Shanghai Ballet (1989 Tour)

The Shanghai Ballet (Tour)

I was Company Manager (and 8 days later additionally the Tour Manager) of the Shanghai Ballet’s White Haired Girl tour in 1989.

Produced by Robert Essery and Carole Beamish, this tour struggled in the middle due to “international circumstances” at the time.

Susan Wong was the lead translator representing The Shanghai Ballet Company.

The major sponsor was Canadian Airlines, plus major supporters and last minute sponsors that I pieced together including Radisson Hotel, Sandman Inn, Sai Woo Restaurant (particularly it’s owner, Bill Wen) and Kentucky Fried Chicken who became our best friend.

Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo White Haired Girl on pointThe White Haired Girl. A young women, Xi’er, is maltreated and raped by an evil landlord who also kills her only relative. Xi’er flees into the mountains, living on food local villagers offer to the gods in a small temple. From long-term malnourishment, her hair turns white, and the villagers who sometimes see her think she is a ghost.

Dachun, a cadre in the Eighth Route Army, discovers her and brings her back to real life in the village which itself has undergone improvements. Along with other members of the army and villagers, he leads Xi’er from the darkness of the cave into the bright sunlight.

In the new society, so the audience learns, humans no longer have to become ghosts but instead, ghosts become humans again.

Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo BW outline Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Boy leap Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Boys dance number Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Boys pose.jpg Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo White Haired Girl on point Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo White Haired Girl with Soldier Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo White Haired Girl in flight Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Couple Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Scene Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Dancer with gunShanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Leap Line Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Female in Ottawa Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Girls Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo on bus 2 Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo on bus Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby Dancer pizza Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby Dancer Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby Dancers at Niagara Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby arm wrestling Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby Dancer lift Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Toby with security  Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Photo Company at Niagara Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour airport Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Company in OttawaShanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Toby Wong Susan Shanghai Ballet Tour 1989 Canadian Airlines B767 Model Shanghai Ballet Tour 1989 Canadian Airlines TimetableShanghai Ballet Tour 1989 Sai Woo MenuShanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Dancer Luggage Tag Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Dancer Security Company Tag  Shanghai Ballet 1989 Tour Poster

Diary Notes

Shanghai Ballet Diary Notes
The White Haired Girl

On March 1, 1989, I received a phone call from Carole Beamish, one of the North American producers of an upcoming tour of The Shanghai Ballet, asking if I would have the time to see her urgently that day. Upon meeting her she explained that the tour due to start in a couple of weeks was seriously in jeopardy since they had employed the services of a tour manager that had worked on the ballet tour for about 2 months, and whom had made arrangements for the tour only befitting that of a rock ‘n roll gig, and certainly not adequately or remotely meeting the needs of a diplomatic cultural exchange with 60 communist Chinese prima-ballerinos and ballerinas.

Hence, the challenge was too great to pass up, I started working immediately as the Company Manager, taking over the responsibilities of accommodations, food, security, transportation, sightseeing, logistics, protocol, technical liaison, health, welfare and safety. After canceling all contracts and arrangements that my predecessor had set for the 1st half of the tour, I then started with a clean slate and began work.

So, for the next 8 days, I planned hour by hour, enabling me to maximize communication time with the various people and companies in various cities across the country and with faxes to Shanghai. By utilizing the time differences I found I could in fact obtain an extra 4 hours of negotiation time each day. I lived at a desk in the office, beside a fax machine, a typewriter and a telephone.  Fortunately, the Dept. of Foreign Affairs clearances had already been setup by the producers, although there was last minute pleading with the Chinese Embassy to get me a rush visa.

A few days before the Chinese arrived in North America, I employed an assistant, Jan, who fortunately had the same commitment and dedication to work that I did, and who relieved me of all loose ends and details that needed to be handled with such a short time left. This now allowed me to make the basic negotiation on a very tight budget, shape the tour, and initiate the contacts, and she could then complete the dealings.  It was a good team.

My coming from Australia, and had only traveled to major cities throughout the USA, but not ever having traveled extensively in Canada before, made my job harder as I was constantly having to rely on information that I was receiving from contacts that I was establishing at hotels, restaurants etc… across the country.

Add to this problem, the requirements of the Chinese. Given several problems. Firstly, with the exception of the 2 translators, (and a further 2 that I employed over the phone from the University of Toronto) no-one spoke any English, language difficulties were going to be obvious with 60 people. Dancers food would be a problem.  Their exercise regime would be a problem.  Their bed hardness would be a problem.  Their medical needs would a problem.  Being away from their homeland for so long would be a problem.  The limited budget would be a problem.  The logistics of travel would bee a problem.

