Saturday, February 11, 2006

Good Nite Beijing !

The whole stay in Beijing evolved around the silly CCTV show & none of William’s grandiose plans of hooking up with other teachers evolved. You would never guess that we were in a Communist country because we seem to be constantly evolving everything around someone else’s self absorb plans instead of what we came here to do. Everyone was looking out for number one. What ever happen to Socialism? I guess it was always too idealistic to last.

This was really frustrating for me as I found “Last Dance” being constantly shuffled to a place of very low priority. Although I always placed William’s training first above all, “Last Dance” was next in line of priority for me.

While in Beijing, we did score some free tickets to The Grand Chang An theatre. We caught some amazing Peking Opera acts & I got some really cool footage backstage. Only 40 years ago, we would have ended up with bad haircuts & sent off to clean latrines in the countryside for such bourgeois decadence. That’s what happened to many of William’s teachers! So I guess you’ve come a long way babe!

It’s been a week back in Beijing & we’ve blown 2 thirds of the month away already. We’ve got ten days left to pack what we had originally planned for thirty days. We decided to cancel our plans for Nanjing in order to have enough time for the repertoires William originally came to learn.Now that William has scratch Master Sun’s back by contributing to her on air PR machine, she has to follow thru & make good on promises of opera workshops with her undivided attention. If there were rules in the Guanxi game, that one should be carved in stone.

Cultural Divides

It has been common knowledge as well as a long history of cultural divide between the North & South similar to the cultural divides & prejudices between say Northern Italy near the Swiss Alps & the Sicilian regions. The prejudice being that the Northern & Wu areas (Lower Yangtze & Shanghai regions) claims to represent the ‘refined’, ’traditional’, ’pure’, & ‘authentic’ aspects of Chinese culture while snubbing Cantonese & other Southern cultures as a reflection of the ‘vulgar’, ‘modern’, ‘hybrid’, & ‘debased’ aspects.

It is not surprising that these similar cultural snobberies have found their way into the Peking Opera arena & into the critical discourses on Chinese Opera. Most Peking Opera Aficionados I’ve met so far tends to be purists with inward thinking that have been the popular trend as well as downfalls through out our dynasties. Master Soong for example when watching the Opera Channel will only watch Peking Opera, as everything else such as Cantonese or even Shanghainese Opera are consider second rate.

The Opera Channel programming is an obvious statement. Northern & Wu region theatrical genres are valued as the expressions of the Elite & are always broadcast prime time. As such, Jing Ju have grown to be representative of the ‘official’ traditional culture by even playing down their own local features & hybrid characters. This has come at the expenses of the dieing popularities of other local genres & cultures to the point of there’ll only be 1 national theatre being supported & based out of Beijing in the near future.

While the Mandarin dialect or ‘Guo Yu’, which smugly translates as ‘The National Language’, is perceived as refined, and central to Chinese culture. Cantonese & the local culture behind Cantonese opera are seen as vernacular & peripheral expressions of a low class group. I wonder how much of this reinforces or correlates to the cultural divide & my personal frustration with the status hierarchy of linguistic expression.

Yet they worship Hong Kong pop culture & Cantonese cuisine seems to be the most popular amongst the Elites. I’ve seen more Andy Lau & Karen Mok billboards here than in Hong Kong. More than ½ the films shown on the over night train were Andy Lau’s…there was a guy selling a Beijing Tabloid on the subway train today shouting ‘2 RMB…Andy Lau is dead!’. And the whole cast of entertainers scheduled for the New Years Eve count down in Shanghai are being flown in from Hong Kong. But this Honkie expiate is not considered Chinese!

The influences of the diaspora have inspired more open negotiations between the debt to the past & the desire to adapt to cultural & societal transformations. The spirit of such innovation have apparently led to unique experiments in Peking & Cantonese opera fusions as early as ’63 in New York City.

However, I really am talking through my nether regions of the armchair historian. So I’ll shut up with my academic bitching here & get back on track with the journey.

