Have you sponsored this project? If so, log in to comment on updates!
Day 16: Wednesday 2nd April
Hong Kong: Workshop at HKU
The workshop this afternoon was shorter than yesterdays, but consisted of a similar format. Bill looked at Burleigh’s My Lord What a Morning and the director of the Hong Kong University Chamber Choir looked at an arrangement of Loch Lomond. After we’d sung together, the HKU Chamber Choir performed some madrigals for us, and asked for our comments on how they could improve, particularly with the English language.
It was a lovely workshop, and provided another wonderful opportunity to meet students from Hong Kong and talk to them about their study experiences and vice versa.
Sadly, after the workshop, it was time to head back to the hotel, collect our luggage and travel to the airport to catch the plane home.
It’s been a wonderful few weeks with some fantastic experiences that will stay with us for a long time to come. We’re hugely grateful to all of our supporters for helping to make this event happen, and very much look forward to seeing how the connections we have made develop and grow over time.
Thank you - you will be recieving your rewards very soon!
Day 15: Tuesday 1st April
Hong Kong: Workshop at HKBU
This afternoon, we met at Kowloon Tong station to walk the short distance to Hong Kong Baptist University. At HKBU, we were introduced to Cantoria, the chamber choir, with whom we would be participating in a choral workshop. Dr John Winzenburg. Cantoria’s director, and Bill led us through a variety of pieces, focussing on language and pronunciation, which was really interesting. Bill looked at Britten’s Flower Songs, speaking about Britten’s very clever setting of the text in The Evening Primrose, and John taught us Cantonese Street Calls. It was fascinating to hear the subtle differences in the way the Cantonese words were pronounced, even just by different members of Cantoria – and more interesting still to hear just how different the Cantonese language is to Mandarin, which is the language our other Chinese pieces are in.
After the workshop, a buffet dinner was provided and we had the chance to talk to members of Cantoria. Friends were made, connections realised, and many were fascinated to hear about the different courses available at York.
As Hong Kong Baptist University is on Kowloon (the part of Hong Kong that is on the mainland), many of us decided to take the opportunity to visit the Temple Street Night Market. When you eventually find it (having made your way through the dozens of fortune tellers and Cantonese opera performers that line the streets approaching the market) the narrow paths between the stalls are crammed full of tourists trying to find the best deals, and place is alive with chatter and shouting. Much of the merchandise available is not worth a second glance, but the variety and the colours and the noise and the smells of the street food stalls make for a wonderful atmosphere that you couldn’t find anywhere else.
Once we’d had our fill of the busy market, many of us headed across town to the tower block that houses the Ritz Carlton and climbed into the lift that would take us up to the 118th floor to experience the much-anticipated Ozone bar (hastily hiding our hoodies and trainers as we went).
The bar is famous for its stunning views of Hong Kong, so the first thing we did was to head out onto the balcony to catch a glimpse of the city… only to find that the whole of the top of the building was submerged in cloud! The bar itself, however, is quite something – inspired by Japanese architecture and designed to look like “scenes of nature from an imaginary world” the whole place is lit in a dim blue light and the custom-made furniture and the carpeted areas are coloured in classy beiges and browns. The walls, ceilings and bar, as well as the sofas and chairs are made up of polygons that fit neatly into one another a little like uneven honeycomb. With the huge collections of champagne displayed on ice on the bar, the leather-clad menus and the polite, attentive staff, the place oozes class and it’s quite an experience. You pay the prices you might expect for such an experience, however – for 90HKD (approximately £9) you can get half a pint of lager, or for a bargain 170HKD (about £17) you can have their most inexpensive Gin and Tonic!
Day 14: Monday 31st March
Hong Kong: Workshop at CUHK
Hing-yan very kindly arranged a coach for us to get to the Chinese University of Hong Kong this morning—which was very much appreciated, especially because of the torrential rain! We arrived around 9.45 in time for a short warm-up in the concert hall where the workshop would be taking place.
