Thursday, October 09, 2014

The highest of tables and lowest of gutters

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of things that had been keeping me busy in Hong Kong was helping out at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC). A close friend introduced me to Ying Chan, the director of the program, and I volunteered to help out with the JMSC’s work in any way I could. This has entailed everything from writing press releases for their website to writing the English language press kit for an Oscar Award-winning documentary filmmaker. In exchange for my work, Ying has hosted me at one of HKU’s residence halls for the last month and a half—an amazing and unbelievably generous arrangement given housing costs in Hong Kong. I had to laugh when I moved in, though—I would not have thought that so soon after graduation would I be living in student dorms, eating in a dining hall, and shuttling to campus in a school bus.

And then came High Table Dinner. For those of you who are unfamiliar, High Table Dinner is a tradition from the British education system in which students don robes and eat together at long tables overlooked by a ‘high table’ at the front of the hall where the distinguished faculty, masters, and tutors sit. (For those of you who are familiar with the Harry Potter dinners in the Great Hall—it’s the exact same concept, minus floating candles). I didn’t actually know any of this when Ying invited me to join the High Table Dinner at her residential college, but happily accepted the invitation, which instructed attendees to dress up or wear their national costume. Since draping myself with a large American flag or dressing up like the Lady of Liberty seemed fairly out of the question, I decided to wear someone else’s national costume and showed up wearing my newly acquired qipao (the high-necked ladies’ dress of China).

When I arrived at the Great Hall, I was given a long black robe (denoting post-graduates, distinguished faculty, and masters) and told to line up outside behind Ying and the other faculty while the students took their seats inside. Out of the blue I heard a trumpet fanfare, and the procession started to move. Suddenly I found myself filing down the middle aisle past lines of students who rose deferentially. I followed the procession all the way to the front, where I stood by a seat miraculously marked with my name. Little did I know that Ying had actually seated me at the High Table itself, seated among the distinguished faculty members. A few days earlier, one of my friends who lives at the residential college, a master’s student in music composition, had asked if I was going to ‘crash the High Table Dinner.’ As I stood at the front regarding the students in my regalia, I saw him rolling his eyes, gesturing with mock-indignation as I smirked from the front. Ying introduced all of the very accomplished college masters and tutors, and then introduced me.

“This is Audrey. She just graduated from Wellesley College in the United States. She has this very fantastic scholarship to travel to five countries and do nothing! Please talk to her so you can find out how to get scholarships.”

So, quite the introduction! But the meal went on and I found myself chatting amicably with the student organizers and a professor of architecture. Ying had asked me to play violin at the dinner, so after everyone was done eating, one of the tutors set up a music stand immediately in the middle of the students and I launched into my piece. I had asked a good friend about something short and pleasing to play for this gathering, and he had recommended I listen to Swallow Song (燕子/Kharlygash), a very melancholy love song about two lovers stuck between the border of Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. The lyrics are simple but adorable:




Swallow, ah…
Listen to me sing a swallow song.
Dear please, listen to me say a few words
Swallow, ah…

Swallow, ah…
Please do not forget your promise and change your heart.
I am yours, you are mine.
Swallow, ah…

Eyebrows arched, eyes bright
Graceful neck, long hair
She is my girl.
Swallow, ah…

After watching this video I was completely sold (on both the song and the outfit) and transcribed it for violin. It seemed to go over very well with the High Table dinner crowd, and I was glad because afterward it gave tons of students the excuse to come talk with me. I felt so lucky—in that one night I made about twenty new friends. (A large group of them invited me to come out partying with them later that evening, another episode that again reminded me that I am no longer in college.) In particular I got to know an entire floor of girls in the residential college, with whom I relived my college experience through a couple of rounds of late night snacking, watching videos and movies, and gossiping about secret crushes. It was fun to witness their college experience now that I am on the other side of it and having such a radically different experience—I was just in their shoes a year ago, but now our concerns on a daily basis are so radically different from each other.

I scored a terrific gig writing classical music reviews for TimeOut Hong Kong, the city’s cultural and arts magazine and website, and so had the tremendous good fortune to get free tickets to the concerts I was planning to attend anyways, and then foist my opinions of them on the general public. What’s not to love!? I felt lucky to have taken a class at Wellesley partially devoted to writing concert, record, and book reviews, but nonetheless, before writing my first review for TimeOut, I felt pretty insecure to be judging musicians far more accomplished than myself. As I attended my first concert, however, I found that my reaction to the performance came easily—I didn't need to worry about coming up with the substance for a review. I reviewed three concerts in total before my time in Hong Kong came to a close, and the exercise of articulating what was successful and unsuccessful in others’ performances was really illuminating for me as a performer. I think in particular I came to appreciate how much of music performance is visual—the audience wants to see the players onstage interacting and engaging with each other and the music. It also became blatantly clear that even those concert-goers who aren’t music aficionados can appreciate the difference between players who are just playing the notes, and those who are so in touch with the music that they can inflect their own interpretations naturally.

