Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tianjin and back to Shanghai

Tianjin, an hour or so from Beijing by train, is "Not a very big city", or so I am told by Zhao Hui from the International Cultural Exchange Agency of Tianjin, China, who meets me at the station. Its population is only 11 million people. Fair enough: you would have to add London's measly 6 million to that in order to match Shanghai.

I knew very little about the place before this trip, but I've been reading about its particular importance for Jiang Ching during the Cultural Revolution. She was very popular here: a bit of an irony considering that Zhou Enlai was also educated in this city. As Hui and her boss, Qiao Zhi, drive me through the urban sprawl, I can imagine her raving away amidst its Stalinist architecture. It's not a very pretty place.

Qiao Zhi has been interested in Dis-Orientations since it first appeared on the CTC website, and we've exchanged emails from time to time ever since. I scared him a while ago with a suggested fee for performances, but now things look more possible, if the Yue Opera Company and the Festival do what they said they would / might. I'm very aware that we've not talked about money at all - I hope that the Chinese partners will handle finance in China as we did in the UK, but that's by no means a given. At least Qiao Zhi is direct about this from the start: they will pay a fee for one performance in Tianjin, provided they can afford that fee. Fair enough!

Qiao Zhi and Zhao Hui turn out to be incredibly kind, hospitable hosts. Our meeting only takes an hour or so, but they then take my for lunch, followed by looking at videos of other work they've presented (virtually all of it Chinese, in spit of the International label), and then a shopping trip in the "tourist area", during which they help me haggle over clothes for the children, and insist on buying me a traditional hand-painted bust of a Peking Opera performer. As if that wasn't enough, we then go for dinner (although it's only three hours since a big lunch). This time it's traditional Tianjin food, which is like no cuisine I've ever tasted. We have a sweet purple mash which they tell me is made from "something like a big tomato"; three different porridges in incandescent colours, one of which tastes like liquid marzipan; various fungi and the comparatively familiar pork in honey sauce. They're very sweet-toothed in Tianjin. The restaurant, called 1928 after the year it opened, is vast, and the waiters are all mounted on roller skates to deal with the distances they have to travel. As well as food, there's a Peking opera cabaret, a little bazaar, and a photographic exhibition, which includes images from the Cultural Revolution period. There's one of a performance taking place in a village, as a form of political education. In another photo, a family is sitting on the floor of their tiny home. Qiao Zhi says that his family was just like that twenty years ago. It's not all that long, really. He's a young man, and yet he has seen enormous changes in his lifetime. At the next table is an old lady with her family. What she must have seen....

Another overnight train brings me back to Shanghai, and a meeting with Nick Yu from the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre. I enjoyed meeting Nick when I was last here, and felt we had a lot of similar ideas. I'd intended this to be a courtesy call really; and was interested to hear about his recent projects. He's done an intriguing piece called Drift, set in different times, and a re-working of the first Chinese play to adopt the Western spoken form (huaju), exactly 100 years ago. This play was itself adapted from Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Nick's version, the master-slave relationship reflects on the position of the artist in relation to powerful people.... potent stuff or what? I tell him about our own work on slavery - it's an interesting coincidence. Then Nick asks if we would like to develop another project in collaboration with SDAC. Well, yes.... how about Re-Orientations? He jumps at the idea. This is intriguing. Maybe we can present Dis-Orientations here, and develop the third part with a different partner but around the same time... I begin the usual conversation about possible funding sources, and Nick cuts in to say that he knows that's a problem in the UK, but that he already has the money for the Chinese actors and for our accommodation and per diems. So that means I only have to find funding for flights and UK fees. This is starting to get very interesting indeed! Of course, there's many a slip, and I promise myself that I won't get too excited. Yet.

De-briefing session with Ophelia Huang at the British Council. She sounds all the cautionary notes I've been sounding to myself - only louder. In particular, she thinks it's important to find somebody who can be a bi-lingual contact between ourselves and the Yue Opera, as much as anything so that the British Council doesn't appear to get involved in direct negotiations of contracts etc. She's going to check with Director You if there's an English-speaker among their admin staff, and I promise to take some soundings in London. I have a few ideas. SDAC is less of a problem: Nick's English is fluent.

I walk back along Fuzhou Lu, the street of bookshops and the Yu Fu Theatre. I'm fired up enough to think I should invest in some research materials for the next stage of the project. Mao's poetry. A VCD of Mei Lanfang. The Journey to the West. A CD and DVD of the androgynous Super-Girl Li Yuchun, who is now being marketed under the gender-and-culture ambiguous title "Chris Lee". Where might all this lead us?

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