Project Description

Memories

Company & Tour Manager  of the Shanghai Ballet’s White Haired Girl tour in 1989.  Produced by Robert Essery and Carole Beamish, this tour struggled in the middle due to “international circumstances” at the time.  Kentucky Fried Chicken became our best friend (and last minute sponsor I pieced together).

The White Haired Girl

A young women, Xi’er , is maltreated and raped by an evil landlord who also kills her only relative. Xi’er flees into the mountains, living on food local villagers offer to the gods in a small temple. From long-term malnourishment, her hair turns white, and the villagers who sometimes see her think she is a ghost. Dachun, a cadre in the Eighth Route Army, discovers her and brings her back to real life in the village which itself has undergone improvements. Along with other members of the army and villagers, he leads Xi’er from the darkness of the cave into the bright sunlight. In the new society, so the audience learns, humans no longer have to become ghosts but instead, ghosts become humans again.

Diary Notes

On March 1st, 1989, I received a phone call from the North American producer of the Shanghai Ballet, asking if I would have the time to see her urgently that day. Upon meeting her she explained that the tour was seriously in jeopardy since they had employed the services of a tour manager that had worked on the ballet tour for about 2 months, and whom had made arrangements for the tour only befitting that of a rock ‘n roll gig, and certainly not adequately or remotely meeting the needs of a diplomatic cultural exchange with 60 communist Chinese prima-ballerinos and ballerinas.

Hence, the challenge was too great to pass up, I started working immediately as the Company Manager of the ballet, taking over the responsibilities of accommodations, food, security, transportation, sightseeing, logistics, protocol, technical liaison, health, welfare and safety. After canceling all contracts and arrangements that my predecessor had set, I then started with a clean slate and began work.

So, for the next 8 days, I planned my time to the minute, enabling me to maximize communication time with the various people and companies in various cities across the country. By utilizing the time differences I found I could in fact obtain an extra 4 hours of negotiation time each day. I lived at a desk in the office, beside a fax machine, a typewriter and a telephone.  Fortunately, the Dept. of Foreign Affairs clearances had already been setup by the producers, although there was last minute pleading with the Chinese Embassy to get me a rush visa for picking them up in China.

A few days before the Chinese arrived in North America, I employed an assistant, Jan, who fortunately had the same commitment and dedication to work that I did, and who relieved me of all loose ends and details that needed to be handled with such a short time left. This now allowed me to make the basic negotiation, shape the tour, and initiate the contacts, and she could then complete the dealings.  It was a good team.

My coming from Australia, and had only traveled to major cities in the USA, but not ever having traveled Canada before, made my job just that little bit harder as I was constantly having to rely on information that I was receiving from contacts that I was establishing at hotels, restaurants etc… across the country.

Add to this problem, the requirements of the Chinese. Given several problems. Firstly, with the exception of the 2 translators, (and a further 2 that I employed over the phone from the University of Toronto) no-one spoke any English, language difficulties were obvious therefore with 60 people. Next, similar to us traveling to Mexico and drinking the water, none of the Chinese could eat Western food. Their systems could not digest it with all the chemicals and processing we add. Therefore, I had to ensure that they were well fed with traditional Shanghaiese food. Not even some of the Chinese restaurants (very Westernized to American tastes) could ensure that they could supply what was required, which made my job just that little bit harder.

Naturally, as they were all dancers, they had to eat high protein meals with lots of energy. As a contingency plan (and a system that I used a lot on tour) I organized with Kentucky Fried Chicken to supply us with chicken (Yes! it appears as if the Colonel’s secret recipe is O.K. for anyone to eat. – Also, K.F.C. have just built their largest store in the world in Beijing!) So in exchange for sponsored marketing opportunities, we were fed for free a large number of times.  I setup this sponsorship deal in a single phone call.

The next interesting problem, was that this was the first privately sponsored tour of a Chinese company. It was being set up as a test by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau. Therefore, budgets were tighter, and defection was more of a possibility since security was a little lighter. This became another area of concern for which I was briefed by external affairs on such a situation. 2 previous tours of the Shanghai Ballet Company (1977 & 1984) both saw defections occur, one in the U.S.A. and one in Canada. None of this particular group had ever toured to the West before, which put me in the position of acting in a semi-diplomatic role.