Naturally, as they were all dancers, they had to eat high protein meals with lots of energy. As a contingency plan (and a system that I used a lot on tour) I organized with Kentucky Fried Chicken to supply us with chicken (Yes! it appears as if the Colonel’s secret recipe is O.K. for anyone to eat. – Also, K.F.C. have just built their largest store in the world in Beijing!) So in exchange for sponsored marketing opportunities, we were fed, for free, a large number of times.  I setup this sponsorship deal in a single phone call.

I should note here, that after a performance, and usually when drinking (lots of) beer, the male dancers seemed to enjoy pizza too.  Apparently, they know of pizza from TV shows, but it’s not easily available in China (yet).

The next interesting problem, was that this was the first privately sponsored tour of a Chinese company. It was being set up as a test by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau. Two previous tours of the Shanghai Ballet Company (1977 & 1984) both saw defections occur, one in the U.S.A. and one in Canada. None of this particular group had ever toured to the West before, which put me in the position of acting in a semi-diplomatic role.

The Chinese security that they brought with them, seemed to be more interested in sightseeing and photographing Western girls than looking after their contingent. Naturally, we were never supposed to know that they had security with them, each were identified as company members on the contract and immigration documents, but it became increasingly evident when they always wore ill fitting suits, made lots (and lots) of public phone calls from the hotels, disappeared at times into the consulates and embassies during receptions, and never had any other functional purpose. 1 was labeled as a dancer, 1 was a wardrobe master, 1 was a technician and the other was supposedly the general director of the ballet company, however never got involved in the organization of any performance.

Just before the 1st meeting and pickup, I realized that I had not stepped out of the office in 6 days, living off catered food, and in the same clothes that I was in the day Carole Beamish called me into the office. I phoned my roommates and gave them a list of things to pack for me for the tour, and sent my assistant over to collect everything. The following day, I left the office, confident that arrangements had been set and confirmed for the first half of the tour that included contingency plans etc…

Shanghai Ballet Tour 1989 Canadian Airlines TimetableI then raced over and checked into the Radisson Hotel in Toronto, where the contingent would be staying for their first days in Canada, and had my first shower and changed clothes in 7 days!  The Radisson had kindly provided me with a suite, complete with Jacuzzi and butler service.  Luxury living for all of an hour!  

On arrival in Vancouver I met Wong Susan (my English name for my favorites company member that spoke broken English), where I had already organized group pre-clearance of the company, after about an hour at customs/immigration, we boarded the flight to Toronto.  On arrival, we were met by my producer Carole Beamish, baggage handlers and a small welcoming committee we had set up from the National Ballet, along with a representative of Foreign Affairs. It dawned on me at this time, for the first time, that for the foreseeable future I was totally responsible for their tour, and that I was representing the producing company, as well as Foreign Affairs.  

In hindsight, setting up a meet and greet at the airport was a bad idea, since everyone was so tired (including me, who had flown for about 40 hours in the past 48 hours).

For the duration of the tour, I lived out of a suitcase that contained my suits and my traveling office. I lived with the Chinese, wherever they went, I tried to stay with them etc…

Although our first performances would be in Quebec, we spent the first couple of days in Toronto. For logistical reasons, it made sense that after a 20 hour of travel, they should relax and accustom themselves to the Canadian time zones and weather. Whilst in Toronto, the company stayed at the Radisson Hotel, situated just outside the downtown core of Toronto, which made it easier for security etc… Also, this particular hotel is quite beautiful, with excellent service and facilities. Radisson where of course one of the tours major sponsors.

All the dancers stick very closely together due to their upbringing, they find wives and husbands from within the school. On the tour nearly everyone was “paired” off with someone else on the tour.  Even at least 2 of the gay boys I later identified in the tour (don’t ask how), had wives.

Getting back to the tour, after Toronto, we drove via coach to Quebec City, where we stayed at the “Holiday Inn”, somewhat lesser quality than the Radisson, but still very comfortable. The first performance of the ballet occurred on our first night in Quebec at “Theatre la Grand du Quebec”. The performance was a sell-out, and was received very well by the French Canadians.

