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2012-10 Doing as the Chinese do in China

James column for the Sligo Weekender


Seductively sliming my way through the crowd, I sniffed out a vacant seat next to an Oriental princess. As I vocally schmoozed her a baby landed on my lap, that baby's proud Mum speedily snatching a snapshot while I endeavoured to hold it together and continue singing. The idea caught on and amidst the ensuing consternation more mothers and babies followed suit. I was in China  of that there was no doubt. Our shows were family occasions, for all the family, toddlers included.

In September we had the privileged pleasure of touring China with the Fujian Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Brophy (Principal Conductor of our own RTE Concert Orchestra). On this, the Celtic Tenors' first Chinese Symphony tour there was no Great Wall, Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square, and yet somehow I feel I've digested a generous slice of `real China'. Everything about China appears different. `Culture shock' for sure, but `culture pleasant surprise' on so many levels.

After a somewhat challenging early breakfast on my first morning in Fuzhou I braved the 33C heat and crossed the main square, passing the Fujian Grand Theatre (our dauntingly impressive venue for our opening night), beneath the imposingly gargantuan statue of Mao still overseeing this bustling city of two million (small by Chinese standards). Two umbrella-ed ladies approached me excitedly waving their phones, gesturing manically to have their picture taken with me. Our publicist must have done a thorough job I mused narcissistically, until I realised of course that they didn't want their photo with a Celtic Tenor, but rather with a weird alien `Westerner'. You see, we Europeans remain a somewhat exotic breed in regional China. In fact I lost count of the amount of times my photo was requested for this reason during my fortnight in Zhong Guo (Mandarin for China, meaning `Middle Nation')  this vast, varied, complex, enigmatic land of 1 billion people.

I returned to my hotel, sodden with humidity, yet mysteriously unburned by said sweltering heat, in time for my first authentic Chinese lunch experience. In the same way I rarely frequent Irish bars when abroad as I prefer sampling bona fide local bars, I had made up my mind that when in China I'd do what the Chinese do, if at all possible. Certain phenomena were no-go-areas, like monkey brains, shark fin soup, and wait for it&.live baby rats dipped in honey. Leaving aside my acute rat-phobia, I strangely didn't fancy the idea of a teeny weeny wriggling sightless pink rodent sliding and scraping reluctantly past my larynx down my oesophagus, like some sick Bush-Tucker trial - no matter how sweet he or she was. I was a trifle taken aback when a live prawn cartwheeled out of its plastic bag and limped in the direction of the elevator across the busy carpet, only to meet his sudden demise seconds later alongside his pals in the saucepan of boiling water aboard `Lazy Susan'. I passed on `stomach'  I've enough of my own. But I did brave duck tongues, chicken feet and fish-heads. I was however in no way as adventurous as my Celtic colleague Matthew who continually endeavoured to convince us that "Chinese food is a state of mind", as he spat out the comb from a hen's head. Yet 90% of the food we ate was truthfully delicious  yam and sesame, Chili Squid, Sea Cucumber, Szechuan pork, Lotus Roots  I could go on  and is about as far away from Western supposed Chinese food as their country is geographically from ours. Freshness is everything. There is little or no processed food. Nothing is wasted  every part of every thing is used, so you do have to survey real Chinese food and dining from a very different vantage-point. Different country, different culture, different cuisine. Burping, belching, throat-clearing and spitting is forgiven - encouraged even.

In downtown Fuzhou we bowed reverently as we burned incense in a placidly peaceful Buddhist temple, followed by several hours of relaxed tea-tasting. We strolled the streets of the Old City, visited the museum of Lin Zexu (famous for ending the Opium Wars), and heard a live Chinese musical which incorporated passages of that unique art-form of Chinese opera. The following morning we were driven high into the hills to a monastery with temples and pagodas where monks quietly went about their age-old daily routines.

