Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Xihu , or West Lake is a district in Hangzhou, China, . It has an area of 263 square kilometers, and a population of 520,000. The postal code is 310013. A palindrome. Please, please just shoot me.
It was my third trip to China, and China's third International Clown Festival. Out of a cast of 60 each time, there were only seven of us who had done each one. Prior to arriving this had made me feel special; however, arriving at the Shanghai airport alone with no-one there to meet me quickly put paid to any idea that I was anything other than a convenient clown-cog.
This was unhelpful because the Chinese don't like strays in their airports. Less than harmonious was I. Two days before setting off, my marriage had been canceled and I was still and would continue for a year or so to be, in befuddled, self-pitiful shock. Potentially helpful Chinese officials would approach but I had nothing for them. I was a Teflon basket case. Not a single point of purchase could they gain. No phone number, no name, (well ok, a Mr. Wang, go search China immediately) no name of destination, just my passport and case and stilts. Confucius says, someone else's problem.
So I simmered gently, my marinate of woebegonanity becoming richer and more viscous by the moment.
Some hours later I was remembered and the director himself came to meet me. Then followed a four-hour drive to Xihu.
Collective telepathic anarchy as road transport system, impeccable.
It's a form of ballet, the way this many people use the roads. It's not black and white; you can drive down the wrong side of the road if doing so increases the greater harmony. Confucius says...um.
“Harmony” is an ideal writ large in Chinese culture.
However, Chinese people do not hesitate in yelling at each other. It's not a transgression to berate someone with any measure of scorn and aggression . It was comforting to see, out the window as we drove, examples of Chinese people yelling at each other. Discordance isfamiliar and cozy. [Adjusts Beret, It is my chosen millieu ] Between cities I saw misty peaks, terraced rice paddies, ox-driven carts, plows and nuclear power stations.
The Hotel we checked into sat across the road from the local prison and mainly housed visiting relatives. It seemed that hotels of any higher status were not interested in the hassle that a large group of international clowns presented. I can sincerely sympathise.
Which was interesting, because at the first of these Chinese festivals, in Liuzhou, we had received an amazing reception. A palatial hotel, two receptions with the mayor, before and after. Hundreds of enthusiastic young volunteers whose devotion to our well-being was as enthusiastically genuine as it was disconcerting.
That event kicked off with a parade downtown, at which (we later learnt) over a half million people attended. It was probably the largest parade dedicated to Clowns in the history of Clown. It was awesome. I had focused on the Chinese elderly in the crowd because personally, I enjoyed giving them a short burst of directed attention just to watch the years drop off their formerly weathered, stoic expressions as childish delight stole across their faces and radiated out. Call me selfish.
Also at our inaugural festival a World Heritage-quality venue was provided, with stages built over a lake. The largest theater in the city was lent to put on a special night-time performance, followed the next day by a performance of breathtaking quality by the province’s main cultural theater company.
We were given an after-hours trip to a museum of found rocks collected over 2000 years. A set of Clown postage stamps was printed in our honor and issued throughout China to herald our arrival, and certificates in both Chinese and English were given us that certified us as cultural envoys for the city. We were each given gifts. A book of photos of the area and a CD with a presentation on the city. Liuzhou is undoubtedly and will always be my Chinese hometown.
Three years later we were in a hotel housing prisoners’ relatives, with rooms that overlooked the exercise yards and turrets manned by armed guards. I was used to social elasticity—it's a perk of the trade—and yet the speed at which China had demoted us was impressive.
Oh well, at least we had each other.
I checked in, went up to my room to find out upon whom I'd be inflicting myself, and sure enough, the powers that be had in their wisdom paired me with Peter Panic. A full blown eccentric with a purist-street-theater heart whom I had known many years, and whose flaws were disguised by a tapestry of sharp wit, reckless creative impulses, a superb gift for storytelling and, for the general public, a skills-drenched juggling show. He's a wonderful friend. His boredom threshold is so high he's devoted his entire life and his impressive, wry stamina to providing himself entertainment, which for this festival meant leaving the hotel every evening wearing a Mexican wrestling mask, a cape, a cap pistol and a padded groin and push-biking out into the Chinese dusk, occasionally shooting at policemen directing traffic as he passed, until he was miles away and could feel, for the first time, fear.
