Sunday, January 18, 2004

Puttin' on the Ritz
Peter, the SZ fixer, had been urging foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I for most the week to attend what he described as a "party" on Saturday night.
"The mayor will be there," he said. "The woman making it asked what foreigners like. I said they like to drink. So there will be beer. And something to eat because Chinese like to eat as much as foreigners like to drink.."
Otherwise, the details were very vague. Peter called Jeff four times between 5-6 p.m. Saturday and me three times in the same period with various, and often conflicting information about the location and transportation logistics.
Suffice to say Jeff and I finally met him about an hour and fifteen minutes late. The fact that the driver of my bus apparently received orders through his fillings midway through the ride that he must take a new, random route mandated by Shoku: The Robot God Mind Controller from Pluto also had something to do with our late arrival.
The "party", which Jeff and I had envisioned as a tasteful, indoor affair turned out to be a large outdoor variety show organized by organizations mostly unknown to us to celebrate the New Year.
A short distance from the Shezhen library about 400 folding chairs faced a covered stage, sound and light system above which hung a large red and yellow banner that - thanks to a translation - I learned read: "East, West, North, South - All of China celebrates the New Year."
I was grateful to learn this. It quelled my gnawing worry that maybe, say, parts of northwest or south--central China might be left out of this year's fun.
It quickly became clear that Jeff and I had been invited because the event had only one other barbarian - a genial American businessman in his 30s named Brian who is here working with a joint venture. Brian, from California, had a name card at his table in the front row and also had the honor of wearing a red and yellow sash like a Miss Universe contestant across his chest. He had no idea why he was there or why he was wearing a banner.
Jeff and I had no name cards or fancy sashes, but we did have one can of Kingway beer each, peanuts and tangerines and we were seated right behind where the mayor's group. The rows for shlubs began about two rows behind Jeff and I. You could tell where the demarcation line began because dignitaries like us had warm 12 oz. cans of Kingway, while the common folk had warm 24 oz. bottles of Kingway to wash down their peanuts and tangerines.
For reasons unfathomable to Jeff and I, canned beer is considered "better" here - and is more expensive - even if the amount is half as much.
"SMILE, fellow barbarian! But I wish we were sitting with the plebes," I said to Jeff, as a group of SZ tv and photo hacks all began pointing their lenses at us.
"I know. I bloody hate canned beer. Warm to boot. But it all tastes the same after the second one," he muttered, smiling and waving at the Chi-ccom paparazzi. We eyed the as-yet unoccupied chairs and unopened beers around us and each scooped up a couple more cans for future consumption.
We were both interviewed by an earnest young man from a SZ radio station. "Do you like Chinese food?" he asked us tape recorder running. "Do you wish us a happy New Year?"
What we saw of the show - we snuck away after about an hour and repaired to the Tibet bar - boggled me, but it was old hat to Jeff who'd apparently seen his share of similar affairs in his nearly three years here.
There were elements of the Village People combined with all the finesse of a Boy Scout troop jamboree when a group of grinning Red Army dancers, in dress uniform, accompanied a Red Army tenor who sang lustily about the joys of celebrating the New Year and camping out.
There was a little classic western song and dance: - a group of leggy female dancers in top hats, black net stockings and with canes strutting their stuff to a canned version of Putting on the Ritz.
And it wouldn't be a New Year gala without a long, heavy handed lip-synched skit about the dangers of not wearing a SARS mask and riding a train without a ticket.
The offender was a young woman who wound up being quarantined and lectured to by stern, masked law enforcement and medical authorities after it was discovered she had no ticket or mask. She cried a lot. She was contrite and confessed the error of her heedless ways. Then she was redeemed - by an insurance company!
It wasn't clear to Jeff and I how the insurance company figured in the mix, but the dramatics ended on a happy note with the cast waving white and blue cardboard hands emblazoned with the company's logo and singing its praises as the woman beamed gratefully at a man who was presumably her insurance rep.
Arthur Miller, move over.

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