The Chinese security that they brought with them (I called them K.G.B. since that appears to be the closest equivalent), seemed to be more interested in sightseeing and photographing Western girls than looking after their contingent. Naturally, we were never supposed to know that they had security with them, each of the Inner Mongolian security that came with the tour were identified as company members on the contractual and immigration documents, but it became increasingly evident when they always wore ill fitting suits, made lots (and lots) of public phone phone calls from the hotels, disappeared at times into the consulates and embassies during receptions, and never had any other functional purpose. 1 was labeled as a dancer, 1 was a wardrobe master, 1 was a technician and the other was supposedly the director of the Ballet company, however never got involved in the organization of any performance.

Dealing with these people was an unusual experience, they are so unlike the westerner in the ways they think or act. It all made for a specially exciting challenge.  Over time I found the best response was to treat them well, supply them gifts and keep them busy with social activities (if you know what I mean).

Just before the contingent arrived in North America (first stop Toronto), I realized that I had not stepped out of the office in 6 days, living off catered food, and in the same clothes that I was in the day the producer called me into the office. I phoned my roommates and gave them a list of things to pack for me for the tour, and sent my assistant over to collect everything. The following day, I left the office, confident that arrangements had been set and confirmed for the first half of the tour that included contingency plans etc…

I then raced over and checked into the Radisson Hotel in Toronto, where the contingent would be staying for their first 2 days in Canada, and had my first shower and changed clothes in 7 days!  The Radisson had provided me with a suite, complete with Jacuzzi and butler.  Luxury living for all of an hour!   After being revitalized, and briefing hotel staff of final and last minute arrangements, and only 5 hours later, I was on a Canadian Airlines flight to Shanghai – a wonderful flight, with terrific business class amenities and services.  It was the first real time I had to catch up on some sleep, and to prepare for any last minute details.

I arrived in Shanghai, and the Canadian Airlines ground representative took me to the VIP lounge to meet with representatives from the Shanghai Cultural Bureau and the Shanghai Ballet (Canadian Airlines sponsored the tour, with all flights provided).  After the initial formalities and general pleasantries, we all jumped in what they called a limo (looked like a stretched version of a boxy Volvo), and headed down to the Ballet Companies offices on Julu Road – about 30 minutes of driving through the suburbs of Shanghai, slipping between thousands of bicycles.

There I met Wong Susan (my English name for my favorites company member that spoke broken English), met the company, was taken for a quick visit to the rooftop of the Peace Hotel at the river edge, looked at thousands of wooden logs floating down the river amongst sampan style boats, then back to the valley company offices, where we saw them onto the buses, and returned to the airport.   Although I only spent a few hours in Shanghai, the experience was fascinating, and I look forward to returning one day.

The flight home was interesting, the Canadian Airlines flight crew (a different crew from the one coming out) kept coming back to me with problems that the ballet company members were having – many complaints, and believe it or not, quite a few ego’d divas in the company, that were annoyed they were sitting “behind the curtain”.  This was the first opportunity I saw the “security staff” go into practice (yes, they were in Business Class with me) – they took control and quieted down the divas – god knows what they were threatened with.

We arrived in Vancouver where I had already organized group pre-clearance of the company, after about an hour at customs/immigration, we boarded the final leg to Toronto.  On arrival, we were met by my ground crew, Carole, one of the producers, baggage handlers and a welcoming committees we had set up from the National Ballet, and a representative of Foreign Affairs. It dawned on me at this time, for the first time, that for the foreseeable future I was totally responsible for their tour, and that I was representing the producing company, as well as Foreign Affairs.

In short, for the duration of the tour, I lived out of a suitcase that contained my suits and my traveling office. I lived with the Chinese, wherever they went, I led them etc…

We started the tour in Toronto. For logistical reasons, it made sense that after a 20 hour of travel, they should relax and accustom themselves to the time difference in the first city they arrived in. Whilst in Toronto, the company stayed at the Radisson Hotel, situated just outside the downtown core of Toronto, which made it easier for security etc… Also, this particular hotel is quite beautiful, with excellent service and facilities. Radisson, were of course one of the tours major sponsors.

