Sequel: The (Not Quite) Christmas (Late) Show* Must Go On

*With Chinese Characteristics

(This is Part Two of my attempt to communicate the wonder of a “Christmas Show” in a Chinese college. Part ONE is here. There were pictures.)

When we last electronically met, I recounted my first-row scribbled impressions of an event the likes of which few Ontario basketball coaches get to experience. We made it to Act the Sixth, but there was much more to come. This is a late report, but the show had few connections to any particular season, let alone Christmas. Speaking of which, Happy New Year. (Again.)

It wasn’t all sweetness and light (and singing), but a lot of it was.

ACT 7: Gold-lamé pants, white flowing blouses and pink ribbons. A rather gentle, oriental opening to the dance. BUT. Here come the heaving breasts, the hip thrusts and, my gosh, the friggin’ bass. Well, that was fairly sexual. Unfairly? [And hey: maybe the overwhelming percentage of female students in our college, in our entire university – it’s a Finance & Economics uni, which means female, while the technology school up the road skews massively male – makes this kind of dancing a biological imperative. It pays to advertise, and all that. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not just that it’s a rich-kid college that makes the hallways so often look like a dance-club anteroom. Minis and heels and spangles. I’m beginning to detect a theme. The young men in our school are a pampered lot, in more ways than two, and yet Chinese reserve is such that most guys barely talk to their female classmates. Missed opportunities.]

ACT 8: This looks Japanese to me, which all will instantly deny. White-draped, angelic young women demurely wave feathery fans. They’re wearing what I’d call harem pants if they weren’t so clearly, well, East Asian. Expensive costumes, kids! [And from the Should’ve Known Better File: these, too, are all rentals. There must be some junior staffer whose entire job was costumes. Amazing. Money has been spent.] That was quite lovely, a sweet tonic.

ACT 9: Here they come! the sort-of-English-speaking MC warns. The tonic didn’t last – it’s back to black leather hotpants! [Hotpants and microminis, even in the sub-zero of a Dalian winter, remain major fashion items, even for some we’re middle-aged, so we’re trying harder women. This week’s big addition to my Mandarin vocabulary is “xiao san”, literally ‘little three’. It means mistress, the third member of a couple. The ideal for so many ambitious young women is the gao/fu/shuai man — tall/rich/handsome, the one with the car and the house already in place. The ubiquity of the xiao san (or xiao si, or xiao wu, for the man rich enough to maintain multiple nests) phrase is very telling to me; it almost seems expected, and yet girls dream the faithfulness dream – even while they concentrate to an unsettling degree on a man’s property status. Doublethink, Mr. Orwell called it.] The hotpants also have a few lads in the back row, and hey, Baizun has ditched his MC duds for urban street-cool. Breakin’! Not bad, actually, in his (intentionally!) robotic break-dancing. Yay, Garlic! [But he still needs a new English name.]

VIDEO INTERLUDE: Taped seasonal greetings were aired from the students that our college sends abroad – to Canada, Australia and Northern Ireland [labelled, for the purposes of this video and in geographical perplexity, as “London”] – to complete their undergraduate degrees. Their messages, even when they study in English contexts, are still delivered in immaculate Chinglish. [I am Don Quixote, tilting against the windmills of established Chinese educational practices and thinking the students will heed the foreigner’s repeated pleas about the best way to learn his language. HA!] And in the background, the next BIG act is gathering onstage. Yes! It’s the RED-SPANGLE BRIGADE! Ah, and the white-outfitted young gents are in the back with their spangly red bow-ties. Can’t wait.