The concert hall was a nice intimate space, with a lovely acoustic. We had been given the pieces (written specially for this workshop) in advance, and went through each one in turn, with the composers present. The workshop consisted of discussions about improvements to the pieces between the composer, Bill Brooks and the choir members. As a composer himself, Bill has insight from both a composing and a conducting point of view, which was especially useful for the composers we were working with. These workshops provide an environment that allows a little more freedom for experimentation; we tried several things (sometimes suggested by Bill, sometimes suggested by the composer) just to see if they worked. Quite often, they didn’t—but it was a safe environment in which to try it, and to discover why some things work better than others.
One of the most fascinating discussions that seemed to come up time and again was the text setting. All four composers had set English texts (some original, some poetry and some religious texts) and due to the fact that English is not their first language, the idea of word stress is quite a foreign concept (as intonation and setting Chinese language to music would be for us!). This was one of the things we demonstrated: when a text had been set with the stresses on the wrong beats of the bar, we sang it both how it was written, and how you would say it. The former is easier but feels uncomfortable, and the latter is harder but makes more sense of the text.
The composers seemed to get a huge amount out of the workshops, and it was great to see how the pieces developed even in the short space of time that we were there.
The workshop was followed by a delicious lunch laid on by the university, and the afternoon was free for more sightseeing.
In the evening, the whole group met at Central Pier 9 to catch a boat sent especially for us from the restaurant where we were to have dinner on Lamma Island. Dinner was spectacular—a huge spread of fish dishes, outside (under cover from the rain!) right on the sea front. There were dishes of all kinds: steamed clams, deep fried squid, baked lobster, fish soup, sweet and sour fish, lemon chicken, sweet and sour pork and giant shrimp. The meal ended with beautiful spontaneous renditions of My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land and Jasmine Flower which reduced many choir members to tears (and inspired a slightly drunken performance of Volare from the next table!) and we left chattering and giggling and still singing to catch the ferry back to Hong Kong island.
Another wonderful day in Hong Kong!
Day 12 and 13: Saturday 29th March and Sunday 30th March
Hong Kong: Sightseeing
Aside from a short rehearsal on the workshop music in the morning, the weekend was ours to explore Hong Kong. We tackled the local trams, the buses and the MTR (underground) and spread out all around the city to experience some of the things Hong Kong has to offer.
Many of us went up Victoria Peak (christened simply “The Peak”) on Asia’s first—and arguably most famous—funicular railway, which runs a tram almost 400m up the mountainside on a single steel cable. The steepness of the track means that passengers are tilted backwards in their seats and the buildings and foliage on either side of the tram appear to be at a very strange angle. Some of us reached the viewing platform just as a huge cloud was engulfing the city, and caught some great moments with strings of cloud curling themselves around the very tops of the skyscrapers both on Hong Kong and Kowloon (across the harbour). It wasn’t long before all we could see was cloud, but we waited it out and the wait paid off: the cloud cleared after about 20 minutes, and the views from all sides were simply stunning.
Other activities included: island visits (to Cheung Chau in particular); trips to markets on Kowloon and in Stanley; a visit to the world’s highest (we think) bar, Ozone; exploration of the designer malls in the central districts of Hong Kong island and walks through Hong Kong Park.
The markets sell all sorts—from jade trinkets (some real, some not so much) to silk paintings to Chinese souvenirs to cheap clothes and handbags—and are quite an experience. Haggling is a must, and several members of the group are getting quite good at simply walking away—which, of course, automatically lowers the price!
Cheung Chau is an old fishing community. The harbour is littered with little fishing boats bobbing in the water, there is the faint odour of fish in the air everywhere you go and every few metres there are fisherman standing next to racks of dried shrimp or freshly caught whelks. Many of the restaurants feature live tanks from which you can pick your meal. The beaches are beautiful, with clusters of hills framing the golden bays that, like the streets, are absolutely spotless.
It was a wonderful weekend and everyone was thrilled to have a chance to explore Hong Kong properly—I don’t think there are many members of the choir who don’t intend to find their way back here at some point!
Day 11: Friday 28th March
Hong Kong: Concert at HKU
Today consisted almost entirely of rehearsals. We met in the hotel foyer at 9.45 and piled onto the coach for the short journey to HKU. We rehearsed and recorded Professor Chan’s piece, A Touch of Rain, in the morning, and each group had individual rehearsal time in the afternoon. During the long breaks between rehearsals, we had time to explore the HKU campus a little bit. We didn’t go far, but the outside area near the music department was really pretty, with bridges over delicate waterways and nice patches of greenery everywhere. There are also lovely cafes all over the place selling European coffee and snacks.
