriously missed off). It would have all been ok except for the cloying piano music that started underscoring the whole interview, demanding us to pity the lad and, in equal measure, to thank the munificent Chinese government for all their benevolence. I don’t want to criticise them for helping the most vulnerable in the poorest countries, but there was something about this that didn’t feel right. Anyway, the Malawian lad didn’t seem to get quite upset enough for the presenters and then did a wushu performance which was probably my highlight of the night. When he sat back down right in front of me one of the other competitors asked if, as suggested in the interview, that they really only spoke Chinese in the orphanage. He smiled and said no, they usually spoke to each other in English.
All the students were then taken out, we hoped for the last number, but it may well have been to ensure that all of the water bottles in the auditorium didn’t end up on stage. Hat girl was back. God alone knows why but she was being interviewed about how super Chongqing is and what a wonderful time she was having and how she loves China, and it turns out that she isn’t actually very good at Chinese. The audience actually laughed at her at one point when she said, for the fourth time, “Yeh, it’s been really good fun.” The presenters asked about her Chinese family and how much she loved them and she agreed that she loved them lots, no really, huge amounts. “Well,” said the presenter, “you didn’t know this, but those Chinese parents that you love so much are here tonight.” Hat girl, in one of the most spectacular pieces of performance I have ever seen, looked thoroughly shocked, choked and excited at the same time. “What here?” she asked, not daring to hope or believe what she had just been told. “Yes, that’s right, all the way from a couple of blocks away, here they are.” And to a fanfare, the Chinese family, who she’d seen only yesterday, came on stage. The family were obviously so excited to be there, hat girl was in tears, the audience were feeling bad about earlier laughter and Colm and I were looking round to see if there were any more bottles we could launch at any of them. The interview went on, possibly for hours, and whenever hat girl couldn’t understand a question, which wasn’t infrequently, she’d just remember how happy she was and burst into tears again. It was appalling but the audience lapped it up – got to give to hat girl, she knows her market. I am coming to hate both current superpowers.
Tears brushed aside, the spectators sang a song which had obviously been an afterthought for the organisers and then came the final parade, the thing we had rehearsed the whole afternoon for. It went wrong from the outset. The Brits and the Americans who were meant to be on the second row were pushed on first. We came on waving our flags as if that was always the plan – we may not have the brazen desperation to perform as our cousins across the pond but we are reliable to the last. It’s all in the training. The other teams came on in whatever order they where in and stand wherever there is a space. It works fine.
And there is just time to announce the final winner. We are all genuinely thrilled to see the German girl, who performed so well in the Emperor’s new clothes, get the top prize. She had been friendly and lovely throughout. She wins a year’s scholarship in China (second prize, two years) but her teacher tells me she probably won’t take it as she is planning on going into acting. I might have known.
On the bus home there is a great atmosphere (on my part because the bloody closing ceremony is over) and much international hugging.
There’ll be singing in the streets of Berlin tonight.