Sunday, February 19, 2006

Booty Wine Party Time

December 02, 2005

It seems to me that China has an unusually large number of conventions, meetings, parties, celebratory dinners and just about every other type of social gathering known to man. It could be the same way in America, but, not living in a hotel in Kansas City, I just don't see them as often. Even though the hotels are overstocked with people to work these events, the organizers of these gatherings often bring in extra manpower to account for the added alcohol consumption (nearly always in the form of women). These rental hotties do even less than the normal staff, in fact, most of the time their only job is to stand there and point to the proper room, table, chair, or spittin’ hole for the patron. They are always dressed exactly alike; short red skirts with various amounts of pomp, flair and ruffles positioned discretely around the boobs or elbows, tall plastic white high-heel boots, white gloves extending to mid-forearm and super-fly slutty hairdos. These girls do everything in unison; talk, point, stare at me. The hotel staff is at a constant West Side Story type of competition-slash-rivalry with these girls (often unbeknownst to them of course), they are competition to some unknown prize and the heat is high.

Throughout the day Friday, I noticed a large number of these rental hotties standing around outside helping people in, pointing to the elevators, saying something in unison. They ran around the hotel in packs of three to ten, all staring at me and giggling like a bunch of, well, Chinese people. During my dinner, I could hear abnormally elevated ruckus gurgling from the Seafood Sunshine restaurant and decided to stick my head in and see what the noise and hotties were doing here. Tonight, apparently there was a local winery party with entertainment. The entire hotel service staff was working, regardless of job, all assistant managers, spare western restaurant folks, even the hostesses were helping. Keep in mind, that the ‘local winery’ is not some quaint little chardonnay or merlot vineyard in the hills of northern California, this is Chinese booty winery, which could only mean one thing – extreme local drunkfest with entertainment.

I have seen these sorts of parties before, mostly from the lobby, but I have never spent more than a few seconds looking through the cracks in the door at the experience, but Friday was different. I was dragged in by a couple of the hotel waitresses and placed ‘inconspicuously’ in the back by the bar. Unlike the dark and dirty streets of China, the bars and restaurants are lit up like a light bulb factory, which means that there is no shadowy corner for white folk to sit back and observe and I knew that my ‘out of the way’ corner would soon be the most stared at leaning post in the whole country.

Being tall as hell, my back row seat provided me with a great view of the entertainment. It was a sort of live action Chinese variety show (with out the benefit of a Jamie Farr and a gong). With entertainment like this, there was no need for that extra flair that Chuck Barris provided.

The act that was on stage when I got in was a girl in an Evil Knievel jumpsuit playing rock-and-roll erhu. The erhu is a Chinese stringed instrument that kind of looks like a two-string violin built on a stick. It is a very traditional instrument; I’ve often seen old men playing it in the streets. Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised to see a 16 year old jamming on this thing with heavy metal pop guitars in the background. Citizens were eating this up, dancing in their seats, toasting booty wine and chain smoking.

The next entertainer was a young man of about 25 who stepped on stage to heavy applause. Judging by the applause, I assumed he was a person of some importance or fame. I asked someone who he was and they replied something to the extent of ‘just some guy with a microphone’. That’s exactly how I would have classified him. He was wearing a black vinyl jacket with the collars flipped up nearly as high as his smile. He sang three numbers, each one sucking a bit more than the previous (this meant that every song this guy sang, you were probably hearing to the worst song that he had ever performed). In the middle of his first song, a bubble machine malfunctioned and sprayed him directly in the face with bubbles, which was pretty good for me, but it wreaked havoc on the vinyl, making him a slippery, soapy mess (maybe it wasn't a malfunction, it’s just getting so hard to see what these people do on purpose anymore). By the third song, he had abandoned the stage and began to stroll through the audience serenading different ladies. This immediately made him a massive crowd favorite. Getting singled out of the crowd is huge (as long as it’s not relating to a work issue). The people here just eat up anything that puts them in the ‘Citizen’ class, rather than the ‘citizen’; capital letters are of utmost importance.

The next performer that I had the pleasure of making fun of was a magician, a Chinese magician (but by this point, I think we are beyond prefixing everything with ‘Chinese’, Chinese singer, Chinese magician, Chinese wine, Chinese prostitutes – we have established that there are very few non-Chinese here and even fewer in the entertainment industry). China has a curiously high number of magicians and I cannot figure out why. Of course, magic is the only thing I watch on television here because you don't need to understand Chinese to watch magic, but the fact that I can find some sort of magic being performed on TV at any given time is a bit disturbing. I could understand it if there was a Magic TV channel here, but I don't think there is. Come to think of it, there are a shitload of televised variety shows here. Magic is something that can be performed alone, which means there is neither complicated choreography involved nor the need to form a team of acrobats.