The music department, which the concert hall sits below, (it’s an 11-floor building, with a roof garden, built into a hill) is a new complex and has incredible facilities. The concert hall itself seats over 800 people in auditorium of beautiful modern design, including a gently curved balcony perching at the back. Our concert was to be the first time the balcony had been opened to the public, and it was also the first time a concert had been fully booked. The acoustic is wonderful, and our Three Shakespeare Songs film (created by Nik Morris, commissioned by The 24) looked stunning on the enormous screen that almost filled the back wall of the stage.
We listened to the a cappella group, O Kai—with whom we were sharing the concert—rehearsing after we finished, and were all thoroughly impressed. With their innovative covers of both Chinese and Western pop music, It would be a very different half of the concert to ours, and different again from Hing-yan’s piece: an eclectic concert, exactly what The 24 specialise in. They even sang an arrangement of Olive Tree (Gan Lan Shu), which we have sung an arrangement of on previous tours, and after the rehearsal, we sang them our arrangement, which was great fun. We also sang them a couple of other numbers (including a version of The Spring is Coming, with Nils beat-boxing to replace the piano accompaniment!) that we weren’t singing that evening, and they followed that with a rendition of a piece that Nils just happened to know, so they invited him to sing along with him—including an improvised solo! The dialogue between the two groups ended with a “beat-box off” between Nils and one of the singers from O Kai, which was brilliant.
The concert was fantastic, and our wonderful sponsors—Texon and Dentons—who had sent representatives to watch, were absolutely thrilled. They came to say congratulations backstage and were full of admiration for the tour and the choir itself. A really great night to end our string of concerts on!
Day 10: Thursday 27th March
Wuhan to Hong Kong
The train journey this morning was four hours, followed by a few hours on the coach that took us over the border to Hong Kong. There were the usual security checks, a few misplaced departure cards and one almost-disaster as Helena Cooke left her passport at the arrival cards station!
The drive through the New Territories, Kowloon and over the bridge to Hong Kong presented some stunning views. Clusters of skyscrapers towered into the sky, contrasting against the backdrop of lush green hills. Further down towards the sea, the harbour is full to bursting with tower after tower of shipping containers, piled as high as possible in blues, yellows, reds and blacks. Our hotel is as close as you can get to the seafront, on the Northwest side of Hong Kong island, and the views from some of the rooms are breath-taking. It was bright and sunny when we arrived, and you could see right the way across the harbour and all the way out to some of the outlying islands.
We had a couple of hours free in which to find some lunch (a very late lunch as it happened!) before the evening rehearsal. The street immediately behind the hotel offers a huge array of choice, from 7-11 stores to tiny cafes to mid-range restaurants selling anything from authentic sandwiches to authentic Cantonese. Hong Kong is an entirely different experience to China in almost every way. There are similarities, but there’s just something about the place that makes is somehow more approachable, friendlier and more homely. Perhaps it’s the added bonus of the abundance of English-speakers, which means it’s instantly 100% easier to communicate, or perhaps it’s the fact that in many ways, it feels a little bit like London: familiar and complicated, but in a way that most of us know how to handle.
A coach picked us up from the hotel around 6pm and we were driven up the steep hills to Hong Kong University, where we were met by students from the University and Professor Hing-yan Chan, the composer of the new piece we would be performing in the concert the following evening.
The rehearsal with O Kai (the a cappella Taiwanese group) and the Sheung (a traditional Chinese instrument) lasted approximately two hours, and was incredibly efficient. We seemed to achieve a lot in the short space of time we had, and the piece came together in no time at all. By the end of the rehearsal, there was a comfortable feeling that the concert the following day would be a good one…
Day 9: Wednesday 26th March
The standard of breakfast this morning more than made up for the disappointment of yesterday: as well as the usual delicious selection of noodles and steamed vegetables, there was a huge selection of breads, cakes and pastries, fresh fruit and various different meats. It was a group of well-fed singers that traipsed onto the bus to head off for a cultural morning of visiting General Mau’s summer villa and the Hubei museum.