Miserable Americans

Imitating American culture seems to have become invariably chic, yet most Chinese don't really think the Americans are that smart. They might however brag about the Middle Kingdom’s return to her rightful place as the world’s number one nation, yet given a chance, they would still jump ship & go to America. The truth is, they have problems liking Americans politically but are obsessed with emulating their material values. They appear to be more complex than they really are. But for the most part, their contradicting dilemma tells me they’re more or less disillusioned & resembled many miserable Americans without even trying.

This presents an interesting dichotomy among the expiates. As we watch the English language channel, William & I notice there were a host of people who we could have known from university who might have been in East Asian and Chinese studies. Some interesting and cultured, some not. Some I might even dare to say are here because they couldn't cut it back in the West, and upon somehow ending up on this side of the world, aided by a sense of privilege as only a Western income in a non-Western economic country could offer, stayed.

These Sinophiles are plastered everywhere. On billboards, television, even on sides of buses. In the West, they’d be nobodies. But here, they’re privileged with celebrity status. As for me, a descendent of the dragon, am still considered a foreigner even though I speak Cantonese. The general consensus is ‘you’re not Chinese unless you speak Putonghua’. How irritating is that!

Kuomingtangs Revisited

There seems to be much more of a class based societal structure than I remember from my last visit or maybe the gap has just gotten more obvious or worst than what I was prepared for over the last 8 years.

Impeccable-white gloved service was quite a juxtaposition to the disheveled, dirty, and weather-beaten coolies who were pushing handcarts laden with everything from refuse to other people. If this was Communism, what were things like before Communism arrived? In a more class-based society, what rationale would stop some from acting on their envious thoughts of not having what others, whom they saw every day, did enjoy? And was this not just a rotation of power-elites, albeit after a certain more widely based redistribution of property?

While I perceive China as a tightly controlled society, I was also struck by the seeming fact that even this government could not control everyone. Not every business deal and not every hustler could be tracked by a central government. So over 10-20 years after the Cultural Revolution, these first business dealers, and next the progeny of those in governmental control, are benefiting and accumulating enormous wealth.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Beijing Rat Race

Ultimately Beijing is just way too over spread & inconvenient & China just has way too many people. The overpopulation makes the current populace struggle for whatever breathing room they can get, making them sometimes unpleasant to interact with. The Beijing transit system could quite appropriately be whisked away to one of Dante's circles of hell. It's extremely stuffy with people sweating inside their down fills packed in like sardines for long periods of time when the ring-roads are grid locked with traffic.

A seat might open up in front of me at miraculous moments. But while I argue with Master Sun that she should sit down, some young punk from halfway across has already barreled his way into it while starring at me like I was an alien from Outer Space. What ever happen to our traditional respect for the elders? Today’s China has become such a self absorb, youth driven culture. I guess if they're that desperate, they can have the damn seat.

Last Track To Beijing

After only 7 days of training, we find ourselves returning to Beijing this time by train. The train station was horrific with mob mentality that is the natural state of any crowd in China. This is what I imagine Xian to be like during the infamous Xian Incident when The Kuomingtangs evacuated. The overnight train was tiring. I couldn’t sleep & ended up abusing myself with badly dubbed Andy Lau flicks. I was exhausted & sleep deprived again by the time we arrived back in Beijing at the crack of dawn.

Walled City

The city wall was interesting, in a bleak sort of way. I let my imagination run wild as I imagined Ghengis Khan and his Mongolian hoards sweeping over the hills and attacking the wall, with loyal imperial troops doggedly defending each inch of it tooth and nail, to protect the motherland from the barbarians. In reality, however, it didn't happen like that. The wily Khan simply sent emissaries to different parts of the wall until he found some corrupt official he could bribe to let him over unmolested. "Any wall," he said, "is only as good as the men defending it."

Good point Ghengis! Walls don’t seem to be effective means of defense. The effort required to build, maintain and defend them greatly exceeds the force required to overcome them, and those behind the wall become complacent and inward looking. China herself became inward looking, and as the Qing royal court amused itself behind the walls of the Forbidden City, believing it had frozen time, the West progressed and moved through enlightenment and then an industrial revolution. Centuries of self-enforced isolation had left her unprepared for Western and Japanese aggression, and she is only now regaining her position as the world's number one nation.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Restoration Anathema

The Xian that stands today isn't that old. It appears more like a 50-year-old city rather than the ancient 2000 plus years old capital that it’s supposed to be. The City Wall was repeatedly damaged and rebuilt, or just destroyed by the emperor so he could refashion it in his image. Often it was burnt to the ground by powerful court eunuchs eager to get rich on kickbacks from awarding the reconstruction contracts. Sounds a lot like modern day Guanxi, doesn’t it?

