We landed in Beijing to find an airport that looks like Charles de Gaulle in Paris times 5, mixed in with Madrid , Rome and NY airports but bigger, newer, shinier and squeaky clean. Welcome to China!
The first Chinese person we met was Zhang Ying , or just Ying…the representative of the local theater and our ‘host’ for the whole tour. How can I describe Ying? A ball of Chinese Prozac with glasses, a plaid shirt, scruffy jeans and an eternally smiling face, wearing her back-pack in front to avoid pick-pockets (the New Yorker in me smiles ), Pure goodhearted “Chinglish” speaking naiveté , clever, efficient, ready to help at the bat of an eye-lash, eager to please, emotional to the MAX! In fact she can’t stay still! She was there with her thumbs up, all teary eyed at finally meeting us (she had been working on our tour for 18 months..!) , jumping up and down and saying “sabbaba legamreyyy!!”.. handing out little bags with a small bottle of water, an apple and a banana for each of us!! I couldn’t have dreamed of a warmer welcome.
The trip to the hotel took us forever. Horrible traffic, Cars and more cars. Old cars, small cars, but most of all NEW Mercedes, Audis, Porches and what not! Hardly any bicycles in the center of Beijing and of the few we saw most were motorized!! Progress…?
Then the buildings hit us…the skyscrapers soaring higher and higher, the shopping centers, convention centers, commercial centers, office buildings, banks, insurance companies, markets, shops and more shops, Prada, Gucci, Tiffany’s, Armani, Versace, Kentucky Fried Chicken on every corner, cutting edge architecture, and everywhere, people! People running, working, building, shopping, learning…
China feels like a teenager with hormones exploding, that wants to swallow the world in one gulp, run the marathon, sleep with anything on legs, get a Phd in a week, horde gadgets and consume till she drops BUT never lose composure lest she awaken the wrath of her very strict father. Woah! What a hand-full.
And with all that, there are shadows lurking in the corners, places you are forbidden to shine your flashlight on. Restrictions of all sorts, beginning with the urban one-child policy and ending with a ban on international social networks: No facebook, twitter or youtube ! Yes...you are cut off! Big brother is definitely watching you here. And no photo taking in many places, and make sure not to say the words “human rights”, “Tibet”, “freedom of speech” or even just “freedom” for that matter, or any such thing. In short, mind your own business and keep out of politics.
As a very political person myself, it is not easy for me to accept that, or more accurately, it WAS not easy, before I came here. Now I am having all kinds of second thoughts.
As a foreigner, there are endless things about China we do not understand and probably never will. There are most likely a lot of dark going-ons that we could never accept with our western set of values. On the other hand, there is one thing you cannot deny: somebody in China is doing something right. You look around, and you see that everywhere, people’s quality of life is improving. People are moving forward, expanding horizons, building in just 20 short years what America had hardly managed to get going in 200. They have a future, and the sky is the limit. Their government may be restricting their freedom on the border of oppression, but at the same time they are being cared for and given tools to hone a very real, very positive new future for themselves. Truth is, China is going to be so far advanced in ten years time she will make all of us look Neanderthal. I say, better start brushing up your Chinese. For now, they still think they have something to learn from us, where the truth is, we have much more to learn from them.
We in Israel are 7 million, the Chinese, at last count, are 1 billion 375 million. That figure is mind boggling to say the least. Chinese admire the Jews and Israel to no end. They admire the fusion of courage, wit, innovation and ancient wisdom that we represent...it is, in effect, a mirror of their own self image. Somebody once told me the Chinese see themselves as “the Jews” of Asia.
Yet, I look at Israel with its glorious “democracy”, and a see a country in a total state of havoc, with so many things going wrong, where life just gets harder and harder, education and vocation harder and harder to come by, buying a house almost unthinkable, more and more public services privatized, healthcare on the down turn, budgets for culture and education, that in China are skyrocketing, in Israel keep getting smaller and smaller....politics gnaws away at everything in the worst possible manner...arguing and bickering and ridiculous wheeling and dealing rather than straight, firm leadership aimed at truly bettering our lives. And that’s before I’ve gotten started with the fiasco that is Israel’s public image and handling of the peace process.
So, where does the truth lie? I have no idea...as always, somewhere in the middle, or somewhere at the bottom of the sea or outer space. Anyway, time will tell.
Our Beijing experience was a positive one all in all. We visited the Forbidden City, which was breathtaking. We then had a press conference at the Forbidden City Concert Hall where we will perform on May 9th.
That was strange. The journalists looked at us, and we looked at them, and there was silence. Finally one brave guy asked something, we answered, and silence again. Finally, Mira and I interviewed the journalists.
At the end, somebody asked me if I was aware a friend of mine was in Bejing: Nicola Piovani! What a shock! It appears he was in town as the guest of the Italian Cinema Orchestra who were performing in the great hall of the people. I was very excited to hear that, ‘sms’ed him, and to make a long story short, ended up singing two songs at the concert the following evening, “Beautiful That Way” and “Quanto t’ho Ammato”. It was thrilling.
We also had a chance to meet our sponsor, CNA president from Singapore, Dr. David Ong, and the Israeli businessman who had made the connection, Eytan Gilboa (who is a friend of my friend Avremi...Israeli system ..).
It was wonderful meeting both of them. Amazing, warm people. We are lucky!!