They performed “The White-Haired Girl” which premiered in China in 1965 and tells the fictional story of a poor, impoverished village girl compelled to hide in a cave for several years, and how she triumphs over a tyrannical landlord through her struggles and hardships. It’s really a synthesis of Peking Opera, German Music, Russian Ballet interspersed with the Sayings of Chairman Mao to create propaganda.  To me, it was very military, and overly stylistic with many “freezes” and pauses between scenes with little fluid story telling.  

Quebec City was fascinating, although I’d never consider moving there, the only language spoken is Quebec French, it also appears as if the Quebec French people dislike people who only speak English. It made communication very difficult. It also made shopping, eating, ordering room service, check-in and outs of the hotels etc… very, very hard and tedious. A lot of the time, I felt that the Quebec French did understand English, however refused to let on they did, just to secure their feeling that French should be the only language spoken.

In Quebec, we had difficulties due to language problems. I had four translators on the tour; however, these were Chinese/English translators. So in Quebec I had to pick-up French translators, which meant double translation, and lots of time wasted. For example, when the Chinese lighting director was trying to focus a light (since he’s not union, he’s not allowed to do it himself), he would speak in Mandarin (with Shanghai dialect), this in turn would be translated to English, and then this in turn would be translated to Quebecouis French – so after several hours, you can imagine the confusion and slow progress.  

After Quebec, and a tour of the old city, we headed back to Toronto, via coach again. This was an 8 hour drive, broken only with a fabulous lunch prepared by Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kingston. They had organized media coverage of our lunch, supplied us with KFC chicken, rice, and vegetables, a salad buffet, gifts, and drinks. Due to space limitations in the KFC store, the owner of the franchise had organized that we eat the KFC etc… in his neighboring restaurant!! During the lunch, which the franchise owner hosted, we all enjoyed seeing a number of collections of various objects that local restaurateurs wanted to show the Chinese.

Shanghai Ballet Tour 1989 KFC Welcome taqsOn this point it’s interesting to note that the Chinese can not eat any of our Western food, similar to us going to Mexico and drinking the water. The Chinese cannot stomach the preservatives and additives with which we now process all our food. Also, the variety of food here is very different to that in China. The only western food that we know they can safely eat is chicken. Hence, the only fast food outlet chain across Canada, is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fortunately, I was very lucky in my guess of planning and coordinating with KFC; whenever we had the opportunity to eat KFC, the Chinese loved it. (imagine the fun of calling ahead and ordering 75 x 2 piece snack packs, with Pepsi’s cans — to go, and be picked up in 2 hours). Every time we had KFC they would smile, and it would all be eaten. Congratulations to the Colonel and his secret ingredients! Finally, a universally acceptable (and loved) food!

In Toronto for a week, we played at the O’Keefe Centre, the largest of the commercial theatre spaces in Canada. This was certainly the biggest thrill for me personally, since I’ve often dreamed of working there. A beautiful theatre, with fabulous facilities, nice staff, fully professional working conditions, and 3,600 seats each ticket selling for $50.00!

Shanghai Ballet Tour 1989 Sai Woo MenuDuring all our time in Toronto, we stayed at the Radisson Hotel, and used the service of Sai Woo restaurant on Dundas St. West downtown for all our food requirements. Sai Woo’s service and facilities were exceptional. Bill Wen, the owner was present for every meal and was very hospitable. Fortunately, Bill Wen was able to find a traditional Shanghaiese chef, who supervised the food purchasing and preparation of all the meals which ensured the company were well fed with food they enjoyed.  He also generously supplied me with cartons of Shanghai snacks and green tea packets for the onward tour.

Art Eggleton, the mayor of Toronto held a City Hall luncheon for us. This became the first formal social event of the tour. Fortunately, the Chinese were on their best behavior, and responded perfectly to the needs of etiquette and diplomacy, something that all of us thought was going to be a problem. After a light lunch, an exchange of gifts, and a quick tour of the facility we departed to return to the theatre for a ballet class and rehearsal.

During our time in Toronto, the company first heard and saw the news of the impending Tian’anmen Square issues – creating great concern for many of the dancers who knew a lot of the students, and share similar philosophies privately.  For the rest of the tour, the dancers could be seen huddling I their hotel rooms late at night glued to the T.V. sets watching the events evolve.

After 7 performances in Toronto, we took the show to Hamilton, a satellite city of Toronto, where we played at Hamilton Place Arts Centre, again, a well equipped theatre complex. The problem I encountered with Hamilton, was that there were no authentic Chinese restaurants available to eat in, so I found it necessary to have the fabulous Bill Wen drive several takeout meals from his Sai Woo restaurant in Toronto to reheat in the hotel kitchen, and have snack meals prepared once again by – you guessed it – the Colonel. Again, KFC went out of their way to keep us happy, providing us not only with excellent food, but again with gifts and real “southern” hospitality.