ACT 10: HEY! What’s this CHRISTMAS SONG doing in here?! It’s a choir, maybe 40 kids, one I’d heard rehearsing in room 102 on a snowy Sunday evening. Natch, it’s “Jingle Bells”, but a sophisticated and artsy version, innovative parts, even a little gentle choreography for the singers to stroll through. Good singing! And the conductor’s doing a good job of fakery, I do believe, in his twin-tailed tuxedo, making very conductor-esque moves. [My Sunday evening spying had focussed on a middle-aged, large-haired woman directing the group with delightful energy and big smiles, the kind of teaching persona I’ve not seen in four-and-a-half years around Chinese educators. Hearing the fruits of her labours, pouring pleasantly out of students having very little experience of choral music, was really impressive. I wish she’d been there to conduct them live,

Best of Show Award. (Student division.) Amazing how the leader’s arm-waving didn’t seem to disrupt anybody’s rhythm. Well-rehearsed!

but in a reliably Chinese way, a jia de (fake) student conductor pranced about semi-convincingly. Appearance. I remember the lip-synching little cutie in the Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies, on camera instead of the apparently less-perfect-looking girl with the golden voice. This seems perfectly normal to folks here. To seem, rather than to be – the opposite of my beloved ecce quam videri Latin motto. Just to be sure, I checked with the young man in the tails, and he didn’t even try to pretend he was the real conductor. Of course not! I just wanted to be sure.] Goodness! That was excellent, a truly interesting and well-rendered JB! Wonders never cease.

ACT 11: And now, for the feature performance, featuring My Very Own Dancer! Teacher time, and my bride is the only volunteer. It’s a command performance for the Chinese staff. [Some of them dread it. There’s a national anti-waste, anti-corruption effort to reduce the extravagance and the frequency of entertainments, so – only a couple of days prior, of course – the staff Christmas/New Year’s dinners at our and the neighbouring universities were abruptly cancelled. Speaking to staff we know, some of them were relieved to miss these quite sumptuous meals because of the required singing or dancing “morale-builders” that go along with them. Still, my wife, a former professional dancer and actor, marvelled again during rehearsals at how quickly and willingly these non-dancers picked up the steps; well, possibly except for the Dean, among whose privileges is getting to choose the foreign pro as his partner. Lest you think that her experience would give her any influence in the teaching or choreography of the dance, of course not! She fumed a little

A wide angle of the glorious Flamingo.

after each practice, her professional pride still a little stung despite her knowledge of how things work here; the leader, who had learned, ahem, the Flamingo, from watching a video of it, would never defer to a foreigner. Face! And yes, if you’ve never heard of a famous dance featuring pink, one-legged, gawky birds, they did mean the flamenco. The costumes were sumptuous, Latin, bright and frilly, and presumably nobody except her really caught the sexual invitation in the lyrics.] SCOREBOARD! I win again! My favourite flamenco dancer, or flamingo dancer, or any kind of dance she wants to do, thank-you-very-much, was AWESOME, pretty, poised, professional, visibly enjoying herself and getting the Dean to the end in one dignified piece. She was amazing. I didn’t really notice anybody else. (Sorry.)

ACT 12: What would Christmas be without everybody’s current favourite way of sounding like you’re swearing but still qualifying for tween-friendly pop hit radio? [I have a 13-year-old, so I’d even heard this song before.How’s that for hipster grooviness, eh?] Yes, to “What the Fox Says”, we have white-shirted and black-panting boyos with red bow-ties; we have

Best of Show. Can you blame me?

black-leather hot-panting young accountants-in-training, further accentuating their serious professional futures with hair bands that sprout adorable little red fox ears. In addition, we have a remarkably irritating rap-MC-type laddie trying to do whatever it is that the one-hit-wonderful originator of this epic composition does. [I guessed. I always guess.] I have notenjoyed anything quite so annoying as his failed falsetto. [My, that was cranky.]

ACT 13: One brave young man steps forward. His black rental [the Chinese wear black suits – and deep greys, and charcoal, and silverish ones – with great frequency, and quite well] has spangly plastic lapels and upper arms. He looks the part of a Chinese crooner. Bingo! Except for the crooning part – WOW is that flat! We know, at least, that no lips were synched in the making of this song. I love his go-for-it-ude. [I even relented and waved, along with most of the rest of this infinitely suggestible crowd, gently and decorously from side to side, in an apparently universal expression of Chinese fan response and sympathy, the little glow sticks that had been left on the shelf in front of my seat. They might have been the only ones that Tristan’s little girl hadn’t gathered for her rainbow collection.] His yearning flatness – a definite highlight!

