A Canadian in Beijing: Performing at The 4th Annual Olympic Cultural Festival

About a month ago, I introduced you to my friend Chairman George, a performer and musician from Canada who tours his music in China once a year. (Well, at least once a year.) I met him in May and then we said goodbye. Fortunately, George came back at the end of June before I had to leave Beijing and I had a chance to connect with him again.

This time on the stage.

George does quite a bit in association with the Olympics here in Beijing. In 2004, he was a volunteer for China at the Athens Olympic games. It made perfect sense since he has a Chinese profile (and speaks the language), is Greek by descent (and speaks the language) and is Canadian (always a neutral nationality that puts people at ease!) He was actually a torch bearer and told some colourful stories about his time in Athens. I listened to each intently.

As a result of this experience, George does a lot of performing for various Olympic committee events or conferences in Beijing. . .

On the 24th of June, he asked me to perform with him at Renmin Daxue 人民大学 at an Olympic Conference performance and it was a great success. I sang backup on one of his songs and even a short excerpt from a famous Chinese song that I’ve been singing lately: 月亮代表我的心 “Yue Liang Daibiao Wode Xin.” The response was fantastic and so he asked me if I wanted to be part of another Olympics performance the following night.

I agreed.

This, too, was a great success. It was outdoors and filled with excited people, television cameras, several famous Chinese vocalists and performers, big screens broadcasting the stage to the filled audience, etc. It was quite remarkable, honestly. (I’ve included some pictures of this night from both the daytime sound check and the evening performance.)

Well, another opportunity rolled around for yet another of these gigs on Friday night of last week. Both of the latter shows were part of the 4th Annual “Beijing 2008” Olympic Cultural Festival events. They were open-air concerts and were packed with attendees and enthusiasm.

As you know, my sister was in Beijing with her fiancé and I was conscious that they had already crossed off the “see Ember perform in China” item from their list (the night before). So, I wasn’t sure if they’d be interested in attending such an event. I spoke to them about it and the mention of the 2008 Olympics piqued their interest instantly. They agreed to attend and so I put on my fancy red dress once again and headed to meet George.

We made our way down to the 世界艺术馆 or The World Art Museum. I still haven’t seen inside this museum (save the backstage area) but it’s in a dense section of town and the building was immense and looked a bit like a spaceship. They had set up a huge outdoor stage behind the building and it was lit up like a stadium with lights and action everywhere. The audience had all been given these large blow-up plastic toys like pool toys and they were waving them and bouncing them up and down. Each performer was greeted with cheers and their performances were applauded vigorously. It was the kind of audience you dream about; the audience that wants you to succeed and so your performance is successful before it has even begun.

I paused before going backstage to take it all in. The movement of the plastic toys was like a wave of colour across the audience. The dry ice was blowing onto the stage in big bursts capturing the stage lights in all their rainbow glory and the excitement grabbed the hairs on my forearm and made them stand up, alert and ready. This image reminded me of candy, somehow, and I smiled at my inner child and the simple association my brain had just made.

I hadn’t been there even an hour before it was time to get on stage. George entered the audience in his official Olympic outfit, slowly carrying a torch and jogging up and down the aisles to screaming cheers. He arrived on stage and played his first song solo (in Chinese, of course) before inviting me up with him. The audience welcomed me with a roar and when he started the chords for the famous Chinese song I was about to sing, the love was sealed. They sang along and gave me only joy. It was impossible to lose.

Afterwards, I signed autographs for many sweet young girls before the security personnel insisted we break away and head backstage once again.

Only an hour after the show ended the place was deserted. I am always amazed by how quickly events start up and close down here in China. All of the plastic toys had been collected in large plastic bags and were being put back in storage. The cameras were long gone. They wanted to shut off the building’s lights and lock the door and they were urging us to leave. We were ushered out with a smile.

My spirit felt full. I was thrilled to get the opportunity – the spontaneous opportunity – to perform one last time and in such a unique environment. My sister and Steve were also smiling from ear to ear. They had had a great time and were just as charmed by the whole event as I was.

Thanks George!

The night came to a late close over drinks in Hou Hai. The day had been intense and it was only the end of the first full day as a tour guide for my family. (Don’t forget that the day started with The Great Wall of China and then shopping at two different markets (more on that soon!) and then this concert!) I have a new-found respect for the travel and guiding industry!

I fell into a deep sleep that night, prepping my body for day number two of their visit and my second last day in my beloved China.

I dreamed sweet dreams filled with candy and colours and laughter.

And music.

Don’t forget the music.