The day we were leaving to go back to Beijing, William got food poisoning & excused himself for a relaxing treatment at the local bathhouse…Yeah…a likely story I’m sure…hehehe…so I was left to explore the old city wall on my own before the over night train departs in the evening.

Scaffolding was everywhere, there was so much renovation work going on that I wondered if they had decided to rebuild it from scratch again. I suppose they were just making it look newer, as the idea of old historic buildings actually looking old is anathema to the Chinese. Even renovating (as near as damn replacing it, as far as I could tell) an old building is unusual in China. Usually they just rip it down and stick a faceless office block in its place.

This is progress. Old=Bad; New=Good. If an alien was to do a whistle-stop tour of Chinese cities, he might be forgiven for thinking that the whole place hadn't existed until the fifties, that it had all sprung into existence out of nothing. In a society that boasts the longest uninterrupted history on the planet, I found this saddening.

Tourist Site Fatigue

As time passes, I figured out William either goes shopping or gets facials when he’s frustrated by his lost of control in the situation. Since he decided to go for a facial this morning, I was left to amuse myself @ The Shaanxi History Museum. I passed on the tourist rip off cassette tape rental for a self-guided tour (recorded by Roger Moore – apparently a big selling point here…they love Bond…unfortunately…the wrong Bond) even though they claimed it was really worthwhile as it explained a lot about the collections that would otherwise have remained a mystery.

I was glad to be exploring alone in a dull sort of way as I watch other foreign tourists being herded like cattle from place to place with their guide repeatedly reminding them to read the English translation at the side of each exhibit, which appeared to have been translated by a machine operated by an ill-educated monkey, while they mega phoned the tour group in an ecstatic frenzy directing fellow flocks of sheep around. But like so many other 'historical' sights in China, it is yet another new, tour-group friendly replica and frankly uninteresting.

The temples, the ornate Chinese roves, the stone lions guarding the entrance and the courtyards were beautiful, I suppose, but I've seen enough already that 'temple fatigue' was beginning to set in. I was itching to move ahead with the film I came to shoot that I wasn’t appreciating them as much as I should have.

You can't enter most of the temples anyways, but you can peer into their dark interiors from a railing at the front entrance. To win this prize, you really have to fight like a Xian war refugee during her many historical battles. Around each front door, a surging mass of Chinese tourists push, elbow and snarl at each other for prime position. They fight first to get to the door, and then they fight to stay there. I was carried on the wave of a tour group or two past some of the doors as I held my camera above the wave and wondered if my health insurance covered being trod underfoot.

Follow Me & Learn

We finally got to meet Master Sun & started the Operatic training after William reluctantly agreed to travel back to Beijing & go on air for CCTV. We checked out the show on air & discovered that it is essentially a prime time but dorky ‘sing along Chinese Opera show’ for the elitist Tai Tais to learn Chinese Opera at home, a kind of Opera Karaoke if you will. The name of the show translates as “Follow Me & Learn”, so you can just imagine. After a cuppla classes, I realized they were preparations for the big TV extravaganza & not the repertoires that William had come to learn. Ai-yor! The spirit of fang bien has struck again!

Hostage Negotiations

We were scheduled to meet Master Sun bright & early on our 1st morning. But she kept postponing it because of this & that. We’re now being told that she has to go to Beijing for a CCTV appearance & insisted William to go back with her. This was the beginning of our many ‘in the spirit of fang bien (convenience)’ situations in China. It appears that the Chinese interpretation of ‘fang bien’ means when it’s convenient for them but not necessarily for you, in a sneaky passive/aggressive way. If we had known this, we could have stayed in Beijing or made our travel plans accordingly.

A trek back to Beijing is not a simple hop, skip & jump along the Gardner to Mississauga. I’m dreading this but there weren’t any choices. It wasn’t like we can stay & party with the Terracotta soldiers till she gets back! I’ve bad feelings about this. I felt like we were being held hostage by some Karaoke Peking Opera cult. If I catch William shaving his head, smellin like incent, & chanting strange tunes in water sleeves at the train station over the next few days…we’re outta here!