My last days in Hong Kong were somewhat bizarre. There were some in the company of close friends, enjoying each other’s company for the last time in the foreseeable future. I went on a final junk boat trip, which was a beautiful day devoted to relishing island life. I had my final erhu lesson with my teacher, after which he took me to get lunch, erhu accessories, and my phone repaired. I had a last night in the dorm, spent watching a terribly acted Cantonese movie about prostitution in Hong Kong with my new friends from HKU. I went out with a few friends and their mothers for amazing food, and had a really nice outing with pals from the HKU gamelan ensemble I had joined for the last few weeks.

Hanging with the po'
My evenings for almost the entire last week, however, were spent helping my former supervisor ABC News with their coverage of the pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong that have been going on in full force for about a week and a half. (See my previous reaction post regarding the Hong Kong protests.) My ‘schedule’ for my last week in Hong Kong was spending the day working on various tasks or meeting up with friends and acquaintances, and then sometime between 8 and 10 pm meeting up with the news team, gearing up with cameras and gas masks, and then staying out to help them film segments and report live until 2 to 4 am. My role was that of ‘protest sherpa,’ guiding the team around the protest area (which I had visited before they arrived), providing real-time facts and rumors, carrying tons of bags, finding people for them to interview, and turning on my benign Texas charm to get past huge security blocks and police cordons. Rumors about what would happen were spreading like wildfire, and on the first night we went out (the day after police used tear gas) the reporter told us to treat the situation in the field like a warzone, prepping us on protocol in case of riots or violence. The atmosphere was tense, but for the first few nights the protests in Admiralty resembled a music festival more than a demonstration of civil disobedience: tons of couples, singing and cheering, street art everywhere, and people offering free food at every turn.

We kept anticipating some dark turn for the protests, whether that be students storming the Hong Kong Chief Executive's private home or police using any means necessary to clear the highways for National Day, which commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There was certainly was hostility, especially in the Mong Kok protest area, where paid thugs and/or disgruntled locals used their fists and not their words to address the protesters occupying the streets. But at least for now the prophecies of a second Tiananmen Square massacre have not been realized.

Staying up late every night and then trying to function during the day soon began to catch up with me. I started forgetting small and big things. My mind became occupied by the protests—I compulsively checked for reports and new developments, thinking something would change and I would miss it. I felt myself becoming consumed with worrying about the protesters, worrying about the future of Hong Kong, worrying about the fate of Chinese citizens on the whole. When I dragged some of my belongings I planned to send back home down the hill to the post office in torrential rain and found out my ATM card had expired, I basically lost it. I felt out of control of so many things. I confronted my sudden destitution, impending separation from my newly familiar and comfortable home and friendships in Hong Kong, and the fact that I could only observe the course of the protests. My good friend came to the rescue, fronting me cash and reminding me that I was cold, wet, hungry, and overtired.

My last day in Hong Kong was a string of get-togethers with close friends, after which I planned to go out for a last night of protest coverage. That evening Hong Kong's Chief Executive had publicly promised to clear the streets, and so tensions were high as rumors flew that there would be a massive crackdown. Before I went out I had one final ferry ride with a violin and erhu out to the island to see Alexis. She and I played erhu duets as well as her music, Mozart, and Arensky on violin and piano. We had intended to put on a final chamber music recital together with her former composition student, a cellist, but the cellist dropped out a few weeks prior, and then the protests took over my schedule, and the space we were going to use for our performance was already booked, so the odds were against us. Getting to see her and have a peaceful moment of music on an island so far removed from the Hong Kong hullaballoo was a godsend—and in many ways a final moment of calm before the storm.

After a lovely afternoon of playing Mozart, Arensky, Alrich, and erhu duets, a bittersweet farewell and "see you again" with Alexis on Lamma Island
After seeing Alexis, I got together with Paiyu (renaissance man, Chinese linguist and historian extraordinaire, and my very close friend and Mandarin teacher) for dinner. He has been incredibly generous with his time and energy helping me in Hong Kong, from editing a paper I am publishing to prescribing me traditional Chinese medicine. Like me, he has strong feelings about the student protests, but on that last night we agreed to not talk about politics. Instead, we talked about classical music and inane topics over dumplings while we watched a propagandized news report on the protests come on the TV, watching images of students and police shaking hands flit across the screen. We parted ways, and he urged me to stay safe that evening as I got in a cab heading toward the protests. “Send me a progress report on your paper!” he called. “See you again soon!”

I arrived at the protests, where the number of protesters was significantly less and the mood was palpably fearful. The ABC news team was prepared to stay out until 6 am to witness the protests, and so we got to work. I spotted student leader Joshua Wong in the crowd near Umbrella Man, the newly erected wooden sculpture holding aloft a yellow umbrella that is to the Hong Kong protests what the Lady of Liberty statue was to the Tiananmen Square protests. After a brief interview and a quick report for one of the news programs, we were in a holding pattern waiting for something to happen.

As the night dragged on I walked around the area, watching students drag trash cans to reinforce barricades meant to prevent attack by police buses and rogue taxi drivers. Others studied in an effort to keep up with the classes they had been skipping the entire week. Many were asleep, spread-eagle on the pavement or wrapped tightly in saran wrap or sleeping bags by highway medians.

At 4 am I found myself drifting off as well, curled up in the gutter next to a pile of cigarette butts and the drain. It didn’t seem to matter.

At 6 am the producer woke me up. It was time to leave, and for me to travel to Urumqi.