A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Caterwauling at the Catholic Karaoke

OK, don’t ask why (it’s a long story!) but for the very first time in my life I have actually attended a Catholic mass. Yes, after a mere six decades, your favourite blogger finally added yet another life-shattering experience to his repertoire of life shattering experiences… but it was nothing like I imagined it would be.

This week I’m in Baguio city, which is up towards the northern end of Luzon in the Philippines. And I’ve been invited to attend a mass in celebration of a 30-year reunion that has drawn a number of Filipinos from across the globe to hobnob with one another and reminisce about old times.

The mass is to be held in St Vincent church, and for some unfathomable reason, it starts at 7am! Yes, you read that right. How anyone can even think of being out of bed and halfway across town by 7am beats me.

As I stagger out of bed, the sun, too, is stifling a yawn while assorted cockerels do what assorted cockerels do naturally – that is, act as an alarm clock for those who have been summoned to mass at some ungodly hour.

It turns out that if any of you blog fans had notions about becoming a priest, you had better read the small print in your contract first. I mean, some poor sod has to be doing this every day – and can hardly lay claim to having a lie in when he feels like it.

The church itself looks pretty uneventful. Lots of wooden beams and loads of Catholic carvings and pictures with a splodge or three of green paint thrown in to brighten up the place – but it all gets improved by a massage with Photoshop; and I grab an early place in the middle of the gathering in a row with more legroom than the others.

Hanging haphazardly from the ceiling is a giant screen on which the words of the hymn or invocation or responses or whatever comes to hand is projected – a bit like a giant karaoke screen… minus the highlighted blue words, that is.

And while selected members of the audience perform their karaoke numbers (with some even getting a round of applause), the backing music is provided by a lone organist sitting up in the gods at the far end of the church.

Some of the singing might resemble a Saturday night in a typical Philippines’ karaoke bar (complete with out of tune caterwauling) but it’s all very amiable and good natured.

There’s even one part where we all are expected to hold hands with one another (no, Brian, you really do have to take your hands out of your pockets!) and a little later we all make V-signs at one another and give each other hugs to show that we love all our neighbours.

The poor priest is obviously feeling a bit peckish and glugs down a mouthful of very dubious looking wine, with a wafer biscuit, and then invites the audience to join in with the snacking. But I have had the foresight to knock back a quick coffee and mixed grill in the hotel before setting off, so I decline the offer of more.

Finally, it’s all over bar the shouting. Someone has already gone round with a begging bowl asking for donations – no doubt it will be used to fill up the priest’s cellar with more alco-pops – and we file out into the daylight once again.

Lest anyone is upset that they were unable to make it to the karaoke hymnal, there is a local radio station that has been set up that broadcasts every mass held in St Vincent to the local burgers of Baguio, no doubt so that they too can join in the singalong.

Yes, as I say, an earth shattering experience for your favourite blogger. But what is more bizarre is that I had already been invited to yet another Catholic mass in a fortnight from today. But more of that anon…

You mean, that's all there is?

There are times in this city when I’m amazed by some of the sights and sounds there are all around me. Beijing is an amazing place, and to intentionally misquote Dr Samuel Johnson: “When one is tired of Beijing, one is tired of life”. But there are other times when I despair of the place. And one such occasion occurred just a few days ago on a bitterly cold night, when everyone of a sensible mind should have been wrapped up indoors.

To believe some of the hyperbole surrounding Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, you’d think the IOC will surely have a clear cut decision ahead of them when they decide to plump for China as the host country in seven years time. As Bon TV’s web site so enthusiastically puts it, the bid has driven public enthusiasm for winter sports to new heights.

Oh really? Maybe I blinked at the wrong moment, thereby missing all the enthusiasm; but always being on the look out for new experiences here, I fell pray to some of the write ups…

“Bejing residents can enjoy large ice sculptures downtown this year at The New Year Ice Lantern Carnival,” the copy-and-paste web brigaders loudly trumpeted. “For the first time in more than two decades, Beijing residents can enjoy large ice sculptures downtown rather than having to drive a long way to a suburban area to see them. The New Year Ice Lantern Carnival will be open on Dec 30 and run through Feb 13 at the Beijing Workers Stadium. The ticket fee is 100 yuan ($16) per person and 240 yuan for a package of three tickets.”

The next paragraph is a clincher: “About 150 craftsmen from Harbin, Heilongjiang province, an area famous for its ice lanterns and sculptures, are making magnificent ice sculptures inside three enormous temporary sheds on the grounds of the stadium. This is the Harbin Ice Lantern Art Exhibition' second time show in Beijing since the 1980's. Being a brother city of Beijing, Harbin uses its well-known ice lanterns to assist Beijing to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.”