Master Sun has a mama’s boy Wang who looks like some walking Adidas billboard. I can’t figure out if he’s a devoted Adidas stockholder or he just loves all things foreign especially American. William doesn’t trust him. I empathize but also feel compelled to count all my teeth to make sure they’re all still there when he leaves the room. Anyways, I coined him Mister Adidas. He appears to be her gatekeeper/manager. You can’t get to her without going through him. So while we waited patiently to meet her, we’re stuck with Mister Adidas as our tour guide, killing our time, shuffling us from one more boring replica tourist site to another.

Anywhere you find tourists, you were also bombarded by over-excited guides blabbering from annoying battery powered megaphones whose worldly care seems only to not let a moment's silence pass without any form of conscious thought. My only consolation was that these running commentaries were in Putonghua, which somehow made it more bearable because I couldn’t fully understand and when the batteries were wearing down on their megaphones, almost ignorable.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Each Drop Is Life

The weather really surprised me. I had been accustomed to the more damp, drizzle and mist that is characteristic of my ancestral home, Toishan in the South. But Xian was dry and dusty. Posters everywhere encouraged people to conserve water, proclaiming 'each drop means life'.

Instead of mist, one finds a slight haze. The sky here is cloudless, but not really blue - it's a kind of icky gray/blue I haven't seen before. Not even my trusty Polarizing filters were doing anything here. So it was really ugly for shooting. That's partly due to pollution, no doubt, but mainly due to the dusty yellow loess soil from northwest China being blown east by howling winds from Mongolia. The soil up there is yellow and powder like, and winter winds lift it from the ground and carry it all the way to Xian and Beijing.

The scale and intensity of soil erosion has apparently increased massively in this century. Recent rapid economic progress has brought things to a crisis point. Drought, over farming and de-forestation, combined with ever increasing demands for water from industry and the cities, are pushing northeast China toward the abyss. There’re speculations that the whole region, from Xian to Beijing, may soon become a desert if it isn’t already.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Vanishing History

Xian was seemingly remote driving in through the dodgy night. But in the following daylight, we realize that it was in reality a metropolis of seven million people. From its central Drum and Bell Tower Square, the city’s four main arteries (East, West, North and South Street), spread out into infinity, dividing her in a logical and coherent way.

The square itself is actually the rooftop of an ultra modern underground shopping mall. But above ground, it appears to be a pleasant enough grassy place, where kite flying aficionados ride the wind, or rather their kites 'ride the wind'. They themselves stay on the ground to flog their kites to unsuspecting tourists willing to throw money away for junkets that can be found in any diaspora Chinatown. The square contained the two typical Ming Dynasty towers; one museum of bells, and another a museum of drums. I couldn’t tell 1 apart from the other, but I’ll never forget the eyesore that is the Golden Arches of Big Mac precariously stuck right smack in between the two.

The rest of the city centre is all spanking new. The locals brag that it’s only about 2 years new. This is surprising when you consider that Xian was China's ancient capital for far longer than any other city, and much longer than the recent upstart, Beijing. Most of the dynasties rose and fell here in Xian, but judging by the downtown area, they left no trace. War, progress and indifference have erased Chinese history. The centre of modern Xian could be any American city with malls, banks, KFCs, McDonalds and traffic jams. There’s so much traffic around the downtown circle (reminiscent of Rome) that the only way for pedestrians to get across was to build these space age Jetson like underground passageways.

Xian's citizens looked prosperous and purposeful…in the downtown core anyways. This has become a world of business and careers, of mobile phones and factories. The rough and ready Tibetans of yesteryear seemed worlds away, much to the delight of both parties, I suspect. But if you look hard enough, you might still find them juxtaposition within a 15 to 20 minutes walk away still holding on to their dear turf from extinction.

