Friday, March 30, 2012

HBH 279

Pretty girls warble;
Weird instruments disappoint.
Not worth the money.

I nipped in to Jianghu last night to catch the last of a series of concerts by the Dong Chorus, a small choir of performers (three girls, three boys) from the Dong ethnic group of southern China who've been playing a number of shows around Beijing over the past couple of weeks.

I baulked slightly at the 80rmb door fee being demanded, but thought I'd bite the bullet because I'd heard good things about this group. Unfortunately, ennui set in very quickly, and I could barely survive 30 minutes of it. The girls were extremely pretty; that was probably all that made the show survivable for more than 10 minutes. The ethnic costumes were... well, very "ethnic". And the local instruments the guys occasionally played... well, I was curious to see what they'd sound like, but they weren't much used. I commented to a friend via SMS that they had a very rough-and-ready finish to them, looked in fact "like a shoddy junior school craft project"; I went on, "A balsa wood lap fiddle, how good is that going to sound?? Hm, not very!"

The problem, I think, is the commoditization of ethnic culture in China. You see this kind of thing all the time: on TV shows, in advertisements, in 'local colour' performances staged every hour, on the hour, for tourists passing through one of the ethnic enclaves, in 'variety' extravaganzas at your local theatre several times a year (I've been to a fair few, the obligatory hospitality that 'foreign experts' here are subjected to by state employers), and at dinner shows in slightly upmarket regional restaurants. The government sponsors a lot of this for propaganda purposes, to demonstrate how well integrated China's diverse ethnic communities are, and what an adornment to the national culture their quaint folk customs are. So, much of the time the costumes and the instruments are cheap, tacky, mass-produced copies. The songs and dances may be inauthentic too, syrupy arrangements with modern instruments pandering to the 'elevator music' taste of the mass market here and bawdy lyrics bowdlerised. Quite often, you don't even have genuine members of the minority group in question, but regular Han Chinese performers impersonating them.

The Dong Chorus may be the real deal. But I couldn't help thinking that I'd seen it all before, that I probably could have seen the same kind of thing at the Guizhou Provincial Restaurant and - for 80 kuai! - got a nice supper along with it.

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