Visits to General Mau’s villa are by prior arrangement only, so it was thanks to a connection of Jay’s (Bu Xi’s son) that we were able to have a tour. The exhibition downstairs was really interesting and presented photos, artefacts and information about Mau’s time at the villa.
The Hubei Museum was even more interesting, featuring exhibitions of ancient Chinese pottery, findings from tombs over 2000 years old and the originals of the replica bells we heard yesterday.
After the visit, we were treated to lunch by Zhu Bu Xi at a wonderful restaurant near the museum. The food was not only delicious, but beautifully presented with twists of carrot, decorative dots and swirls of different sauces and delicate sprigs of greenery adorning every dish. The vast selection included a local speciality, sweet and sour fried fish, which comes as a whole fish on a platter, with the meat splayed out so it can just be pulled off the bone in bite-size chunks. It looks stunning and tastes even better. The cherry on the cake was surely the usual watermelon end to the meal, but served as we’d never seen it before: in big chunks with the skin curled and cut into long thin points like a crown.
There was a little free time after lunch, which many of us used as a last opportunity to get some souvenirs from China… except very few of us managed to find the market that Jay had directed us to. It later transpired that it was underground, with virtually no signage, which was why we’d missed it!
Wuhan is one of the friendliest and greenest cities we’ve seen so far, with lots of open space and nice wide streets. The drive to the concert hall took us past the huge Yangzte River which is quite a sight to see. The concert hall itself was by far the grandest we’d been in, with deep read seats, and golden lacquer coating mouldings all around the room. The acoustic is incredible, with a lot of resonance—which makes it quite a different experience to sing in. Because of this, the rehearsal was somewhat longer than it had been on previous days, but it was certainly worth it: the concert was without a doubt the best yet. We had an almost full house, with the audience numbering almost 1200, many of them singers or musicians. We’d been told the audience would be knowledgeable, and they were incredible well behaved for a Chinese audience; almost no phones went off, and there was very little chatter, except at the beginning of our first Chinese folk song, Pastorale, when a murmur spread through the audience and there was scattered applause as they recognised one of their favourites.Tony said that it was amazing to be part of the audience: “You could almost feel the vibes of support and excitement emanating from them towards you”, he said in his speech of thanks later.
There was a crowd of Bu Xi and Ying’s students waiting outside for us, but we didn’t stay too long this time; we headed to a hot-pot restaurant for some dinner. It was a lovely end to a lovely day; there were many shouts of “Ganbe!” from table to table as the meal went on, and hysterical shrieks and giggles as we tackled the boiling oil in the centre of the table!
Day 8: Tuesday 25th March
Hefei to Wuhan
Breakfast this morning was disappointing compared to others; there was little fresh fruit, no hot drinks and almost everything was deep-fried, which was a shame.
We left around 7.30am for the station, and caught a train to Wuhan. The scenery on this journey was the greenest and hilliest yet, with some truly spectacular forests coating the hills that towered over both sides of the train track. We were split between two carriages on this train, and there was some minor confusion as to exactly where we were getting off as the station was called Hankou, not Wuhan. However, we all got off safely and, as we learned later from Tony, Wuhan is actually three cities—of which Hankou is one.
We arrived at our 5 star hotel just before lunch, greeted by bell boys who offered to help with luggage and most of whom spoke at least some degree of English which was a wonderful change. The rooms were beautiful; spacious and comfortable, with the usual Chinese full-height glass bathroom walls (with curtains!).
It was a fairly quick turnaround at the hotel—just time to drop our luggage before walking a few minutes down the street to a restaurant where we had a delicious lunch featuring more exciting and exotic dishes, many of which none of us could even name. The tree fungi were particularly enticing, as well as fried sweet potato balls and incredibly spicy fish dishes.
On the way to the restaurant, we were met—much to Nils’ delight—by Supertenor (Summer) who had been on all the previous tours and had become a favourite with many of the singers. He has a spectacular tenor voice, and Nils in particular had an instant bond with him. Supertenor was greeted with shouts of joy from the singers and hugs all round.
After lunch, we took the coach to the Yellow Crane Tower park, where we were taken by an English-speaking guide to watch a performance of ancient Chinese music played on replicas of Banquing (resonant stone tablets), Chime Bells and other traditional instruments. The music was wonderful, the instruments were fascinating, and the performance even included a rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as a finale!