The Chinese were not used to such beautiful surroundings; they felt very special staying at the Radisson, since in China, they live in communal dormitories, and don’t have access to any of our facilities that we take for granted. Something like a T.V. set is a privilege in China; they are very expensive, and only have 2 stations which are government owned anyway. Sitting for a breakfast in a banquet room with tablecloths and napkins was a new experience -like living in the lap of luxury, for example.

Another interesting point to note about the Chinese ballet dancers, is that when they are around 5 years old, the government ballet teachers go from school to school looking for “gifted” children with special talents in the arts. When they find these special children, they are removed from the school system, placed in a special ballet school, and their teacher then takes on the role of mother and the family comes from the other students. The dancers see their real parents about once a month, the teacher is responsible for education and ballet teaching and mental and physical well being of the student. The dancers that came for this tour averaged in age around 25 years old; their teacher and “parent” is the artistic director of the company.

All the dancers stick very closely together due to their upbringing, they find wives and husbands from within the school. On the tour nearly everyone was “paired” off with someone else on the tour.

Getting back to the tour, after Toronto, we drove via coach to Quebec City, where we stayed at the “Holiday Inn”, somewhat lesser quality than the Radisson, but still very comfortable. The first performance of the Ballet occurred on our first night in Quebec at “Theatre la Grand du Quebec”. The performance was a sell-out, and was received very well by the French Canadians.

They performed “The White-Haired Girl” which premiered in China in 1965 and tells the true story of a poor, impoverished village girl compelled to hide in a cave for several years, and how she triumphs over a tyrannical landlord through her struggles and hardships. It’s really a synthesis of the old and new (Peking Opera, German Music, Russian Ballet, and interspersed with Sayings of Chairman Mao). The mixture works very well, but I could not imagine that the general public would adore this ballet due to the Red-Ideology Plot – it seems that only avid Ballet goers, people with Chinese backgrounds or fascination, or cultural elitist would ever actually enjoy this.  Thank heavens I’m not a critic!

Quebec City was fascinating, although I’d never consider moving there, the only language spoken is Quebec French, it also appears as if the Quebec French people dislike people who only speak English. It made communication very difficult. It also made shopping, eating, ordering room service, check-in and outs of the hotels etc… very very hard and tedious. A lot of the time, I felt that the Quebec French did understand English, however refused to let on they did, just to secure their feeling that French should be the only language spoken.

Currently the government of Quebec has just passed a law allowing only French to be used in public signs and reading matter, and that the only language spoken in Quebec is now to be French. It appears ridiculous to me when Canada is a bilingual country, and every other province uses both languages in their advertising etc… It appears as if Quebec province is trying to isolate themselves from the rest of Canada, which in turn will discourage tourism etc… for that province. It’s a pity, because it is a very pretty province, with lots of Canadian history there.

In Quebec, we had special difficulties due to the language. I had four translators on the tour; however, these were Chinese/English translators. So in Quebec I had to pick-up French translators, which meant double translation, and lots of time wasted. For example, when the Chinese lighting director was trying to focus a light (since he’s not union, he’s not allowed to do it himself), he would speak in Mandarin (with Shanghai dialect), this in turn would be translated to English, and then this in turn would be translated to Quebecouis French – so after several hours, you can imagine the confusion and slow progress.  We were fortunate to find one Chinese/French/English translator; however I didn’t want to use him much, since he was supplied by the Chinese Embassy, and appeared to be more interested in ‘spying’ on the tour than translating. Often I would find him giving instruction to the Chinese that was not authorized, or we would find him searching through my documents to obtain information. Needless to say, I got rid of him as we left Quebec.

After Quebec, and a tour of the old city, we headed back to Toronto, via coach again. This was an 8 hour drive, broken only with a fabulous lunch prepared by Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kingston. They had organized media coverage of our lunch, supplied us with KFC chicken, rice, and vegetables, a salad buffet, gifts, and drinks. Due to space limitations in the KFC store, the owner of the franchise had organized that we eat the KFC etc… in his neighboring restaurant. During the lunch, which the owner hosted, we all enjoyed seeing a number of collections of various objects that local restaurateurs wanted to show the Chinese.

