Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Welcome to Beijing

The first few days have gone by too quickly. But I do keep popping awake at 3 or 4 am so I thought I'd send my first dispatch.

13 hour flight was quite uncomfortable by the 9th hour. My legs just wanted to move, go anywhere but frozen in front of me. The small elderly Chinese woman to my right took to sleeping with her bare feet tucked into the magazine pocket. I wished I was small enough to do the same...the overhead projector had color problems and the movies became purple and green, as a result the feel good football movie had giant eggplants tackling each other on the fields and talking in blurry chinese characters. I couldn't see the subtitles or hear the sound track--my supplied headphones were not so good, so I turned instead to books I'd saved for free on my iPhone. I read Heidi for the first time since I was a kid. What a weird cultural experience.  By today's standards the story goes like this: A neglected Swiss girl is dumped on her crazy loner grandpa who lives in a mountaintop cabin cursing humanity. Despite her upbringing she is unaffected by any neuroses, takes to the hills like a euphoric goat, and reforms not only nasty gramps, but by novel's end she had three sugar granddaddies, heals a lame girl, brings religion to the entire Alps and still believes her friends, the goats, will frolic uneaten forever.. And her greatest reward for being cute, innocent, and prayer inducing? The most ardent sugargrandaddy wants to adopt her so she need never work again and her job in life will be to nurse him through old age and hold his hand when he croaks. Wow, have things changed, what I remembered wasn't what I read. It was a long flight...

Day 1

China in no way matched my ancient National Geographic images. The airport was huge, modern, attractive, and indistinguishable from any other international hub. Except for the signs in Chinese characters with Pinyin (sounded out in English) and English. They have tight security. Giant machines sniffed us, took our temperature (thank goodness I didn't have a hotflash at that moment) and filmed our entry down an astonishingly long corridor with moving walkways. The duty free shops sold all the usual brands.

We, Jim, Mark Allen (the composer) and I, were met by Mr. Li's driver and an assistant who spoke no English. They drove us on a modern highway, and since it was night, all I could see were tall modern buildings. It was like driving through Dallas. Then we left the highway, took some more local but still modern looking streets, and were soon at the Song Lie Hotel. There is also a SongLie compound of apartments and a rehearsal building behind the hotel. We were met by Mars, who spoke English and made us must welcome. I got a hug. Then we were taken to our quarters. Since I was with Jim on this trip they gave us a rather deluxe setup. We have a room with a bed, desk, and table--but our bathroom has a huge round water bed in the middle. And a jacuzzi.  All the walls within the bathroom are glass, from shower to toilet, so there could be such a thing as too much togetherness in my opinion. We are sleeping on the terra firma bed.
Waterbed in bathroom a problem with the frequent aroma of overwhelmed Beijing sewers.
We are behind the blue and purple stripes in the Songlei Hotel. Prison view.
The buildings behind are all part of the complex, with theatre rehearsal studio,
pool, canteen, and apartments.
By morning, I looked out our window, as best as I could. Since it is partially obscured by slats of exterior decorating and that has left the glass behind rather spattered with smoggy rain drops, I saw long thin views. Here was the Beijing of today, modern buses (rather like the ones in Manhattan) moving a steady stream of commuters from the nearby subway station. But also, people on bicycles of every description, some clearly off to the office, others were mini cabs, and some were3 wheeled and fitted with wooden trays on supports that turned them into leg powered heavy transport. A bike piled high with melons gracefully sped by. Street crossing looks dangerous, and it is! Cars, scooters, and bikes don't slow for pedestrians.

We were treated to a breakfast that was our host's best estimation of western, in our room. Two waiters placed trays of cold sunny side up eggs, glasses of hot milk, bowls of a powdery granola like substance, and a fruit platter that included tomatoes. And no utensils. Well, how would you know what was hot or cold just looking at a photo?