After this we went up the Yellow Crane Tower itself to gaze on stunning, if a little hazy, views of Wuhan the Yangzte River. Unfortunately, it was close to closing time so we only had a short amount of time to admire both the views of the city, and the wonderful artwork inside the tower. We were quickly ushered down from the tower after about fifteen minutes and taken to the school that Summer teaches at. There, despite having had lunch just a couple of hours previously, given a huge meal, including ice cream. It was all delicious, but because we were all still so full from lunch, we ate very little of it!
Dinner was followed by an open rehearsal of the Hong Kong workshop music, which was observed by many of Summer and Bu Xi’s students, all of whom seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. After the rehearsal we were presented with the most beautiful bouquet of flowers yet, and everyone joined together to sing The Joys of the Torch Festival and a piece that Summer had arranged. This was great fun and was followed by yet more photos and hugs and a number of reunions as people from both sides recognised each other from previous tours.
Back at the hotel, we made the exciting discovery that the swimming pool was still open. This resulted in a fairly heated game of water polo, which was a lot of fun, followed by drinks; some people explored the bars in Wuhan and others stayed at the hotel. We went to bed happy and very excited about the following day’s concert: Wuhan is always one of the highlights of the tour, as Bu Xi—and to some extent by this stage, The 24—is so well known, and we are guaranteed a great audience, which is always a good feeling!
Day 6: Sunday 23rd March
Xuzhou is a fascinating city. We’ve had more time to explore here than anywhere else, and it’s wonderful to be able to take in the atmosphere and the people just living their lives.
The day began with a workshop at the University, where we heard two Chinese choirs perform for us and then had a short demonstrative rehearsal with Zhu Bu Xi, including a warm up from Simone Ibbett which our audience very much enjoyed!
The first choir sang O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, and when it transpired that most of The 24 new the piece as well, we were all ushered onto the stage for a repeat performance featuring both us and the Chinese student choir. The audience seemed very impressed with the combined sound of the two choirs, and it was a good sing!
After the workshop came the inevitable barrage of photo requests, and the room became chaotic with large groups of people crowding into as many photos as possible, and at one point Nils’ famous beat-boxing was even broadcast across the PA system when members of the other choir discovered his talent. Exchanges like this are what these tours are all about; despite limited communication due to language barriers, hearing and meeting another choir allows us to learn so much about the culture, both musically and socially.
We had an hour or so of free time after lunch, and many of us chose to explore the city a little bit. Xuzhou has adopted a similar system to the Boris Bikes in London, and James Beddoe took advantage of this and cycled to the lake the other side of the city, which was also where the concert hall was. This was, as it turned out, very lucky as he actually got stranded trying to cross various roads (which is always a challenge in China as pedestrians never seem to have right of way) and ended up meeting us there later on!
Off the main road, which consists of huge glass-fronted department stores, wide roads and endless traffic jams and beeping car horns, there is a whole different world. The narrow, broken streets are lined with rickety stalls selling everything from children’s comic books to brightly coloured fruit and vegetables to live chickens to freshly prepared food that is cooked right in front of you. The stall-holders sit and gaze, disinterested, at passers by, often accompanied by cats or small dogs. They seem to live in the buildings behind their stalls, which are often in a similar state to the roads: run-down and filthy.
The roads here are by no means free of traffic; as you can’t walk on the pavement because of the stalls, you have to take your chances on the road, which you share with mopeds, bicycles, stray animals, curious tiny three-wheeled vehicles and the very occasionally taxi. It feels busy and alive, yet somehow quite and calm at the same time: everything happens at a relaxed pace and life seems to pass by the people there almost without them noticing.
The sound of the main road is faint in the background, but there is a constant tinkling of bicycle bells, shouts from bustling kitchens and quiet murmurings as stall holders occasionally confer about something. New smells constantly waft across the road as you pass open doors and little alleys; sometimes unpleasant, but more often—when they come from the many food stalls that are scattered around—intriguing and tempting and accompanied by a wonderful sizzling sound as the next batch of vegetables or batter is thrown onto the cooker.
Returning to the main road as you walk through the park, there are large groups of men gathered around small tables, smoking, and playing a variety of card games during which money seems to rapidly change hands.
