In which much of my life is on a "need to know" basis.
22.06.2008 28 °C
For about a week now, I’ve known that Aaron had some sort of surprise for Saturday night. In the afternoon, we rode into the city on the bus, and wandered around Houhai. Houhai is a beautiful park-like area around a big lake in the center of the city. Along the shores are restaurants, bars, and little shops that give way to hutong, all in the shadow of the Drum Tower. We couldn’t find the Daoist restaurant we had intended to eat in, so we strolled along, doing our best to ignore the cries of “We have beer, second floor!” by the many young men employed to ensnare tourists. We stepped into a tiny little place right by the water, only to discover (I suspect Aaron already knew this) that they served tripe, exclusively. We ordered a plate of steamed beef intestines, which came with a bowl of sesame sauce with cilantro and green onions. Now, I rarely meet a food I dislike, but even the smell of this dish was pretty bad. The sliced intestines were white semi-circles on one side (the outer wall of the gut, I suppose) with long strands of very rough gray material hanging from it. The white was very chewy and tough, while the grey was chewy and rough-feeling. I did not appreciate the taste, even with copious amounts of sauce. We abandoned the idea of tripe for dinner, and set off to find some real food.
We ended up in a Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the lake. The building was a very old courtyard house, with lovely exposed wooden beams, woodworking details, and odd roof angles. The décor was unique: hanging colorful burlap, lights set inside wicker-basket style fixtures, rough wooden floors, little bridges and ponds, and even an aluminum dragon snaking his way up from the basement. This was a much nicer restaurant than our usual weekend fare, and definitely a treat. The windows on the second floor were open, letting a glorious breeze in that cooled our table. We ordered shrimp spring rolls with mint for an appetizer. Mint is a flavor I hadn’t had in a while, and these were delicious and light and crisp. To drink, I had Vietnamese iced coffee, and Aaron had a mango smoothie. Our main courses were pineapple fried rice (which was served in a pineapple!), asparagus with a red bean sauce (perfectly cooked – oh, how I love asparagus!), and a ginger chicken dish which was oh, so gingery. For dessert, we had coconut milk sticky rice with grilled banana…mmm…. A delicious meal that featured much finer (and very different) flavors from our usual Chinese restaurant choices.
After dinner, we cabbed to…well, I didn’t know. I guessed from Aaron’s hand gesturing to the cab driver that we were going to “The Egg:” the new National Peforming Arts Center. But I had no idea what we’d be seeing. The Egg is distinctly ovoid and sits inside a wide moat set in a peaceful public open space. After being dropped off at the wrong side, we got to walk around the moat, and then under it, into the lobby of the space. The moat runs across a glass ceiling, letting in some light with a rippling shadow effect. The Egg has three performing spaces, but from signs, I was able to ascertain that we were going to hear the King’s Singers! After making our first attempt to pass through the strictest security I’ve yet seen in this city (possibly excepting the airport, where looking unlike your seven-year-old passport photo will lead to temporary detainment), we were rejected because I had a camera in my purse, which I carry with me wherever I go but would never dream of using during a concert! We backtracked to coat check, where I reluctantly checked my camera. After passing through security again, we walked into a sea of people taking pictures with both their cameras and their cell phones. I was now absolutely furious and spent our ten minute walk to the theater trying to regain any semblance of joviality.
The Concert Hall is even more magnificent inside than outside. The ceilings are rich hardwood, glass and bronze metal which meet a floor of many types of stone and patterned bronze. The whole thing is elemental and seamlessly designed to make massive, curved space seem natural and warm. It is the most strikingly beautiful and fascinating building I have ever been in.
The theater we were in is fairly small, with seating around all four sides. The stage is at one end, with a light-colored wood floor. The seats were very comfortable and set nearly stadium-style in the balcony. We had fourth row balcony seats, in the center.
The King’s Singers were fantastic. I had very little time to set my expectations for this event, but I had expected the King’s Singers to perform mostly classical, folk and madrigal music. They did just that, but also sang a selection each from Billy Joel and Queen (with kazoo!), a set of Zulu songs, and several selections of work based on music from the Jungle Book! There were often harmonies I had never heard before, and beautiful sounds that I desperately wanted to grab hold of and examine more closely. However, due to the ephemeral nature of music, each chord drifted away and was replaced by more of similar quality and awe-inspiring nature. These men are exceptionally talented, and goose-bump raising. I would not hesitate to see them again!
There was, however, a downside. As noted previously, there are some members of Chinese society who know not the norms of behavior at public cultural events. There were regular cell phone rings, text message noises, and glaring lights from cell phone screens. People talked, stood up and walked around during the music. They arrived late and left early, not waiting for intermission or applause. And one man insisted upon clapping along during a song sung in Chinese, despite the fact that absolutely no one else was clapping. As with the Messiah that we saw in December, after the last selection the crowd began to clap in rhythm as a gym-ful of high schoolers might do when a basketball game doesn’t start on time. About one third of the audience left entirely during the intermission which was, frankly, a relief.
Despite the beautiful music, all this made it an incredible challenge to concentrate on the performance. Is this a cultural difference? Is it boorish behavior? Can people be changed? Should they?
This week is the last of regular classes. Exams begin on July 1 and end on July 4. Wheee!! Yesterday, at the first meeting for foreign volunteers, Aaron and I found out that we’d been moved to the major Olympic venue area (near or in the Bird’s Nest or Water Cube) for our volunteer service. No word on exactly what we’ll be doing, or where, but now we’re right in the action! We signed our volunteer agreements, and will report for duty on August 2 (where and at what time, we know not). Look for me on TV!!!
(Note: the next blog post is new also!)