Archive | February, 2012

China must wake up to Colvin’s final dispatch

23 Feb

On Wednesday morning, two Western journalists were killed in an attack on by Syrian government forces in Homs.

It is easy to suspect – as many do – that the government forces were specifically targeting them as foreign journalists. According to reports, their house was bombarded with shells, before rockets were fired at inhabitants as they tried to escape. Across the world, voices have been raised in condemnation of this act and of the Syrian government’s violent actions as a whole. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: “That’s enough… The regime must go.”

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. Their names may mean little in China – at least, not yet.

But already the Sunday Times correspondent, with her distinctive eye patch, and the photographer with his young face have made CCTV lunchtime news.

Journalists die every day in war zones. But it is rare that two such high-profile figures are hit in one go. Ochlik had won several reporters’ awards and had recently founded his own agency; Colvin was a top veteran correspondent, with a CV that included work in Chechnya and Kosovo, and awards including the Foreign Press Association’s Woman Journalist of the Year Award 2010 and the Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2000.

Airwaves and newspapers are now filled with Colvin’s final reports. They paint a stark picture of the brutality of Syrian government forces and the sufferings of civilians.

Her last dispatch in The Sunday Times described the “widows’ basement” in Homs, where women and children shelter, watching their husbands die one by one as they venture out to find food for their families, and of snipers posted on the roofs of buildings to pick off any civilian they see. In her last interview with the BBC, she said: “I saw a baby die today.”

Of course, we all knew that the situation in Syria was bad. Reports have been pouring in for months, so much so that we risked developing that horror-overload immunity to the latest world news briefing about shells in Homs.

But now these two reports –  specifically these two – have a real chance of becoming the “Syria” in the public eye. Any suggestion that Assad’s regime is defending itself against a mob of destructive dissidents will now seem a disgusting affront to the suffering of ordinary Syrians. This is not self defence. It is a “scorched earth policy”, as described in Colvin’s BBC interview. Assad’s forces are set on wiping out every civilian in order to mop up the rebels along the way.

Above all, Colvin’s own words will prove as true in the West as they are in Syria:

“On the lips of everyone was the question: ‘Why have we been abandoned by the world?'”

The answer, we all know, is simple. China and Russia.

The two countries are refusing to back a UN resolution for an Arab League plan for power transition and elections. The Chinese and Russian vetoes are the  reason why the international community has not acted against this violence, and why Assad’s forces can kill Colvin,Ochlik and thousands of Syrian civilians and remain unchallenged.

Whatever the Chinese government may think about the rights and wrongs of rebel movements opposing established governments, the international community is now going to be even more convinced that something has to be done.

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik have already shown their faces on CCTV. Let’s hope their message makes a true impact on China’s Syria policy. Perhaps then, these two brave, talented journalists will not have died in vain.

It took Nigel Kennedy to come to China

17 Feb

British violinist Nigel Kennedy is known as a bit of an “abrasive” guy, to quote his authoritative Wikipedia bio. He has questioned the role of the conductor in an orchestra, famously saying in 2008: “Why would you want to stand there waving a stick when you could be playing an instrument?”. Until 2006, he refused to appear on a London stage with a London classical orchestra, then changed his mind and unleashed a load of Bach onto the Proms and the world. His love of Bach has led him to call fellow musicians “arrogant”, accusing them of playing J.S.’ work in a way that “leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical”. He improvises around the classics; he is out to shock.

In other words, he is the complete opposite of the technically brilliant, perfectly turned out Chinese classical stars like Lang Lang. How would a Chinese audience receive the bad boy of Bach?

It certainly wasn’t a sell-out crowd at the Beijing Exhibition Center Theater on the night of February 16. Against the bizarre setting of the supremely communist, monolithic theatre, with its grey stone walls, faded seats, and hammer/sickle/star/sheaf-of-corn motifs on the walls, Kennedy looked a bit out of place – one tiny figure with tousled hair and shabby black clothes  with a violin.