On this point it’s interesting to note that the Chinese can not eat any of our Western food, similar to us going to Mexico and drinking the water. The Chinese cannot stomach the preservatives and additives with which we now process all our food. Also, the variety of food here is very different to that in China. The only western food that we know they can safely eat is chicken. Hence, the only fast food outlet chain across Canada, is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fortunately, I was very right in my guess of planning and coordinating with KFC; whenever we had the opportunity to eat KFC, the Chinese loved it. (Imagine the fun of calling ahead and ordering 75 x 2 piece snack packs, with chilled Pepsi’s in cans- to go, and be picked up in 2 hours)  With the Chinese it’s easy to tell if they like or dislike something by their facial expressions. They are generally appearing to be not terribly polite people, and don’t hide their feelings. Every time we had KFC they would smile, and it would all be eaten. Congratulations to the Colonel and his secret ingredients! Finally, a universally acceptable (and loved) food!

In Toronto for a week, we played at the O’Keefe Centre, the largest of the commercial theatre spaces in Canada. This was certainly the biggest thrill for me personally, since I’ve often dreamed of working there. A beautiful theatre, with fabulous facilities, nice staff, fully professional working conditions, and 3,600 seats each worth $50.00!

During all our time in Toronto, we stayed at the Radisson Hotel, and used the service of Sai Woo restaurant for all our food requirements. Sai Woo’s service and facilities were exceptional. The owner was present for every meal and was very hospitable. Fortunately, Sai Woo were able to find a traditional Shanghaiese Chef, who supervised the food preparation of all the meals which ensured the company were well fed with food they enjoyed.

The mayor of Toronto held a City Hall luncheon for us. This became the first formal social event of the tour. Fortunately, the Chinese were on their best behavior, and responded perfectly to the needs of etiquette and diplomacy, something that all of us thought was going to be a problem. After a light lunch, an exchange of gifts, and a quick tour of the facility we departed to return to the theatre for a ballet class and rehearsal.

During our time in Toronto, the company heard and saw the news of the Tian’anmen Square riots – creating great concern for many of the dancers who knew a lot of the students, and share similar philosophies privately.

After 7 performances in Toronto, we took the show to Hamilton, a satellite city of Toronto, where we played at Hamilton Place Arts Centre, again, a well equipped theatre complex. The problem I encountered with Hamilton, was that there were no authentic Chinese restaurants available to eat in, so I found it necessary to take all our main meals in Toronto at Sai Woo, and have snack meals prepared once again by – you guessed it – The Colonel. Again, KFC went out of their way to keep us happy, providing us not only with excellent food, but again with gifts and real “southern” hospitality.

Although Hamilton Place was a smaller theatre, we found the performances there were received very well, and it was a pleasure to work there.

Whilst in Hamilton, I took the opportunity to take the company to Niagara Falls, a fairly large security risk, as well as a place where many could catch colds etc… However after briefing them on the coach down there, all went very well as they took many photos of the partially frozen 7th Natural Wonder of the World. Niagara Falls is very well known in China as the American honeymoon capital of the world. They had lots of fun there. Again in Hamilton, the mayor hosted a lunch for us consisting of ice cream and party treats. The Chinese enjoyed this immensely; however, by the time the mayor got through the buffet line to collect his lunch, all the Chinese had beaten him and had finished their meals; Hence, in usual Chinese tradition, they all got up and left just as the mayor sat down to eat. A slight diplomatic embarrassment, but one that we explained to the mayor. In Chinese culture, it is impolite to stay seated at the table after you have been fed, and are feeling full. If you stay seated, it appears (in their thinking) that you are greedy and want more.

Following this we coached up to Ottawa, where we again stayed with the Radisson chain at their downtown Ottawa hotel that was very near the National Arts Centre where we were performing. The National Arts Centre is a spectacular arts complex combining 3 theatres in one building. The underworld and stage entrance alone is like going into a massive tunnel.  We were performing in the largest of the three, the opera hall which seats 2,500 people. Again the performances in Ottawa were received extremely well.