The concert hall, by the lake, presented yet another kind of world; peaceful and serene with rolling hills lining the lake and islands dotted around featuring bizarrely-shaped buildings that were clearly supposed to echo the surrounding land and vegetation in some way. The concert hall itself was built to resemble a lotus flower and its curving “petal” walls were made from glass and chrome. After the rehearsal—during which we were introduced to the music we’ll be singing in Hong Kong—many of us spent time outside, exploring more of the city and the islands scattered across the lake.
The islands provided a lovely space for walking, with manicured flowerbeds lining curving paths that often followed the edge of the lake, and oriental bridges and pagodas nestled into the trees and flowers. Traditional Chinese boats sat quietly on the water with lanterns hanging from the wood-framed cabins, and men sat silently on the lake-shore, fishing.
It was beginning to get dark as we returned, and from the peaceful tree-lined islands with dozens of bats flitting around our heads, we could see the lights of the city coming on one by one creating a fantastically colourful skyline. The skyscrapers here are lined with streams of coloured lights that often flash or move in some exciting manner, ensuring the view is never the same.
The concert was even better than the previous one; Tony said the auditorium was 90-95% full, and that the audience absolutely loved the Chinese music, with the children singing along and swaying in time as we sang. We headed back to the hotel, on a high, for another delicious dinner, before the evening entertainment of card games began...
Day 7: Monday 24th March
It was a relatively short train ride this morning—just an hour and a half or there abouts. We arrived in Hefei around midday, and exited the station to be greeted by a square that had clearly seen better days with cracked pavement slabs and dozens of beggars shaking pots of money in our faces. Doing our best to ignore them, we hauled our cases over the uneven surface, up a filthy road past seedy-looking shop-fronts sporting garish coloured signs and a selling a multitude of junk. Shopkeepers and passers by stared at us with vacant eyes as we dodged the motorbikes and taxis that tooted their horns whilst crawling up the road towards us.
The bus was at the end of the road at we clambered aboard, wrinkling our noses at the less-than-faint odour of cigarette smoke that lingered in the air. Thankfully, the hotel was much nicer than the surrounding buildings, with another of our favourite Lazy Susan-style lunches laid on for us upon arrival.
After lunch, several of us braved the smog and trudged a few minutes up the road to see Lord Bao’s family tomb and memorial tower. When we eventually found the tomb and other exhibitions relating to Bao himself (which was the opposite side to the side of the park to the side we’d been ushered into), it was really interesting. Replicas of his writings and teachings lined the walls in glass cases, and carved wooden storyboards illustrated his life. The coffin lay underneath the park area down a sloping curved tunnel (not original) where it could be seen through a glass panel next to a photograph of the small bone fragments that remain inside it. Our lovely agency representative in Hefei, Echo, spoke brilliant English and acted as a tour guide for the walk and the tour of the tomb and surrounding area which was wonderful.
We were driven to the concert hall in the early afternoon, although—as we discovered later—it was less than a ten-minute walk away. We had a short rehearsal in the space, followed by a decent-length break before the concert. Many people wondered back to the hotel, and it was only a few minutes before we were due on stage that we realised we were missing two of our singers… Upon calling both of them and getting no answer, we asked the hotel to call their rooms and discovered that both had fallen asleep and not set alarms! They joined us on stage part way through the second half, though, so it worked out ok!
The concerts keep getting better and better—our Chinese is definitely improving!—and we ended on another high note. Immediately after the concert, we were taken to a meeting room where we were greeted by directors and singers from another choir. The meeting lasted only a few minutes, and included another warm-up demonstration from the wonderful Simone, which everyone in the room joined in with. Afterwards, we were introduced (or reintroduced in some cases) to a group of very exited girls who had graduated from York the previous year, and it transpired that a few members of The 24 had sung at their graduation, which, unsurprisingly, led to many many photos…
Paparazzi gone, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and sleep.
Day 5: Saturday 22nd March
Jinjiang to Fuzhou to Xuzhou
The 4am start was as just about as horrible as expected, and to add insult to injury the coach didn’t arrive at the hotel until after 4.30am. Mostly too drowsy to comment, however, we clambered aboard (clutching our packed breakfasts consisting of cartons of milk, slices of bread topped with grilled custart of some kind and bananas) and most of us went straight back to sleep. There were a couple of delays on the way (a confusion at a toll booth, and some kind of accident on the motorway) but watching the sunrise over the curious Chinese landscape was something really quite special.