A Canadian in Beijing: Theatre of Possibility

George and I walked through the Forbidden City gardens en route to the Forbidden City Concert Hall and I was struck by the history in the trees. They twisted up and around as though the weight of the stories that they held had bent their limbs, contorting them towards the sky. The grounds were lush and colourful with flowers of all kinds and beautiful stone walkways beneath my fancy shoes.

We were en route to a concert by a famous Greek artist named Alkistis Protopsalti, a thirty-year veteran of the music business. This concert was billed as the event representing thirty-five years of diplomatic relations between Greece and The People’s Republic of China.

We manoeuvred the twists and turns of the passageways, George all the while checking our directions from the various guards or people strolling in the gardens. He speaks choppy street Chinese filled with many colloquial expressions that make people open their faces in wide grins and help us without question. I marvelled at his ability to “chat” with people and his facility with Mandarin, but I suppose that comes from seven years of consistently coming here, singing songs in Chinese, Greek, French and English and building his career as Chairman George.
George and I have become friends quickly and I’m sure that’s because we are two Canadian musicians who are both in love with China and the Chinese culture. We are mirror images, in a way, and we spoke about our feelings for China with a similar reverence. He said that his life back home is a bit like living in a fish tank whereas China is his ocean. Coming here, he slips into a freedom that feels like a homecoming. I can relate. Not so much about the fish tank back home, but about the freedom and the sense of homecoming. I love the analogy anyhow and I have thought of it several times since then.

We arrived at the theatre to a bustling crowd of diplomats, foreigners, Chinese business people and a vibrant arts community mingling outside of the theatre entrance. George was recognized by a few people (he has performed extensively in Beijing, including in this theatre!) who immediately greeted us and exchanged “ming pian” (business cards) with him. (Mental Note: I need business cards and I shall make them this week.) George introduced me to several events producers who were very intrigued by my Chinese language skills and my performance career. He has provided me with their contact information for my next trip. (This was already proving to be another “guanxi” opportunity!)

We met up with our mutual friend Zou Rui who also brought another friend of hers (Chun Jia) who is also a singer here in China. We all went inside. The place was nearly full (and the theatre holds 1400 people) and when we walked in to the concert hall itself, we were ushered to the second floor balcony where we had back row seats and a perfect view of the stage. I would imagine that there are no bad seats in this stunning venue and I snapped a few photos of the layout before being politely reminded that it was against the rules to take pictures during the show. I wondered how they would police this as there were several digital cameras in people’s hands and here in China it is almost unheard of to restrict photographs! Still, I heeded the request (for the most part!).

Alkistis Protopsalti is an amazing performer and her band was made up of extremely talented musicians. The arrangements were excellent and they put on an energetic, engaging show almost entirely in Greek. At the end of the night, she took the audience from appreciative to a place of adoration when she sang a very well known contemporary song in Chinese: “Yue Liang Dai Biao Wode Xin” or “The Moon Represents My Heart” but Teresa Teng or Deng LiJun (her Chinese name), a very famous Chinese singer. The place went wild and cheered for a good 30 seconds straight when she began the song, to the point where she was forced to stop and then start the song over again. I have found this kind of excitement unusual in Chinese audiences; they are normally so polite and reserved. They truly fell in love with her in this moment! Music may be the universal language, but having some Chinese skills makes a huge difference.

After the concert, there was a reception and much of the audience stayed and mingled some more while drinking complimentary wine and other beverages and eating various Greek snacks that were being circulated around by waitresses holding wide trays. More “guanxi” happened here and George was amazing at working the crowd and introducing me to whomever he met. I really appreciated it.

When the crowd started to dissipate and Zou Rui’s friend had to leave, the three of us decided to head for some “yexiao” or “night snacks” and we ended up at a restaurant where Zou Rui insisted I drink some hot ginger cola for my cough (actually coke and ginger heated together and served like tea). I was disgusted by the idea but agreed to try it because this lingering cough is just annoying to me and everyone else, I’m sure. It was pretty tasty, actually, and I dutifully drank it down and ate as much food as I could to fuel my full recovery from this cold. The three of us laughed a lot and had a great talk and before I realized the time. It was 12:30am and I was exhausted.

We all parted ways with lots of love and smiles. I came back to my room, finally took off those uncomfortable shoes and reflected on the night of many emotions and incredible opportunities.

Possibility is sometimes so visible that it seems to have a form and a shape just standing next to me. This evening was one of those times. It followed me around like a protective older sibling. Had I turned and snapped a photo, I’m sure I would have trapped its light in my lens.

As clear as the stories in the trees, as history in stones, love in smiles.


I see you.