This magician was the masked variety. The masked Chinese magicians do a bunch of slight-of-hand tricks centered on changing their masks really fast. The subtle changes to their complicated jester-like uniforms are so quick and subtle that I had no idea they were doing anything for about half of the show. This man was no different. He was dressed in a silver and green metallic clown suit with a very baggy metallic black jacket over the top (the ‘very baggy’ was important, because the thing was bursting from the seams with various implements of amazement).

The first half of his skit or performance or show featured him pulling umbrellas and colored napkins from out of nowhere (nowhere of course being the bulging sleeves of his coat). The stunned crowd would gasp in surprise, as he held up his arms in expected amazement after every umbrella would appear, like a guitar player acting amazed at himself when he does a complicated solo. He would then drop it to the floor and do it again, the difference being, well, there really was no difference, except maybe he would pull it out of the other sleeve.

The second half of his skit was the quick-mask-change portion. The only reason I could tell that he was moving on was the large pile of umbrellas on the floor and the empty shirtsleeves. He would move his hands across his face and the mask would change. From a happy face to a sad face. From yellow to light yellow. From eyes open to eyes closed. From sleepy face to tired face. It was the stupidest thing I have ever seen, even by Chinese standards. Like the previous performer, he too took his show on the road and went around the crowd changing masks for individual people.

The end of the show came after his final mask came off to reveal his face. The most interesting part to me was that after his skit, he had to clean up the stage himself. It added a kind of ‘you made this mess, now you clean it up’ touch that made me think that my mother was the event organizer. Magicians take their trade so seriously, like Renaissance Festival actors, trying desperately to stay in character and only making the rest of the world laugh at them even harder. He stomped through the crowd, right past me and out the back door, no doubt to go fold up his umbrella collection and stuff them back up his sleeves, just in case he was called back for an encore.

The next performer was a lady who sang in the most horrible dying-swine shrill voice that I have ever heard in my life. This was the kind of voice that could break glasses (even the plastic ones). I spat coffee out of my mouth at the first note in non-suppressed laughter. This, of course, drew many looks, but I was beyond caring at that point. I have heard this ‘style’ of voice several times coming from various meetings, KTV rooms, and torture chambers throughout the country and cannot, for the life of me, figure out how these tone deaf people can put up with it.

The final performance was a six-girl fan show. Of course, the stage was so small that the girls on the outside kept falling off, eventually abandoning the spotlight to dance on the floor area next to the stage (amongst the waitresses and service staff). This was the same kind of style that I have seen the old ladies performing in the streets with the background rhythm section of old men beating on coffee cans and homemade drums. It is actually pretty non-obtrusive, mostly because there was no vocalization or synthesized pop-guitar riffs in the background.

Throughout the show, it was obvious that I was paying much closer attention to everything going on than anyone who was actually invited to the swaree. The restaurant has about 30 round tables. Each table seats about eight Chinese people comfortably, while most tables had closer to ten people. The current currency exchange on Chinese/English comfort puts that at about 4.5 Americans. Everyone at every table was drinking heavily. Strangely, even the women had abandoned their normal juice and tea for booty wine, but this was a party for the employees of the local booty winery, so it should be accepted I suppose. Looking across the crowded, noisy place you would see a table of people stand up, toast some booty wine and shake each other’s hands and sit back down. I cringed every time I saw a glass raised to lips.

This is a very social culture, but in a businesslike way. Most people attend these things with two things in mind - drinking and kissing up to the officers. It was easy to spot the business officers, they were the people who were visited and toasted repeatedly by lesser, drunker and dirtier employees. Officers are treated with a sort of nervous reverence here and respect is commanded, though usually not deserved. A man was kissing his officers ass (not literally thank god) and introduced his child to the manager. He was trying to get the kid to shake the officer’s hand, but the kid had a normal childlike bout of shyness and shrunk down in embarrassment behind his father’s legs. The father then proceeded to pull the kid out from behind him and whip the shit out of him, slapping him repeatedly in the face and the ass until he tearily grabbed the officer’s hand and shook it. Even more shocking than witnessing a complete ass whipping was witnessing the complete and total indifference, bordering on expectation from the officer.

Whether jarred by the chandelier shattering vocals, the lightening reflexes of the magician, the bubble machine or the bone-jarring child beating, the gods sat up and paid attention to Langfang Friday night and delivered the first snow of the winter season. It was a beautiful half-inch grey blanket that provided the children something to sled on upon stolen car hoods Saturday morning.

Over the course of that same night, winter arrived. I have been unable to determine if there is a correlation between the evening’s entertainment and the shift in seasons, but I’ve got a hunch. All leaves were abruptly blown from the trees and the temperature plummeted about twenty degrees. Yet another sign of my impending departure from this place in three weeks.

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