17 June, China – ‘All Over The Place – Asia, part 2’

A two hour drive this morning from Chengdu to Yuantong Ancient Town. Turns out it’s not so ancient. Most of it was destroyed in the 60s during the Cultural Revolution, and then re-built in the 80s, but I have to say they did a very good job. The stone streets and foundations, on top of which rest quintessentially Chinese wooden buildings decorated with red lanterns, are everything you hoped China would be.

The purpose of today’s visit was to learn how to Lion Dance, and pretty soon we were watching one of the most breath taking displays of agility and co-ordination I’ve ever seen. A number of metal wooden poles with small plate like platforms attached to the top had been set up in the square and two guys dressed as a bright yellow lion, pantomime horse style, proceeded to jump onto the poles and leap from one to another accompanied by a small band of musicians. It drew quite a crowd and my heart was in my mouth the entire time as I waited for one of them to crash to the unforgiving ground below. They survived, and were soon teaching Bobby and I, in our very own private courtyard, the basics of how to perform as the lion’s head. It has a mouth and flapping eyes to control, and seven emotions you are supposed to convey during the course of a performance. For some reason the lion being scared of lettuce is a big part of things, and at the end you have to pick the lettuce up with your mouth and throw the leaves out into the crowd to bring people good luck.

Luckily we weren’t going up the poles, but I was still a little nervous when we returned to the square and saw the amount of people who had turned up to see what these novice lions were capable of (our fixer Quiping had contacted some local groups to be our “rent-a-crowd”). I went first and my rear end performer did a great job keeping up with me as I tried to remember the different stages I was supposed to be going through, quad muscles burning at the constant squatting. I’d worked up quite a sweat by the end, skipping about holding the big lion’s head on top of me, with no idea of what my performance looked like to the outside world. How anyone can perform acrobatics on top of metal poles wearing the thing is beyond me, as you can barely see anything.

I thought Bobby did a pretty competent job, so I was quite surprised to find myself being declared the winner (apparently I brought more character and personality to it or something), and then we got to stand back and watch the professionals do it one more time. It was just as terrifying the second time around.

Straight after that it began to rain and I realised how lucky we had been with the weather. If it had happened a few hours before then none of the amazing stuff we’d shot would have been possible and I guess we’d have just been filming Bobby and I prancing about in a lion costume indoors all afternoon.

Once we got back to Chengdu a bunch of us made an expedition out to the old town, driving through the audacious city centre, which was the biggest assault on my senses since my time in Las Vegas 5 years ago – conspicuous consumption celebrated with huge brightly lit branded shops and towers, and large aluminium pedestrian bridges shepherding shoppers over the jam packed roads. The old streets reminded me of Bejing’s hutongs, and we had a great night eating traditional Chinese food in an old theatre and then listening to the dulcet tones of a Chinese lounge singer in one of the many bars, being served by ladies dressed in German beer hall dresses. Quite a culture clash.

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