ACT 14: So where do you go to rent transparent drums with flashing strings of lights inside them and GLOW(drum)sticks, to say nothing of the Sexy Drummer Girl outfits? [Are sexy girls drumming with translucent sticks in the neon near-darkness with water splashing off the drum-heads a Thing now?] The drumming isn’t much, but they’re admirably committed and united, and what a cool excuse for gratuitous hip-wiggling! [Oh, come on. The wiggling was essential to the artistic vision!]

Just…’cuz they could.

[Then came a video ‘THANK-YOU!’ to the teachers – well, some of them. “We wish you good chair!” was my favourite line. I later mock-berated my freshman classes for being so obtuse, untutored, disconnected and (possibly) unloving as to FAIL to script, rehearse and shoot a fawning tribute to my pedagogic excellence and all-embracing love. These were sweet, sometimes quite funny – often intentionally so – little vid-snippets, and I mostly overcame my injured narcissism at not being featured to (nearly) enjoy them, like, sorta quite a bit.]

ACT 15: The Token Foreigners! Matt, Francis and Sean, come on down! [Sorry: the correct MC-ese is that delightful Chinglish DictatorCaution Welcome them! Here they come! Francis is a Brit, a Dalian-ex-pat-community-famous semi-pro member of The Gents, a Celtic bar band. Matt is another UK-exile, a composer, music teacher and member of Fu lei de, one of the best-known bands of foreigners who perform in Chinese; he fits his English teaching around gigs and TV shoots all over northeastern China. Trying to figure out their band name, I guessed that it was the ‘fu’ that means ‘handsome’. Wrong. The singer’s name is Fred. Fu lei de is the Chinese rendering of same. (Well, it made me laugh.) (I don’t know Sean at all, but based on his performance, I’d say he plays drums.) A couple of days before the show, they were asked to come and audition at 8 the next morning. Here was an intercultural bump in the road, and an at-least figurative flipping of the proverbial bird: Um, no thanks, then. And screw that. We sort of had plans. In a country famed for its central organization and Five Year Plans, this concept is not well understood. They eventually did a silly run-through in a classroom, practised in Matt’s room for an hour or so, then came to dress rehearsal the Sunday morning of the show. No faces were lost, it appears.]

Drum solo from Sean, received with a little wonder and appreciative buzz. [I had the sense that this might’ve been something many hadn’t seen before. Novelty, for a

A Gent, Fu lei de’s favourite keyboard guru, and an invisible drummer.

change!] Then a song called “I’m Yours”, which with-it people recognize, I’m told. “Hey Jude” was a fine second choice, as the na-na-na-nananana, nananana, hey Jude! chorus is a brilliant multilingual singalong, and nicely done by audience and insta-band. Francis knows his way around a guitar and a mic. [Realization: this was the only live instrumentation of the whole, lengthy afternoon. Some students get piano among their highly scheduled, CV-building, no-time-for-childhood lives, but it and all extra-curriculars are almost universally abandoned as the grind of high school approaches. Very few guitar players, or anything players, are evident, and even kids who can sing are sometimes hard to come by. Those gifted with pipes and a good ear don’t lose their ability to sing, but I don’t hear much of it. Mind you, one of the biggest TV shows is an American Idol-type dreamquest called The Voice of China. Even hyper-competitive, uber-serious, get-a-good-job! childhoods can’t kill singing. Music is human. Human beings want to sing.] Matt, too, is a quiet, humble guy, but turns on the goofy rock-star-with-a-key-tar charisma like the pro he is. Thanks for comin’ out, wai guo ren! (Foreigners; “outside country persons”)

We’re big Matt McG fans at our house. Who wouldn’t be?

ACT, where are we, 16? [This is where I began to seriously lose my focus. Scribbled notes were growing sparser and less coherent. I was drunk with entertainment.] This is fun, but completely inscrutable. It’s drama! Some nice physical comedy by the two guys. Hmm. Teacher. Boss? A job interview? I can’t catch anything but the slapstick and the hammy overacting. Wait! That’s what it is, some kind of Actor’s Studio thing, an impatient and imperious director putting actors through hell. Okay. Now another audition. Huge laughter, though not for the linguistically impaired. [This stuff was surprisingly well done; two guys with comedic ability, and the director had mastered a lot of lines. At first I thought it might have been an original piece, but that was silly; it’s skit comedy that many knew but were thrilled to see well-imitated by their schoolmates.] That’s fun stuff, in spite of its inscrutability. Wow, though: a whimper of an ending. Even I could tell how weakly that tailed off into the wings.