Although Hamilton Place was a smaller theatre, we found the performances there were received very well, and it was a pleasure to work there.

Whilst in Hamilton, I took the opportunity to take the company to Niagara Falls, a fairly large security risk being literally on the border of the USA, as well as a place where many could catch colds etc… However after briefing them on the coach down there, all went very well as they took many photos of the partially frozen 7th Natural Wonder of the World. Niagara Falls is very well known in China as the American honeymoon capital of the world. They had lots of fun there.

Again in Hamilton, the mayor hosted a lunch for us consisting of ice cream and party treats. The Chinese enjoyed this immensely.

Following this we coached up to Ottawa (yes, a crazy zig-zag of touring), where we again stayed with the Radisson chain at their downtown Ottawa hotel that was very near the National Arts Centre where we were performing. The National Arts Centre is a spectacular arts complex combining 3 theatres in one building. The underworld and stage entrance alone is like going into a massive tunnel.  We were performing in the largest of the three, the opera hall which seats 2,500 people. Again the performances in Ottawa were received extremely well.

During our stay in Ottawa, we showed the Chinese our capital city, spending a lot of time shopping in Hull, on the Quebec side of the river, where for the first time the Chinese started buying things. A big hit was the clothing; they were all buying Levis jeans and overcoats. I found this surprising as the cost of clothing in China is probably cheaper than anywhere else in the world. But the Chinese were determined to continue buying as they like the quality of our clothing, apparently much better than that of their own country.

Ottawa is a beautiful city, but very political, and obviously a business city and not designed for tourists. The Chinese spent a lot of time ensuring that their performances in Ottawa were better than anywhere else, as this is where their embassy was located, and they felt that this was the city where they would be in the eyes of the world. The Chinese embassy staff were constantly hanging around the company. Sometimes I found this a little annoying, as they were trying to get involved too much in the organization of the tour.

In Ottawa, I had the opportunity to meet the prime minister and to work in the National Arts Centre (Canada’s version of the Sydney Opera House). The city was cold, and very old. It is truly a business and political capital, for there is relatively nothing else in the city but for embassies and government buildings, hotels and restaurants. It was also a very bilingual English balanced with French language orientated city.

On the opening night, the Ambassador of China, held a reception for the company.

By this time, Bill Wen of Sai Woo in Toronto had now done advance research on identifying possible restaurants and food suppliers for the tour, and had called many of them in advance to prepare and pitch me with recommendations.  This was an absolute godsend since food became our biggest issue.

After Ottawa, we returned to Toronto in preparation for our flight to Vancouver, again staying at the Radisson. Fortunately by this time the staff had a very good idea of how to deal with 60 non-English speaking ballet dancers (and my local touring crew), and how to check in, move their baggage, show them to their rooms etc… which made my job so much easier.  The Radisson and I developed a customized luggage tag system to make it easier during the first stay.

There were lots of details to be taken care of every time we went somewhere; for example, when staying in a hotel, for security reasons it was better for all of the contingent to be located in one area of the hotel, and not scattered around. We tried to block off all the company on dedicated floors.  A hotel kitchen had to be secured for exclusive use to prepare meals.  Chinese signs had to be placed everywhere, on the doors of the translators rooms, next to the telephones so they could call other rooms etc… Signs were placed by coffee & tea, and on locked mini-bar doors (our friends at Sai Woo supplied Green tea packets for all).  The problems of how to check-in 60 people and 120 pieces of luggage, and get them to the correct rooms with keys for everyone, and a master list of the room breakdown and who was in each room were things that I had a lot of “fun” doing.

All the Chinese names are very similar, all two or three part names that all sound identical but for the tone you must use to distinguish between. Additionally, their family name comes first, and is extremely common to have many similar names.

Anyway, we flew to Vancouver, (which in itself was an exercise in getting these people on the plane again in time), and checked into the Delta Airport Inn Resort, a beautiful hotel, but unfortunately located well out of the city. The hotel arrangements in Vancouver were signed and contracted well before I came onto this project, but to cut a long story short, we moved to a much better hotel, half the cost, located across the street from the theatre. (It’s the same hotel that will be housing the Kirov Ballet). Here, the management of the Sandman Inn, went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we were very happily looked after.