We were escorted around the corner to the large new SongLie musical theater workshop by the courteous Mars.It is a multi floor building with many rehearsal rooms.  This is really the first and best rehearsal space for musical theater in China! There Jim was reunited with the creative team and met the actors and new crew. I spent the first day watching the cast read through the play.His director and cowriter is Tony Stimic, tall and white haired.Tony started Musical Theater Works in New York City and he is starting a Chinese version out here. So in addition to directing and producing plays for Mr. Lei, he is launching this huge theater training and performing center being built outside of Beijing. The other cowriter is Kemin Zhang, a young Chinese man who is translating the play into Mandarin. Kemin is multi talented, he performs magic, plays piano, conducts... I got to share one of the scripts that had both chinese and english with Rosy, Kemin's little sister. Kemin and Rosie have been raised in Beijing and Toronto.
The building was only used for the musical Butterflies, but now has several productions going.
Note stair entry. My workout.
Largest musical theatre rehearsal space in Beijing. Big windows are the room we were in.
It was fun watching the cast get the humor and start to take on the characters they will be playing. THE JOKER'S GAME is a musical comedy with magic. But very much a Beijing show. Kemin has found Mandarin equivalents to some of Jim's colloquialisms and that in turn has suggested new but appropriate veins of verbal humor. That afternoon the cast did short auditions to show the range of their voices and they were invited to add any other skills they might have. We were treated to two displays of martial arts, one with a sword, the other with a stick, that were amazing! It is one thing to see it in an action movie, it is a thrill to have someone do spinning acrobatic leaps right in front of you. One plump actor danced the salsa at high speed, the comic relief guy did a funny singing scene he told us was like Lady Gaga.
First day, read through the script.
Creative team meeting.
We were treated to a formal round table luncheon at the hotel. The entire table center spun and bowls and platters of food would go by. It was all good, rather formal, I particularly liked the duck. A dessert, with cold inside and hot crispy outside was delicious.

For dinner, Kemin and Rosy treated us to a place in a nearby mall where there were 20 food stations...I started to feel overwhelmed as each station had a mock rivalry to get business. Kemin ordered some very traditional fare, we each had a rice bowl and added toppings. Bits of fish with mixed vegetables was outstanding. The subway is so clean, well marked, modern and air conditioned and  it puts the New York subway to shame. All the trains have an announcement of the stops in mandarin and English. Tight security includes scanners of bags.
Claudia, Jim, Kemin, Mark on Beijing #5 line subway, photo by Rosy.

Day 2
Learning the songs.
Rehearsals now focusing on learning the music. Jim has to write a new song. We went in search of an expat hangout THE BOOKWORM (bookstore and restaurant and at night book readings)  that was 3 trains and 55 minutes away. Unfortunately Jim didn't quite remember where it was and we didn't find it. It was hard to be without phone, translated map, or anyone to ask directions. I took a deep breath and just looked around as we finally decided to give up and head back after shopping for toothpaste, shampoo and the very necessary small packets of toilet tissue. I saw the lives people lead. Men sleeping on their now empty bike wagons in any shade they can find. Babies in open bottomed pants followed by hungry pet dogs... A middle aged man on a tiny balcony tending his one plant. Everyone seems able to sit in a squat, and since their bathrooms usually have squat toilets, I am the creaky kneed outsider. All guards are soldiers. All stores have way more staff than I am used to in the US. And, I was happy to see that the widely reported story of Beijingers  never giving up their seats to the old was not true. We saw it happen twice on our fruitless quest for the bookworm. For dinner we took Kemin and Mark out to a hot pot place across the street from the hotel. What a thing! A huge yin yang bowl of both spice and tame broth boiled like mad as we dumped in progressive trays of raw food. The fish we started with was shown to us live and swimming in agitation, whiskers whirling, in a bucket before we ate it.

Jim is going to be too busy to go exploring and I am sad our few hours yesterday didn't get us anywhere. And yet...I will start to plan trips. I want to see the art district and go to all the usual sights--forbidden palace, gardens, temples--but also the paint and brush street, and look into taking some painting lessons in traditional style.

I also need to find a good wifi connection, the hotel has ethernet but it only seems to work OK. No big files. Well it is about 6 am... day begins. Hopefully, I stop waking up at 3 am soon!
One staff member to hold stool on mattress...
So, how many Chinese does it take
to screw in a lightbulb?

Bye for now.

1 comment:

pogface said...

nice descriptive narrative you have here about our adventures in beijing together! i'm telling my mom to read it when she has time -- a two-in-one where she can practise her english while finding out what we were up to :)

you should stop designing books and start WRITING THEM! you're quite multi-talented yourself :D looking forward to reading more blogs about Beijing! i miss it (and you guys, of course) SO MUCH!!


Rosy out