There was an encouraging whoop from the handful of “We love you Nigel!” groupies sitting at the back of the stalls. The hush was reverent as Kennedy began Bach’s A Minor Sonata. It was beautiful, technically brilliant. But it was not exactly a scene-setter for the rest of the evening.

Kennedy breathed a sigh of relief as he finished, then brought double bass player Jarek Smietana onstage, along with a drummer and a guitarist. They launched into an incredible jazz/classical blend. They started with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (or rather violin and guitar because, Kennedy said, “you might have heard there’s a bit of a financial crisis going on in Europe at the moment, so we’ve only got one violin”). They them morphed it with the other four instruments into a fabulous piece of variation and improv, containing snatches of whatever took their fancy, from Pachabel’s Canon to I Got Rhythm.

But it wasn’t until after the interval that things clearly started to chafe at the tastes of some of the Chinese audience members. Kennedy rolled back 10 minutes late and announced that he hadn’t been able to find any beer, but that he and his three band members had tracked down a bottle of wine.

It took a good few minutes of chortling into the microphone and pissing about before they actually kicked off playing the second half of the programme – Fats Waller music, adapted for their selection of instruments because “we can’t afford a piano either”. There were audible raised eyebrows when Kennedy exclaimed “shit” and “fuck” into the mike as they tried to gather enough composure to start. But once they were going, it was everything the last act of the first half had promised.

It wasn’t a long programme – they jazzed around just three or four of Fats Waller’s classics, including “The Viper’s Drag” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”.

But it was Kennedy all over. Every second was packed with energy starting from him and radiating out to his three excellent (but nowhere near as stunning) co-performers. Nigel Kennedy hit notes so high and yet so perfectly pitched that it almost hurt to listen to them. He leapt up and down the octaves like a madman. He hurled the tune back and forth to the other band members. And yet not once did they lose control of what they were doing.

In between pieces, the banter became increasingly ridiculous.

Their interpreter, endowed with the bizarre English name of “Abraham” (which Kennedy pronounced with the “a” in “at”, not “hay”, so it sounded oddly Germanic), got the brunt of every joke. Abraham’s English wasn’t exactly great. Some of Kennedy’s ramblings he may have left out to avoid offence, it must be said, but other mistakes (like wrongly translating a list of numbers) were just embarrassing. Even with his non-existent Mandarin, Kennedy had clearly spotted the chance to rile this poor guy into oblivion.

The next moment of hilarity came one piece into the second half, when a huddle of Chinese girls appeared at the front of the stage holding vast bouquets of flowers. Kennedy and his team were clearly beside themselves with amusement, which they barely managed to cover. Once the bouquets had been received, of course, there was nowhere to put them, so they lobbed them out to the audience – apart from one sprig which was stuck into one of the f-holes of the double bass.

As the end drew near, Kennedy started to really ham it up. He croaked out a bizarre song that can only be described as “ten things about me”, which included lines like: “Eight – we started late… Three – I’m in my tree”.

But it ended well. Perhaps on the advice of someone who knew something about Chinese tastes for the old-time classics, Kennedy chose “Danny Boy” as his encore. It was cheesy as anything, but as he took it right up to the highest octaves, you couldn’t help feel a tug at the old heartstrings.

Kennedy’s world tour moves next to Shanghai, then on through Tokyo, Eastern Europe, Germany and Ireland, before ending back in the UK. It will be interesting to see how this highly talented, highly arrogant, but still highly amusing and always completely gripping musician will be received.

If this is how he is onstage, I can only imagine how Kennedy is living up his free time. All-you-can-chug fake alcohol for 30 RMB? Wudaoko bars sound just the place for the world’s top violin virtuoso.

Could Forbidden City revamp breathe new life into China’s history?

16 Feb

Forbidden City: Just as exhausted and nonplussed as last time...

The Palace Museum, Beijing’s Forbidden City, is to be given a makeover, according to yesterday’s China Daily. A series of embarrassing scandals last year – accusations of ticketing scams, thefts, cover-ups of accidental breakages by museum staff – have been a bit of a blight on the reputation of this hugely important historical site. Now officials are planning to do up the Palace Museum and improve its image.