They both took us out to dinner. We ate Peking duck (hmm, I’m not impressed ..) and other yummy delicacies the first night, and Peking duck (take 2!), broiled chicken feet (arrgh, Ii left that one on the plate) the second. Chinese food is good all in all, but sometimes very odd.
From Beijing we moved on the Zoungzhou.
The hotel was modern with all the amenities but smelled funny. In fact, all of China smells funny to me. In this case the hotel was also just next door to the bustling fish market, which did not help matters much.
The concert hall in ZZ is impossible to describe in words. Modern to the max, huge, resembling four spaceships that just happened to come in for a landing, something the like so which I have never seen anywhere including NY, Paris, London etc. And we are talking about a “small” town by Chinese standards... 7 million! Yet the theatre is incredible. That, by the way, looks like it is going to be a “recurring theme” on this tour.
And then there was the concert:
In a hall of 2000 sat 450 bored looking people, some children, some very old, some teens, all scattered around. One lady slept through the whole show right in front of us. Applause? Forget it, that’s asking for too much. Some people walked out before the end. Even during our final bow, nobody seemed to understand that it was the end until we walked off. Then there was a meager attempt at some enthusiasm , we did our Chinese song (they liked that) and bye bye.
Mira and I were shocked and depressed.
Then Ying ran over to us, all jumpy, clapping, smiling, happy! “That was great, they loved it!!” she yelped. What?? We thought, love it? They had a strange way of showing it.
Please! She continued, come quick, you must sign autographs and take pictures, they are waiting!
And sure enough, there they were, buying up tons of cds, waiting for autographs.
Later we received an explanation from Ying: the rate of development, construction and modernity is so fast that culturally people just can’t keep up. They have these amazing theatres but have no idea what to do with them yet and how to behave at the events that are presented. That gap was where we fell in. It was as if you had taken a child and given it a brand new Mercedes to play with...a bit of an overkill.
On top of that, they do not know how to show their emotions....said Ying, as she wiped the tears from her eyes (I love her).
More and more surprises.
The next town, Quingdao, would be a totally different experience. Quingdao is a modern, prosperous coastal city, very attractive to local tourism, where the Germans ruled for a few decades and left their cultural and architectural traces everywhere. The swing of development is unfathomable, and the theatre, again, just too wild to be true.
But here, we had a host, the Minister of Tourism, Mr. Feng Bin. Mr Feng, an old friend of Israel and of Oded Drory, Gil’s friend from Yavneh (Israeli system at work again ), took us out to the best meal we have had in China so far. The restaurant was situated in a golf course right on the water! Upon entrance, you see a row of aquariums with every type of weirdness from under the sea swimming around, or hanging around, or slithering in boxes waiting to be chosen as food. Oy vey.
Mr. Feng made his order and up we went: Private room, big round table, beautiful chandelier, lazy Susan in the center. (lazy Susan is a big glass circle on a central hinge that spins around with the food on it, thus reaching everyone. demands quite a bit of collaboration to be effective )
Food was exceptional, the best in China so far. Especially the fish...yumm!
The next day we were taken on a tour of Qingdao by bus like real tourists, accompanied by Mr. Feng’s assistant, Chen. Gift shops everywhere... Everything that glitters and glows is available here, in quantities. The city is very upscale, complete with Beverly Hills style malls a yacht club and an Olympic sailing center... Very impressive. One of Quingdao’s many sister cities is Nes Tziona, Israel, where my father was born! In fact there is a sign in the port: Nes Tziona, 7,400 km! Cool.
The concert was a whole different ballgame from its predecessor. To begin, a lot more people showed up, we had about a thousand! Also, Gil and I made a lot of changes in our part of the show that were really effective: More talking in Chinese between the songs, (with the help of dear Zhang Ying, the sweetest on earth, who came on stage and translated), more audience involvement, less ballads, even got them to sing with me on “I Don’t Know”!. It was great! After the concert we had dinner all together with Feng, Drory and some the Quingdao Israeli community (all 5 of them ), it was overall a merry occasion.
Today we woke very early and travelled to Hefei (left hotel at 5:45! ).
Hefei is a very small town of 2 million people (you get used to that after a while..). As I write I am sitting in front of a big window on the 15th floor of a very fancy hotel. Earlier I was a total zombie, feeling tired and missing home terribly. I went out to eat with Gil and Ofer, another voyage into the twilight zone of culinary weirdness where I ended up eating only boiled lettuce leaves and rice. On the way to the restaurant we saw a bit of the ‘real’ Hefei...pretty poor , dusty and shabby, but immersed in endless construction and changes everywhere. What’s nice is that people smile at you everywhere you go...they really are friendly and curious about us foreigners. Almost as much as we are about them.
Soon Ii will be picked up to go to the theater. Wonder what lies in store?
...Back in my room....wow, the show was wonderful!! SO many people showed up, What an enthusiastic audience! They participated and applauded, they were so nice! It’s amazing: they bring their children to see concerts! In Europe you hardly see that, but here, about 15 percent of the audience if not more where under 12! More proof of how important it is to them to educate their children and broaden their horizons (sigh..I’m jealous..). Plus, you could see them making efforts to speak to us in English..Every mother nudging her child forward and whispering in their ear, then the bashful cutie says: “How ah yoo ? ”. They are just great.
So I’m happy. After a rough day, missing home, feeling tired, to be rewarded by music and love is so amazing.
This First chapter of the China Chronicles comes to an end. Thanks for reading.
I am going to sleep. Tomorrow is a new day.
Noa, April 30, Hefei, China.