Without exception, in my experience Chinese people were beyond warm, friendly and welcoming, and if you make an effort to speak in Mandarin people are more than impressed, even if it is just a nave mis-pronounced "Nĭ Hāo" (Hello). I doubt I will ever master Chinese language `characters', and yet they impress and fascinate me&well&beyond words. "Pinyin" (English transliteration) is infinitely more manageable. Every night each verse of our token Mandarin song was greeted with whoops and applause. In regional cities assume nobody speaks a word of English, and yet somehow, our nightly post-concert receptions with full meals were congenial in the extreme, undoubtedly helped along by free-flowing alcohol and never-ending toasts. Unremitting choruses of "Gān bēi" (Bottom's Up!) and empty shot glasses on wood signalled inner-panic and the admission of yet more alcohol into our systems. After a while it kinda didn't seem to matter anymore until such time your hotel-room whirled around above your hard bed and tired head. Chinese wine (made from rice and wheat) was plonked on our table in a large Este Lauder-like bottle, and at 54% proof tasted like a cross between Poitn and Parazone, with a hint of Toilet Duck (and almost certainly even more of its cleansing properties). I felt more guilty after my 14th glass of Maotai liquor which we were told cost about 100 a bottle (equivalent to two weeks wages for Fujian's orchestral musicians). But remember it's rude and insulting to refuse a drink in China, so normally I played safe and stuck to Tsingtao beer.

In Hangzhou (8 million inhabitants), as we looked down from our revolving restaurant breakfast on the 32nd floor of our hotel, our percussionist Lin Fan pointed out a giant Celtic Tenor poster covering six floors of a building below, and we realised what a great job our publicist had in fact accomplished.

Time off in Liuzhou (a mere village of 3 million) allowed us to hike around the magnificent Dragonlake National Park where multi-coloured butterflies and multifarious dragonflies drew our gaze upwards towards temples, follies and pagodas perched precariously atop lofty karstic outcrops. The mountains in Liuzhou literally rise up within the city, overlooking streets, skyscrapers and motorbike mles. In parklands below, men played cards in the shade, while traditional musicians on authentic instruments accompanied traditional singers who nasally navigated their way through ancient songs in ancient dialects. Elderly wobbly dancers joined in, expressing themselves as the mood took them. Some performers were surely nonagenarians - their voices had unquestionably seen better days  while their lived-in faces, lines and wrinkles concealed decades of hidden history of their unique and often troubled nation. In the evening we sat with locals in an amphitheatre by the river and watched an open-air concert on a floating stage, complete with fountain display.

Nanchang is a city of 5 million, again the venue was exceptional. All the venues were outstanding, yet not one of them had an iron and ironing board. Stage-lighting was staggering, but it took a lot of work every day for our sound engineer to get the sound systems up and running and sounding ok. Magnificent potential, but more often than not missing essential details. The food in Nanchang, for me, was the best, especially Nanchang's celebrated duck-pancakes. And on the offchance I was nocturnally lonely, a generous selection of business-cards from teenage girl prostitutes was slipped nightly under my door. News of my September birthday had evidently leaked - but I was just too weary to partake.

Traffic laws in China leave a lot to be desired (though not nearly as horrendous as Kenya). Non-smoking signs and laws appear optional. Incidentally if when away from your hotel room you get short-taken and need anything more than a "Numero Uno", be prepared for the `long-drop' from an ungainly crouching position.

In Shanghai (population an astounding 25 million), our nameless hotel staff sported tags with numbers, and seemed cold at first, until you spoke to break the ice. Numbered-staff in 2012 I found disturbing.

My initial impressions are that China is a country of extremes  spectacular sky-scraping skylines with flashing neon, `leggy' pretty girls in skimpy shorts and daringly high high-heels, and yet traditional values, customs, music and dining.

We broke with tradition and had a lovely final night at Carlow-man Brendan Brophy's "Camel Sports Bar" in the Pudong District of Shanghai, drinking local beer while watching Galway and Kilkenny fight it out live on a big screen. I thought to myself how I love China for its diversity, its unique quirky charm and its warm and friendly people. Nsh men, xiānshēng men, xi xi - Gān bēi. See you next year.