It’s about time, too. I have been to the Forbidden City twice. For me, that was twice too many.

It’s not that I don’t like history – I spent four years of my life beavering away at a history degree. But two full days at the Forbidden City left no impression of history or culture on me at all.

What they did leave were memories of hours spent struggling through miles of identical, poorly-labeled buildings and hordes of tourists. The Forbidden City is a serious mouthful for the average tourist, and nothing has been done to make it more bitesize.

This is a shame, because the really interesting stuff is all at the end in the Treasures Gallery. You have to pay a little extra to get in, but once you do you find galleries of headdresses, clothes and jewels worn by the emperors, furniture, and beautiful paintings. Unfortunately, most people are too exhausted to enjoy it by that stage. Even if you do have the energy, there’s barely a label to explain what you’re seeing. The words “Qing Dynasty” are about the only description you can hope for.

Terracotta Army cavalry with the non-terracotta army of tourists

Luckily, this isn’t the case for every historical site in China. The Forbidden City could learn a lot from Xi’an. Not, I hasten to add, the Terracotta Warriors – impressive as these are, they also suffer from general lack of onsite information. The small exhibition next to the excavation pit is so small that you are practically trampled underfoot by the 15,000 other people who want to gawp at the first Qin emperor’s model soldiers.

There is, however, the Hanyangling Museum and the tomb of emperor Jingdi, in a northern suburb of Xi’an. Emperor Jingdi may not have been as high profile as Qin Shi Huang of Terracotta Warrior fame, but he had a similar penchant for turning his army and several hundred of his livestock into clay figurines to keep him company in the afterlife. These aren’t life-size figures like the terracotta warriors, but each foot-high archer, swordsman, goat, pig, horse or sheep is detailed and intricate.

This site is one of the most beautifully preserved and well-curated I have been to, and not just in China, but across the world. Glass floors allow you to actually walk over and look right down into the burial pits, rather than trying to fight for a less-than-average vantage point. Several different examples of the figures are lined up in well-spaced-out cases with soft lighting that you feel is protecting them from damage. Signs on the walls offer detailed explanations of the history of the tomb, the emperor, the excavation, and the further preservation of the site, complete with pictures, diagrams and timelines. What’s more, these are in English and French as well as Chinese.

The site itself is almost completely deserted, other than a handful of (mostly foreign) tourists. Most Chinese people prefer to go to the big-name sites – and fair enough. After all, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army have far more cultural meaning to Chinese people than Jingdi’s tomb does. But it’s almost as if the government has decided that, considering all the tourists are going to come anyway, they needn’t bother to make these places a bit more accessible.

Over the past decade or so in the UK, historical sites and museums have really gone wild on the whole user-friendly idea. The British Museum now offers visitors hand-held computers with which visitors can scan exhibits for more detail. The Field of Culloden in Scotland, which in 1745 played host to a brutal battle between the Scottish Jacobites and the English army, is no longer just a field. Now it is a multimedia exhibition, where you can hear original diary entries and letters read out in a whole array of accents, press buttons on a screen to show Bonnie Prince Charlie’s route in flashing LEDs, and plug yourself into a hand-held computer that links into a satellite to guide you around the battlefield.

It’s a bit Disneyfied, but at least you come away knowing a lot more about the Jacobite uprising than you do about any aspect of Chinese history after a couple of hours in the Forbidden City. It’s particularly good for children too. As every parent knows, nothing engages a child’s attention more than being allowed to press a button. At the risk of being corny, it could be that button that sets off a real interest in history.

Forbidden City officials are planning to repair and renovate the Palace Museum. Access for wheelchairs and pushchairs will be introduced. “The distribution of exhibits and viewing access for streams of visitors will also be rearranged,” reported China Daily.

I’m not expecting Chinese museum officials need to go completely wild with expensive holographic images of Ming emperors or multimedia displays of the Boxer Rebellion – not yet, anyway. But hopefully they – and museum officials across China – will take this as an opportunity to follow the example of the Hanyanling Museum in Xi’an. Maybe then, China will be able to open up its history in a way that people can enjoy – really enjoy.