Hi-jacked To Kekexili

We landed in Xian after dark only to find out that the airport was another hour & 1/2’s drive in from the boonies. Next thing you know, we were herded onto a military style transport bus crammed full of shady, disheveled characters in ill-fitting cotton padded overcoats. I was a bit disoriented to say the least…thinking I’ve just been abducted on mountain patrol somewhere up in Kekexili. I strained my sleep-deprived red eyes over the sea of bad haircuts & spotted little William dwarf in between two dirty and weather-beaten scar faces at the front end of the bus & was just as relieved with the absence of Tibetan antelopes or any other critters on board.

As the suspension less bus grind its way along the dilapidated roads, I nodded off intermittently but would awaken abruptly thinking I’ve been robbed blind & left by the road side stark naked only to catch glimpses of surreal frontier storefronts like those from old Kurosawa films passing through the fogged up windowpane. In relief, I settle back in for the long uncomfortable ride ahead while clutching on to my money belt & passport.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Master Headress Maker

On our last day in Beijing, we hit the old town where the Opera Costume shops are located. I’m finally getting into a groove here... At last, some visual theme to build upon. A direction to explore the “character” of this place. The space is jiving & things are starting to jam so much better for me…

The Peking Opera costume area is a filthy but beautiful place.
I spent hours shooting in the old tiny workshop while William got his repairs & orders in. I felt very privilege to be given access to this rich, yet endangered old world craftsmanship locked inside a time capsule in this vanishing historical Hutong.

But I was sadden by the imminent reality that it will be the last time I’ll see this place as it faces extinction with the forth coming progress which has already bulldozed away most of the neighboring shops. These historical Hutongs are eyesores as well as goldmine opportunities to Beijing developers. They are doing everything in their power to get rid of them before the Western world comes for the ’08 Olympics. This neighbourhood will soon be stunted over by yet more of Beijing’s gray, faceless tower blocks.

The old Master Headress Maker whose family has own the shop for generations took us out for a delicious Muslim lunch in the neighbourhood. He & his 2 sons were impress by my tolerance level for Bai Jui, their national drink, the Chinese moonshine that permeates everything everywhere you go in China.

We flew to Xian the following day. I started to get more excited about the film, looking forward to meet Master Sun & start shooting the training rituals. Most of all, I was glad to be leaving Beijing.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Peking Opera Blues

William & I arrived in Beijing on a bone chilling winters day. If I were to choose one word to describe the place, it would be 'gray'. Maybe it was just the time of year or maybe that's just the mood I was in. From the weather …to the buildings …to Tiananmen Square…everything was gray, or at least, that's how it all appeared to me. However, a whopping ten million folks including some friends do call Beijing home, so they would no doubt be pretty outraged by my one-word adjective. But I wasn’t gonna wax lyrical about a place that wasn’t doing anything for me.

The municipality of Beijing stretches over an area the size of Belgium. Belgium's a pretty small country, and fairly gray too, come to think of it. But having a city the size of a country is no small feat. It took forever to get from the airport to the centre passing through row after row of tower blocks, each one more faceless than the last. Beijing used to be a lot grimmer when I was here 8 years ago. The central government has been pouring every penny into sprucing it up for the forthcoming ‘08 Olympics. But baby, you've got a long way to go before I would describe you as beautiful, or even pleasant.

There were only 2 reasons to come to Beijing. It was the only direct flight from Toronto on route to Xian & a pit stop for William’s favourite Peking Opera costume shop. Other than that, the blistery cold front blowing in from Mongolia wasn’t doing much in ways of inspiring me to haul out my baby to shoot, especially not outdoors. Call me a Whoost. But it was even too freakin cold to stroll the streets like Kafka’s watch or some other useless thing while looking for late night internet-cafes in the evenings. In day light hours, I risked frostbite (or more appropriately, wind bite) to look for ambient shots... pretending to know how bburr… bbuuurrrr…beautifully the sun would fall while wishing that I could come close to Nestor Almendros’ poetic intuition & find some real rhythm & “music” to this documentary.

I guess I should mention that I’m not just some cynical, armchair, travel writer. I really do have a mission here. I’m really here to shoot ‘THE LAST FALSETTO’. It’s gonna be a really cool doc about the final leg of an artistic journey…of William Lau, Peking Opera Diva Extraordinaire, Canada’s one & only Nan Dan Performer. I’ll be following him around through his trials of anxietie, culture shock, unpredictable existence and uncertain future.