[That might’ve been a good way to finish, but NO. There were still all the solo singers to come, the Voice of China ending, and the Big Sing Finish. I lost track of the acts, but here were 17 through something-or-other. It was beginning to blur.]

MORE ACTS: A red plaid-jacketed singer. Ah, the STAR of the SHOW? Yeesh, no. Wildly off-tune, yet a clear crowd favourite. I dunno. Now an angel

Loved his energy.

in white floofiness and Excedrin Volume. [Patent pending. Wait, does Excedrin still exist?] Another angel of the microphone appears, this one in pink satin. [This is the very pale, anorexic-salmon-on-chemotherapy pink that my fuschia-loving bride-of-maximum-pinkness never fails to comment on as being Pink With Chinese Characteristics.] Pink angel is joined by little-black-dress-with-white-appliqué-hemline-flowers co-angel. [At what point did I turn into a fashion commentator?] Oh, my: co-angel is terrified. The dark-light twins are followed by a girl in a little-polka-dot-bag-dress, again in the iron-poor pink. Of course, no idea what any of them sang. These solo acts are relatively weak. [Did some acts actually get cut in the audition process? If so, I plead WOW.] [But, to be fair: these are accounting and finance students. They were all thin, sweet, yearning songs, delivered by thin, sweet, yearning and nearly mortified young karaoke devotees, moving up to a higher league. Brave.]

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for our SWEET GATHER! Here they come!

At last! It’s the BIG FINISH! [This one really was the BF, which I’d been wrongly predicting for half an hour. Okay, gotta be this one.] Four shouty singers, a legion of gold-spangled girls and hippity-hoppity boys with some Real Chinese Rock ‘n’ Roll to a karaoke sound-bed. Hmm, black-leather-pants can really deliver – here’s the STAR. [It turned out that she trained the majority of the dancers and performers in the show, including the staff flinging of the flamingo. I wonder how her grades are? Mind you, attendance in most of the Chinese classes isn’t of much use anyway, judging by the frequent sleeping/gaming/texting that goes on when I peek in. Astonishing Fact No. 37 On Chinese Education: most students have great difficulty learning to actually pay attention in classes like mine, since they

Big Finish, StarGirl lets ‘er rip. Who says accountants have no charisma?

routinely sleep/glaze over/distract themselves during normal lectures. Since middle school, they have often been in huge classes, 50 and many more, delivered by droning lecturers who often read from notes and don’t seem to mind that the class isn’t really there. Teachers tell them what to prepare for, and the students then cram madly for an exam that’s generally worth 70-85% of their total mark — unless it’s the college-entry gao kao, which means EVERYTHING. That’s one of the meanings of this whole “Christmas Party” program, I realize: it’s the end-of-coasting, time-to-cram signal. There were three weeks of class left.] Well, it’s loud, it’s slightly wild by Chinese student standards, they’re givin’ ‘er all they got! It’s all bemusing, fascinating, and on the whole a lovely chance for these students to break out of the dullness of an incredibly dull routine. Who am I to smirk at balloons and glitter? Who deserves sparkle and entertainment – even if it’s all rented and imitative – more than kids like these? [Well, perhaps the ones who endure the same boredom without having the wealth to buy such thrills. But! No more sour digressions into socio-political commentary. This was a PARTY!]

The performers are massed on stage. The MCs, still smiling brightly, say their obligatory closing words of rousing reflection (or something) to a retreating mass of audience backs, more eager to depart than I might have thought [had I not known that so many of them were obliged, attendance taken, to be there]. Pictures are taken of each act. Performers grin in relief and pleasure and we did it. One dazed foreigner collects himself in the front row, and waits for his private dancer to finish with her photo-ops.

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