Which was his signal to start the second stage of his nightly adventure. Somehow finding his way back to the hotel to join us all, with a new story to tell over drinks.
He and I shared rooms often; various administrations had nowhere better to put us than together. We are cheerfully incorrigible and that can be distracting to many. I had put (cooked) chicken-heads in his bed, the last festival we shared. He had, suppressing his gag reflex, jammed all the oily heads into his mouth—to his mind, the simplest way to display feigned indifference as I pulled a camera from under my bedclothes. Another milestone of our relationship recorded.
I unpacked and dutifully walked the quarter-mile to a pre-selected restaurant where clown stragglers were just finishing up with dinner. I smiled and greeted those few and ate. I was a couple of hours behind the social dynamic crest and my cohorts were long gone on their first night’s adventures.
I ate and reconnected with Mia, a Chinese/American resident in the States, a professional cat-herder, trouble-shooter, maelstrom-surfer, calamity-wrangler and stress-devouring circumstantial Jujitsuist with the outward appearance of a master poker player or Buddhist monk. She is a seriously powerful harmony generator and her receptors are tuned like a shark to perceive the faintest wisps of her diet, the disquiet of others, over astounding distances. I was to her, I suppose, as an abattoir washed into the sea. She absorbed my self-centered monologue while I absorbed the minimum of Chinese smorgasbord. She listened. I needed that.
Shortly afterwards I went back to my room, still Panic-less, and found respite in deserved and well-earned unconsciousness.
Morning came, no day off for anyone, straight to business. Peter informed me of three set times for shuttles to the venue and which floor had breakfast. Still jet-lagged, I headed for a dining room to ingest the company of fools, which has always been rarer and more nutritious than any simulation of a Western breakfast some well-meaning but unqualified prison hotel could manage.
I've learnt better since, but was still at the stage where food itself was an abstraction. Dangerous in my physical theater business, but I'd survived twenty odd years on my abused body's reserves and in my then internally-dank condition the idea of doing myself any favors was a theory that lay beyond my horizon. That said, the ‘coffee’ provided at the hotel was an insult to all brown liquids that had ever existed.
With a cup of industrial slurry (once sipped never again ventured) , the seed from which that day’s self-hatred blossomed, I walked into my vocational element, a roomful of Clowns. Old friends and new, .
We were the mother-load of international career journeymen Clowns, a group 60-strong collected from America, New Zealand, Canada, Holland, France, Spain, Japan, Israel, Argentina, Belgium, Russia and Mexico. I had met many of them before, either on a prior Chinese gig or simply wherever it is in the world Clowns congregate. I'd done Circus rarely, mostly working as an international street theater Clown, but I’d done my share of corporate and private mercenary clown gigs around the world and so had bumped into both the North Americans and the Europeans. I had been and continue to be a free agent, lending my absurdity to whoever required it. On reflection—and with all due humility—I suppose I'm one of the few trudging street-based globalists of my generation.
The Ringlings (Ringling Clown College-trained) were a clique; the New York clowns were interwoven with them. The Europeans were a cabal . Also mingling were the heavy-drinking brigade, combative chemical masochists from both sides of the Atlantic who met over vast quantities of liquor to spill and spin tall tales that, in a Clown’s world, tend to be based more on actual events than imagination. One thing we do well amongst ourselves is tell good stories; we have high standards for legitimate hilarity but a lifetime of surreal potential to collect our shared stories of note..
Six clowns had secured the dubious but financially secure tenure of being ‘Ronalds’ back in the US. They are sworn and contracted to secrecy; you only ever find out via some other clown’s loose lips. One ex-Ringling clown was also a police officer back stateside. Ages ranged from late twenties to approaching sixty. All they had in common was barely perceivable voids in their narratives. Such is the fate of a Ronald.
