Last Friday, SFist sent me and SFMike of Civic Center to the fourth annual NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular at the San Francisco Opera House. Here are our reactions, cross-posted at SFist and at Civic Center. [1/12 UPDATE: It is currently the most commented post on SFist, with 67 responses.] My text, his photos, but I think it's fair to say that our reactions to this exceedingly strange event were the same.
Note: I have absolutely no affiliation with or admiration for the oppressive Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, nor have I ever had any previous interactions with the Falun Gong.
When we heard about the NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular at the Opera House this past weekend, we were absolutely certain we knew what to expect. In our tender youth, our parents dragged us to every Chinese cultural variety show that came through town—hell, we even performed in some of them! Chinese acrobats bent over backwards with giant porcelain vases balanced on their foreheads? Been there. Lithe ribbon-dancers with zither-strumming and pipa-plucking ladies as backup? Done that. Huge-headdressed Beijing opera singers twirling their long sleeves while a guy dressed as a monkey bounces around the stage eating a peach, accompanied by hella loud gongs and a blaring shawm? Yawn, so last 500 years.
But a computer-animated backdrop showing an angel flying down to Earth to rescue a dancer portraying a Falun Gong meditator being beaten senseless by Communist goons, together with a song proclaiming, "The Falun Gong is good!"?
OK, we admit it: that, we've never seen before.
It turns out that the NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular, now in its fourth iteration and presented in close to 30 cities around the world, is utterly unlike any other Chinese performing arts event we ever expected to attend. The 2-hour program is co-sponsored by New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), The Epoch Times, and the Sound of Hope radio network.
NTDTV is an "independent, nonprofit Chinese language TV broadcaster" that happens to have been founded by Falun Gong practitioners, but they go out of their way in their wording to avoid any official connection between NTDTV and Falun Gong. The Epoch Times is "the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, publishing in 40 cities across 28 countries worldwide, and in 8 languages," available for free with practically no advertisements—think about those economics for a moment—also claims no official connection with the Falun Gong but coincidentally happens to have been founded by Falun Gong practitioners. (We are reminded of the Epoch Times reporter who heckled Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to the US last year.) The Sound of Hope radio network provides "listeners with news and programming that is both honest and objective" and is run by... you get the idea.
(The Falun Gong, for those who have somehow dodged the tens of thousands of flyer-distributing adherents around the globe, is a fast-growing spiritual movement that has been banned and brutally suppressed by the government of the People's Republic of China.)
Armed with this knowledge, which we only learned after the show, did we finally understand why vignette after vignette of the two-hour NTDTV Spectacular extolled the virtues of practicing Falun Gong, cursed the demonic evils of the Communist Chinese government, and promoted Truthfulness, Compassion, Patience—three pillars of Falun Gong thought.
After the jump: how the NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular has nothing to do with/all to do with the Falun Gong, the ubiquity of sequins throughout 5000 years of Chinese cultural history, and what the Falun Gong could learn from Stephen Colbert.
Our hosts for the evening were a lovely young couple, a Caucasian man and an Asian woman, both of whom comfortably delivered intro patter in fluent English and Mandarin. We didn't catch the Asian MC's name, but we were interested to learn later that the gentleman, Leeshai Lemish, is a reporter for the Epoch Times and in 2001 was one of 35 Westerners to be arrested and beaten for meditating under a banner that said "Truthfulness, Compassion, Patience" in Tiananmen Square.
The grand majority of the dozens of performers were dancers whose style incorporated some gestures from traditional Chinese dance, but which was clearly based in Western ballet technique. They came from a number of schools and troupes, including the Fei Tian Dance School, which is "known for celebrating virtuous deeds [and] reverence for the divine" and the Lotus Perfoming Arts Troupe, which, coincidentally, is "committed to celebrating the values of Truth, Compassion, and Tolerance."
The dances were generally choreographed for groups. Some were inspired by Tibet and Inner Mongolia (areas that, coincidentally, have also been infamously oppressed by the Communist Chinese government); others told narratives of various characters being rewarded for their embodiment of Traditional Chinese Values, namely, piety and faith in the "divine path."
Interestingly, SFMike pointed out that romantic love, which features prominently in plenty of traditional Chinese literature and theater, made not a single appearance on stage all evening. The only remotely sexy gesture was when one of the male dancers suddenly and bizarrely ripped off his shirt in front of his mother, who then tattooed four characters on his back as he gritted his teeth on a bloody rag.
Nearly all of the music was piped in over the sound system by a prerecorded orchestra with Western instrumentation, the exceptions being live performances by a 13-year-old harpist performing a work by the 19th-century Belgian composer Félix Godefroid, four singers with Western operatic vocal technique, and an accompanist performing on a traditional Chinese Steinway 9' grand piano. (To be fair, there was also one contemporary piece written and performed by an erhu player, with piano accompaniment.) No zithers, no wild Chinese percussion, and the only pipa to be seen was a non-functioning prop covered in glitter.
In fact, aside from the Falun Gong references, the unifying characteristic of all the evening's vignettes was the overwhelming preponderance of shiny baubles: one might add "Tiaras, Rhinestones, and Sequins" to the triumvirate of values. Stage fog was also used in abundance. Like little birds we were dazzled by all the small mirrors reflecting light at us, the shiny and brightly colored costumes in constant motion, and the smoke which often obscured the dancers' feet.
All of which led us to think, what an ironically apt metaphor for the NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectular. Under the glossy surface and behind the marketing fog of an event touted only as a New Year celebration of traditional Chinese culture, we actually find a 2-hour sales pitch for the Falun Gong. Though none of the ads mentions the Falun Gong, when we asked New York-based SFist Mom whether she had ever heard of the Spectacular, her immediate response was, "Oh yeah, the Falun Gong show." Turns out SFist Mom and SFist Dad have been to performances three of the past four years, each time with a complimentary ticket provided by a Falun Gong member. (They add that this December's show was the most explicitly Falun-Gong-centered.)
It should be noted, too, that the traditional Chinese culture promoted by this show is not necessarily one that is recognizable to most Chinese people; indeed, none of the songs performed—with the exception of the Kanding Love Song that MC Leeshai sang as a joke—were traditional Chinese songs that people knew. They were all contemporary songs written by Falun Gong practitioners. (As SFist Mom said about the show, "It's not 'culture'... but it sure is colorful!") The expression “traditional Chinese culture and values” in this context, it would seem, equates directly with Falun Gong spirituality. Somehow, it was disturbingly reminiscent of these Traditional American Values we've heard a lot about in recent years.
Honestly, if a movement has to lure in unsuspecting audience members via a duplicitous bait-and-switch marketing campaign, perhaps “Truthfulness” should be replaced with “Truthiness.” Likewise, we’d be surprised if the program advertisers (like the SF Opera, who took out a full-page color ad in the inside back cover) and all the politicos (like Barbara Boxer and Gov Arnold), whose letters of support appear at the front of the program, were aware that they were implicitly supporting the Falun Gong.
That said, if you're a big fan of sequins, be certain not to miss next year's Spectacular when it comes around—we swear to the high heavens you won't ever see anything quite like this again! Just go with the knowledge that the NTDTV Chinese New Year Spectacular is not at all a traditional celebration of the Chinese New Year that reflects the experience of most Chinese people.