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.