Well we all know about Harbin and its famed ice sculptures, don’t we? Indeed I had often thought about going to visit that city in the winter and here was a golden opportunity to experience their craftsmanship right on my doorstep! (Oh silly boy! What misplaced trust you do have!)

The show, sponsored by the Beijing Federation of Labour Unions and the Municipal Government of Harbin, and supported by the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Winter Games Bid Committee, kicks off at 5 p.m. every day.

More than two dozen ice sculptors from all over China, apparently, joined the International Ice Sculpture Invitational Tournament in the Workers Stadium, in which three Canadian-designed sheds, with an area of 4,000 square metres, and a maintained temperature of minus 5 Celsius (thanks to 30 mobile refrigerating machines), is host to tons of ice blocks that have been transported all the way from inner Mongolia to build an ice world.

Beijing Workers Stadium, also known as Gong Ti, is a multi-purpose stadium in the Chaoyang District of north-eastern Beijing, and is better known for hosting soccer matches. It was built in 1959 and last renovated 11 years ago, and, according to the official blurb, covers 350,000 square metres with a capacity of 66,161 people. (Note the accuracy! Not just a round 66 thousand; not even just 66,160. Somehow they have managed to squeeze in an extra one to that figure! I wonder how hard they really tried.)

It all looks pretty jolly from the outside!

But once inside it’s a different story. Frankly, it’s like stepping into an old warehouse with a whole load of ice blocks that have been thrown together, along with some very rudimentary strip lights making a garish display. The fact that this is a good two weeks after the exhibition opened might also explain why some of the sculptures show definite signs of having been subjected to melting on and off over a number of days.

No doubt it is all very clever stuff, but the whole display looks a little sad – and that, I think, is putting it mildly.

First up there’s a replica of the Linglong Pagoda from the Western Hills …

… while a couple of paces away we can admire the Reclining Buddha of the Wofo Temple.

Everyone will immediately recognise the Temple of Heaven of course; though this one is definitely looking very much the worse for wear.

The most adventurous sculptures are perhaps the 12 animals of the zodiac – such as this rather snazzy snake… or is it a dragon – I’m not really sure.

And why this rat appears to be riding a motorbike is anyone’s guess.

As for this tiger, I only know what it is as there are 11 other animals which look even less like a tiger than this one. Looks more like a bear to me…

Weariness is already settling in, and looking around me, it would appear that I am not the only one who feels this way. Three horse blobs anyone?

The blurb also goes on apace about an ice sculpture of Qianmen Gate having been made. Surely they can’t have meant this dual gateway???

Oh wow. Prepare to overdose on excitement now … not just ice carvings, but 'snow engravings' of ‘Olympic culture’ (huh? What on earth is that?) and torches of the past five Winter Olympic Games – which look to me decidedly phallic and pretty untorchlike. Are they kidding?

Meanwhile, lest we should forget for one moment why we are here, there is an emblem which has been designed for Beijing's bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Looks like someone thought long and hard when designing it!

And what have we here? What? Could Hit FM – whoever they are – be sponsoring this event? What? Cynical? Moi?

Oh and this coming new year is the year of the sheep, so it would hardly feel right if someone hadn’t carved an ice sheep for our visual delight. <sigh>

By the time that we have all traipsed through the three sheds, you can tell there is a world-weary look on everyone’s faces, as if to say “Is that it? Did we really fork out 100 RMB just for that?”

But no, dear blog fans. Far from it. We walk out into the open air and lo and behold there are yet more lights and lanterns for our visual delight. Hmmm

Yes, decidedly Hmmm. To say that the entire experience has been massively underwhelming would surely be an understatement of the first order. If this is the best that the burgers of Harbin can dream up for whipping up Beijing’s residents into an Olympic frenzy, then they have definitely underestimated their intended audience.

I think if I had to judge it, I would generously give a 1 out of 10 for making an effort; but hey guys, don’t expect me to make a fast beeline to visit Harbin. And if the Olympic Committee, in their wisdom, decide to give the winter Olympics to some other well-deserving capital – such as Singapore, or Jakarta or Mexico City – then please don’t be in the slightest bit surprised. I fear if I was serving on that committee – which has to be way down the list of possibilities, it has to be admitted – I wouldn’t give Beijing a snowball’s chance in hell if this is really the best they can come up with.