We touched down in Hong Kong at 4pm in the afternoon (about 9am in the UK) and, travelling by bus up to Dongguan were treated to an incredible view of the Hong Kong bay, the immensely tall sky-scrapers that make up the main residential area and bay itself full of enormous ships. The city looked enticing and modern, but alas! Not for us. We passed through border control and on to Dongguan, where we have been staying for the last 4 days.
Dongguan is an interesting city, being once the tinderbox from which the cultural revolution flame sprung. It now houses the people’s republic building among other things. The city is incredibly modern in many respects,with very little clue as to the original town on the surface. It’s quite awe inspiring when you compare it to the concessions that Britain makes towards preserving traditional architecture. For example the building pictured above, spreading out in an impossible V-shape. Very striking and uncompromisingly forward thinking.
On the face of it Dongguan feels modern, urban and despite the constant milky smog and bad odours, apparently clean. However as soon as you take any side alley you’re confronted with something completely different. Stall merchants throng the streets, ramshackle food carts deal out tasty smells, washing hangs on balconies and scores of people mill around in what seem impoverish conditions. In our explorations we came across a stagnant canal that must have been used as drinking hole, cesspit and tip all in one, surrounded on all sides by peoples homes and small shops run out of garages. Although we’ve only noticed one obvious case, the city is apparently rife with prostitution, masquerading as karaoke bars, and is fed by trade from nearby Hong Kong.
Traffic is another interesting and amusing past-time (particularly when observed from an upper-story hotel room). There are no apparent rules and the done thing when you want to cross is to walk casually out into the road. Jon Hughes posts an interesting blog about it here.
The venue for our first concert was huge, and had once of the nicest Steinway C pianos I have ever played. I’ve found the venue attendants extremely attentive to my needs and proud of their work. Beyond the necessary contact with the keys and the stand, I am not allowed to touch the piano. All of the moving and setting up is done by special attendants wearing white gloves and polishing obsessively after themselves. The Dongguan Steinway has a beautiful mellow toneand it reminded me so much of why I wanted to play piano in the first place. It was a great pleasure to play. While I was practicing I amassed an impromptu audience of attendants who cheered me after each piece. Also, while practicing the highly popular “Motherland, The Loving Mother” one of the security guard unexpectedly burst into song with an incredibly powerful and beautiful baritone voice.
The first concert went extremely well and was warmly received by the audience, who begged an encore. Singing in the venue was interesting in that as well as stage nerves you have to get used to the informality of the chinese audience.To a group that is used to the audience being absolutely quiet and well behaved, the audience here seems to be irreverent and uninterested, talking on their phones, taking pictures, chatting amongst themselves. Luckily we were prepared for this. It just seems to be the culture over here and I quite like it, it brings a more human feel to the performance. Apparently during the chinese numbers when the audience weren’t actually singing along they were humming under their breath which is a good sign! My subtone throat-singing solo in “Prise Eight Horse” apparently shocked the audience (I definitely heard some gasps and a ripple of chatter). Nerves got the better of me during the piano parts, but I managed to pull it around and the whole thing went very well. Shenzhen
Now we have to get used to a faster pace of life as we travel from city to city. My descriptions are going to have to be briefer as we ultimately have had less time to explore. Today we took a bus to the very modern and strangely western Shenzhen. The venue was a fantastic shape and just the right sort of acoustic for The 24. As I had so little time (as will often be the case on this tour) to practice piano, I had to remain there. The hall also had a Steinway C, but it was brighter and tuned a few hertz sharp of A440, which sent our perfect pitch members crazy. It had a really bright tone and very abrasive action, so wasn’t as nice to play, but still a lovely experience and equally well attended, being put in place and polished by four dedicated attendants.
After lunch a number of us headed off for a walk up a local hill. It was beautiful weather and a nice walk. Lots of chinese families were out to relax and play in the sun and we had scores of children shouting “Hello!” at us with great glee. On the way up the hill we bought bottled water and locally grown sugar-cane. It was nice and fresh and surprisingly refreshing to be chewing on on out way up the steep hill. There were also a number of funny signs (see the funny signs blog).
A bit exhausted and not wanting particularly to reach the top, me and Jon Brigg (one of the tenors) sat down at the side of the track and relaxed in the sun. It was fantastically peaceful and we came to be ruminating on the experience of being in a different culture. We are no strangers to chinese people, having a large contingent of chinese students in York. What didn’t tally up for me was that in York, chinese students seem to be anxious, hard to talk to and isolated, which is understandable given the serious pressure they have to succeed in a completely different environment. Over here it is completely different. Everyone is so relaxed and happy. I realised that I had never met a chinese family, and everyone is so friendly and smiley. It was so interesting being the “different” ones, the foreigners to the culture, and the peacefulness of the setting and the frequent “Nihau”s and “hello”s from strangers made me feel incredibly welcome.
The venue had a fantastically resonant corridor. While warming up me, Jon Hughes and James Cave got together to try Quam Pulchra Es in trio formation. It’s a fantastic way to sing and we had great fun with it. We were quickly followed by about half of the male line-up for the piece.
As a result of needing to practice I was not able to explore much of Shenzhen so I can only go by what I’ve been told. It seems to be a very affluent and modern city, westernised to the point where the really good local chinese food has been replaced with loads of pizza hut, starbucks, Papa Johns etc. chains. The little I saw (we ate in a pizza hut) was just very disappointing, and worrying from a cultural level. It made me think of how rarely I eat traditional british food at home and how much life revolves around these american chains. The food in Dongguan was absolutely fantastic by comparison.
My voice was much more on form that night and I felt I sung with good technique. However the concert as a whole was a little worse than the previous night. We slipped in pitch a few times and there were a number of mistakes. Nevertheless it was very well received and we left happy.
A final picture to show you – On the way down from the hill we came across the cutest little baby duck following two young girls wearing bright yellow tops as if they were its mother. I just had to share a pic here 🙂
Now on the way by bus to Huizhou! Writing this on the bus as we go. Wish us luck!
Contributed by Edd Caine