During our stay in Ottawa, we showed the Chinese our capital city, spending a lot of time shopping in Hull, on the Quebec side of the river, where for the first time the Chinese started buying things. A big hit was the clothing; they were all buying jeans and overcoats. I found this surprising as the cost of clothing in China is probably cheaper than anywhere else in the world. But the Chinese were determined to continue buying as they like the quality of our clothing, apparently much better than that of their own country.

Ottawa is a beautiful city, but very political, and obviously a business city and not designed for tourists. The Chinese spent a lot of time ensuring that their performances in Ottawa were better than anywhere else, as this is where their embassy was located, and they felt that this was the city where they would be in the eyes of the world. The Chinese embassy staff were constantly hanging around the company. Sometimes I found this a little annoying, as they were trying to get involved too much in the organization of the tour.

In Ottawa  I had the opportunity to meet the prime minister and to work in the National Arts Centre (Canada’s version of the Sydney Opera House). The city was cold, and very old. It is truly a business and political capital, for there is relatively nothing else in the city but for embassies and government buildings, hotels and restaurants. It was also a very French language orientated city.

On the opening night, the Ambassador of China, held a reception for the company; at this reception I was introduced to him, and it was here that I joked with him, telling him that I was organizing to move the company into the United States and assist them all to defect. He replied that it would be nice if I did this; it would be a “pleasant cultural exchange”!

After Ottawa, we returned to Toronto in preparation for our flight to Vancouver, again staying at the Radisson. Fortunately by this time the staff had a very good idea of how to deal with 60 non-English speaking ballet dancers, and how to check in, move their baggage, show them to their rooms etc… which made my job so much easier.

There were lots of details to be taken care of every time we went somewhere; for example, when staying in a hotel, for security reasons it was better for all of the contingent to be located in one area of the hotel, and not scattered around. We tried to block off all the company on dedicated floors.  A hotel kitchen had to be secured for exclusive use to prepare meals.  Chinese signs had to be placed everywhere, on the doors of the translators rooms, next to the telephones so they could call other rooms etc… Signs had to be placed by coffee & tea, also by sugar, milk & cream. The problems of how to check-in 60 people and 120 pieces of luggage, and get them to the correct rooms with keys for everyone, and a master list of the room breakdown and who was in each room were things that I had a lot of “fun” doing.

All the Chinese names are very similar, all three part names that all sound identical but for the tone you must use to distinguish between. In Chinese a word or phrase could be spelled identically to another with a different meaning, it’s the tone of your voice that distinguishes the meaning; They speak in 4 different tones. This was the hardest part for me to learn, whilst trying to gain a general knowledge of very basic Chinese.

Anyway, we flew to Vancouver, (which in itself was an exercise in getting these people on the plane again in time), and checked into the Delta Airport Inn Resort, a beautiful hotel, but unfortunately located well out of the city. The hotel arrangements in Vancouver were signed and contracted well before I came onto this project, but to cut a long story short, we moved to a much better hotel, half the cost, located across the street from the theatre. (It’s the same hotel that will be housing the Kirov Ballet). Here the management of the Sandman, went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were very happily looked after.

We had a full week in Vancouver, playing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a 2,800 seat arts complex. Again a beautifully equipped theatre, but very 1950’s design. Performances here were sold well with the final 2 nights a full house. The Vancouverites response to the show was very warm, and the Chinese loved the city. Vancouver has become like a huge Chinatown since the immigration opening up to Hong Kong Chinese (that spoke Cantonese). In Vancouver, we spent a lot of time sightseeing and again shopping. It was here they decided to go all out and make their major purchases. Also by this time, they had each received 4 weeks’ pay from us, which for many of the company was more than likely the most money they had ever seen in their lives. Naturally, the urge to spend in Vancouver was greater.