Some had come into this clown dimension late, some were born into it. Training ranged from self-taught to Russian circus school. There were also a smattering of professional international eccentrics, a master face and body-painter or two, and additionally, from Scotland, Holland, France and Japan, the world’s best balloon artists and their lithesome models, who were to put on a surreal fashion show.
What a relief for me to be here.
I was a realist. My opinion was that China, much like Japan in the late 80's-early 90's, had created enough internal wealth that a means was sought to educate populations and create a generator of wealth flowing back up to the proprietors of society. [Governments being little more than revenue generating media mechanisms run by a select few.] A standard, by-the-numbers, template middle class was instigated.
A middle class is defined essentially by disposable income and a means of being seduced by non-essentials packaged as freedom of choice and sold for profit back to the stratum that invented them.
Clowns (in my experience in Asia anyway) can be used as the shock troops of this campaign, along with more general commercial concepts like Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas.
Events are manufactured in which pan-cultural experiences are sold at a profit to that portion of the public newly seduced by the reality of having more money than they need to feed their families.
Hence products and experiences that we in the West are born with access to (and so rarely examine) are provided, and a newborn middle class is defined, expressing itself in a commercial dance choreographed by its paymasters.
Think of a mining town’s company store and apply that to an entire country. A profitable new seam opens up, and the mining company opens a pay-as-you-use activity center. Spend a moment ceasing to be abjectly grateful for the doo-dads acquired via Third World slavery and you may see what I mean.
This is the reality I perceive. That does not blind me to the universal truth that laughter itself transcends any trite system that seeks to yoke it.
We all need our faiths. That is mine. Bite me.
Over the next seven days, I was to once more immerse myself in the mirth and levity only collective comic engineers/alchemists can muster. I do love my professional tribe.
The venue itself was a temporarily walled-off, ticketed section of a public park. Three main stages, each with back-to-back programming. There were also roving clowns, roving models in balloon dresses, and for a fee designed to heavily bruise but not lacerate your Chinese wallet, you could get your child's face painted by an international artist in that field.
The days were spent hiding a genuine suicidal depression behind my makeup while being a backdrop for hastily contrived family photos. The crowds were too dense for anything else. Forty minutes at a time maintaining a brittle internal vigilance, while mobbed by competing family units fighting for the opportunity to crowd around me and flash the universal peace sign at the camera. Oh, the romance.
In the evenings, a gang of us had discovered a nearby improvised restaurant, a converted ad hoc concrete storage area, run by a local Chinese family. The prison guards ate there, and after the first evening our collective internal hilarity as we bantered and spun tales and giggled earned some general tolerance. We adopted that family and they fed us and provided limitless beer. We gave them gifts and tipped heavily and they stayed open as long as we wanted while the mother sat against a wall creating ornate needlework pictures on purchased quilts. We bought all those as well.
Whatever the venue, wherever we meet, however we happen to be exploited in our chosen pursuit of making strangers briefly gleeful—
these are my friends, my workmates, my brothers—
Whatever my life contained to get me here, with these people, these unstoppable, unquenchable flames of absurd eccentric incandescence who will not, who cannot simply grow up and stop playing and laughing and finding new ways to thumb their noses at that thing we all know, that thing that visits and attempts to devour us, that feeling of a life half lived, while they, blithely, for their own sake as well as for us all, test the borders of possibility and imagination and bliss, too, as Peter Panic did every evening in Xihu, return to show us that in fact there are no borders but fear—Whatever despairing inner provinces I've ever been stranded in have been worth enduring, simply because I have the companionship of this fraternity that loves me as I love them. Imperfectly, disfunctionally yet with a humor that cannot be quenched and with a collective faith in that humor that is redeemed in the laughter we create.
I am so very, very profoundly grateful.
I had also collected ‘X’. My arbitrary alphabetical quest was over. A sense of achievement settled for all of two minutes. I needed something else to live towards. I decided to write these stories. In the order they were achieved, and in the order they were written, this was the last.
I wonder what my future holds?
I hope there's Clown in it.