We had a full week in Vancouver, playing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a 2,800 seat arts complex. Again a beautifully equipped theatre, but very 1950’s design. Performances here were sold well with the final 2 nights a full house. The Vancouverites response to the show was very warm, and the Chinese loved the city. Vancouver has become like a huge Chinatown since the immigration opening up to Hong Kong Chinese (that spoke Cantonese). In Vancouver, we spent a lot of time sightseeing and again shopping. It was here they decided to go all out and make their major purchases. Also by this time, they had each received per diem pay from us, which for many of the company was more than likely the most money they had ever seen in their lives. Naturally, the urge to spend in Vancouver was greater.

We all found Vancouver a beautiful city, filled with a fresh and lively people, and a wonderful climate. Personally, the city reminded me a lot of my home cities in Australia.  Vancouver, which I had never really spent time in before, is much like Sydney, or even Brisbane. It is a beautiful city, with lots of sun and snow (together what’s more!), and has a slightly slower pace than that of Toronto. I would not hesitate to relocate there if there was work for me.

After Vancouver, we ventured across to Victoria, via ferry, and spent 2 nights in downtown Victoria, in the heart of Chinatown. The performance, originally scheduled for Victoria had been canceled earlier when I discovered the show would not fit into the theatre from the basic technical point of view. However, I decided to still stay in Victoria, whilst performing in Cowichan (80 Kilometers north), since Victoria had more to see and do. As well, the food problem would be a lot easier to deal with since we would have access to Chinatown, which Cowichan did not have.

In Victoria, I took the company to visit Buchardt Gardens, a huge, well designed garden, displaying many varieties of flowers and gardens from around the world. The contingent seemed in particular to enjoy the Japanese Garden; here they took more photographs than a busload of Japanese tourists!

The performance in Cowichan was very successful. It was the final performance of the tour and received a standing ovation at the end; it was a very nice way to complete a successful and adventure filled tour. After the Cowichan performance we returned to our hotel in Victoria for a night, which included a final night party that I threw to thank them for all their co-operation. The Chinese boys love drinking beer and smoking and smoking and smoking. Also, throughout the tour they wanted to go to a disco. Unfortunately, security would not allow this, so instead, I set one up in a Chinese restaurant in Victoria with a few hired lights, a sound system, KFC, pizza and Chinese food.  Total cost was less that $100.   It’s amazing what Canadian people will do for you when you are polite.

At this time, the events in Beijing were taking a serious turn for the worse, and many of the ballet were clearly frightened for their fellow students and family.  I feared for their safety on their return.

It was at this party that gifts were exchanged, and speeches were made. What I envisioned would be a fun night, turned out to be a sad occasion, since over the course of the tour many new friends had been made, and the following day they were leaving the western hemisphere to return to their own way of life.

Shanghai Ballet maskI was presented with several gifts including books, silks, dolls and a porcelain mask (all from a large touring “gift chest” they had lugged around) and was the focus of several speeches from members of the company (that I could not understand). 

Shanghai Ballet figurinesThey had also presented me with a series of miniature porcelain dolls set in a stage, with a red velvet curtain and Mandarin written on a golden wall above the dolls – only to find out later they the Mandarin had said “with many thanks to Shen Tu Bin from your friends forever from Shanghai” (‘Shen Tu Bin’ was a Chinese name that Susan Wong gave me in Shanghai).

A very early wake-up call, followed by a ferry crossing and breakfast on board saw us in Vancouver International airport awaiting the flight to China. Here again more speeches were made, photographs taken, exchanging of even more gifts occurred, and many tears flowed. As they reached the security check-point, their passports were returned to them and I had completed my job. A successful tour with little or no sickness, I was happy.

After the Chinese had departed, I stayed on in Vancouver to enjoy a week of sleep, American food, and no phone calls. It was great!! This was followed by returning to the ranks of the unemployed in my home city – Toronto.

Canadian Airlines were our most marvelous tour sponsor, they naturally provided the airfares to and from China, and all cross country airfares for free. Canadian Airlines truly were fabulous partners, they went way above their contractual sponsorship deal, providing additional air tickets and special services.  Similarly both the Radisson and Bill Wen of Sai Woo were our secret saviors.

The tour went very well, received a good response from the Canadian public, made money, and was in the eyes of the Canadian and Chinese governments, and most importantly the Toronto Producers of the tour, a successful cultural event.

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