We all found Vancouver a beautiful city, filled with a fresh and lively people, and a wonderful climate. Personally, the city reminded me a lot of my home cities in Australia.  Vancouver, which I had never really spent time in before, is much like Sydney, or even Brisbane. It is a beautiful city, with lots of sun and snow (together what’s more!), and has a slightly slower pace than that of Toronto. I would not hesitate to relocate there if there was work for me. The problem is that Vancouver has nothing happening culturally (yet!), but I feel that in time, more and more cultural expansion will occur. So for now, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed, and sit back and wait and watch.

After Vancouver, we ventured across to Victoria, via ferry, and spent 2 nights in downtown Victoria, in the heart of Chinatown. The performance, originally scheduled for Victoria had been canceled earlier when I discovered the show would not fit into the theatre from the technical point of view. However, I decided to still stay in Victoria, whilst performing in Cowichan (80 Kilometers north), since Victoria had more to see and do. As well, the food problem would be a lot easier to deal with since we would have access to Chinatown, which Cowichan did not have.

In Victoria, I took the company to visit Buchardt Gardens, a huge, well designed garden, displaying many varieties of flowers and gardens from around the world. The contingent seemed in particular to enjoy the Japanese Garden; here they took more photographs than a busload of Japanese tourists!

The performance in Cowichan was very successful. It was the final performance of the tour and received a standing ovation at the end; it was a very nice way to complete a highly successful and adventurous tour. After the Cowichan performance we returned to our hotel in Victoria for a night, which included a final night party that I threw to thank them for all their co-operation. The Chinese boys love drinking beer. Also, throughout the tour they wanted to go to a disco. Unfortunately, security would not allow this, so instead, I set one up in the Chinese restaurant in Victoria with a few hired lights and a sound system. It’s amazing what you can do.

It was at this party that gifts were exchanged, and speeches were made. What I envisioned would be a fun night, turned out to be a sad occasion, since over the course of the tour many new friends had been made, and the following day they were leaving the western hemisphere to return to their own way of life.

I was presented with several gifts including books, silks, dolls and a porcelain mask (all from a large touring “gift chest” they had lugged around) and was the focus of several speeches from members of the company (that I could not understand).  It was not until about 2 months after the tour that an art dealer friend of mine that has another friend that works at the Ontario Museum had one of the gifts examined – it turns out that the Chinese had given me a miniature highly decorated enameled ceramic “Opera Mask” apparently from the Peking Opera, and likely made in Jingdezhen (in Jiangxi Province), and was used as a promotional tool toward the end of the Ming Dynasty in the 1600’s!  Wow, if only I’d been more appreciate at the time!

They had also presented me with a series of miniature porcelain dolls set in a stage, with a red velvet curtain and Mandarin written on above the dolls – only to find out later they the Mandarin had said “with many thanks to Shen Tu Bin from your friends forever from Shanghai” (Shen Tu Bin was a Chinese name that Susan Wong gave me in Shanghai) – this framed porcelain theatre set is actually my favorite, but alas unlike the Opera Mask, not worth much.

A very early wake-up call, followed by a ferry crossing and breakfast on board saw us in Vancouver International airport awaiting the flight to China. Here again more speeches were made, photographs taken, exchanging of even more gifts occurred, and many tears flowed. As they reached the security check-point, their passports were returned to them and I had completed my job. A successful tour with little or no sickness, I was happy.

After the Chinese had departed, I stayed on in Vancouver to enjoy a week of sleep, American food, and no phone calls. It was great!! This was followed by returning to the ranks of the unemployed in my home city – Toronto.

Throughout the tour, I, as delegation leader, was afforded all sorts of special benefits and courtesies. I was fortunate to meet government leaders of every town we performed in (who all held their own receptions) as well as the Chinese Ambassador (whom I joked with about defections) and of course, and probably more importantly, all the directors, administrators and chairman of the boards of each major performing arts centre.

Canadian Airlines were our tour sponsor, they naturally provided the airfares to and from China, and all cross country airfares for free. As the tour leader I was either in business or the luxurious first class. Free booze, and real silverware.  Canadian Airlines truly were fabulous partners, they went way above their contractual sponsorship deal, providing additional air tickets and special services.

The tour went very well, received good response from the Canadian public, made money, and was in the eyes of the Canadian and Chinese governments, and most importantly the Toronto Producers of the tour, a successful cultural event.