It was completely dark when we left, and as we drove out of the city we passed smaller towns that didn’t seem to have any street lighting and were illuminated only by the encroaching light of dawn, giving them a slightly eerie feel. Eerier still were the ever-present half-built skyscrapers, swathed in protective black material and rickety bamboo scaffolding; they towered into the night sky like slightly ominous giants watching the silent city as it slept.
As dawn approached, the hills in the distance became silhouetted against the pale pink hazy sky, the dilapidated towns and farms sprawling at their feet as the morning star shone proudly over them, twinkling alongside the moon that still glowed brightly as the night disappeared.
Everywhere you look in China there seems to be new six buildings being erected simultaneously. The rate of construction here is phenomenal, yet you contrast that with the poverty-stricken cities that are interwoven with the vast and very impressive new buildings: the streets are full of potholes; many of the houses and flats are in horrendous states of disrepair; workers are outside constantly, cleaning and sweeping by hand or tending to the fields in conditions that seem simply appalling.
Beside the station in Fuzhou was a perfect example: immediately outside the station, a new building was in the process of being constructed, yet the path to the station was through streets that were cracked and falling apart, past street sellers with no shoes on selling fruit and fried food from rickety tables.
15 of us left the coach at the station while the other 11 went on to Fuzhou airport to catch a plane, because the agency hadn’t managed to get enough train tickets. The 7 and a half hour train journey took us up to speeds of 305 km/h past more beautiful mountains, paddy fields, salt flats and older, more authentic-looking buildings, with traditional Chinese sculptures on the rooftops. Dragon Lady ordered us some soup for lunch and proceeded to fill our tray tables with other picnic foods that she had brought along, including everyone’s favourite: chicken feet!
Those on the plane had an extra hour on the coach to the airport, an hour and a half flight and an hour and a half drive to the hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, there was a huge, delicious lunch provided at a restaurant across the road and afterwards many retired to bedrooms for a nap or began to have an explore. One group found a group of Chinese singers in a local park, and enjoyed an impromptu rendition of Jasmine Flower—one of our favourite Chinese folk songs.
After only a little confusion about room arrangements due to the split arrival times, the two groups rejoined for dinner at the hotel around 6pm. It was served as a buffet, with a huge range of choice: dumplings, squid rings, deep-fried fish, chicken (minus the feet, but including a dubious-looking set of fried heads, cut in half…), clams, noodles, rice, fresh fruit and a selection of cakes and biscuits. There was even a well-stocked supply of chips, bacon, sausages and Tsingtao—there wasn’t an unhappy singer among us!
Given the long day of travelling, and the blessing of a night off from a concert, it was time to retire to bed fairly soon after dinner, with the promise of a relaxed day of workshops, city exploration, rehearsals and an early concert tomorrow.
(previous post was a repeat as the first time it posted without paragraphs!)
Day 4: Friday 21st March
Breakfast this morning featured an even wider selection of unusual breakfast foods than the previous hotel; these included deep fried pak choi, broccoli, and even potato smiley faces!
We were driven to the station where we arrived, much to everyone’s irritation, over an hour and a half before our train was due to depart. The train journey took us through more rural China, with absolutely stunning mountains and more paddy fields and run-down farms, but also larger towns in various states of disrepair. It wasn’t a long journey, and we arrived in Jinjiang where it was quite noticeably colder that anywhere we’d been so far.
It was then that Sophie Simpson realised she had managed to leave her passport on the train.
There was much confusion, quite a lot of panic, and lots and lots of phone calls to try and work out what to do. The rest of the choir were led to the coach to wait while poor Sophie was taken into a small station office, where the train guards insisted she empty her bag again (just to double check) and, upon finding a definite lack of passport, took her details and made some more phone calls. We eventually persuaded the guards to let us check the walkway under the platform in case she had dropped it after getting off the train, but weren’t allowed past the top of the steps onto the platform itself.
Eventually, a very kind young Chinese man who was fluent in English heard Sophie and Ying (Dragon Lady) struggling to converse with one another and acted as translator for the remainder of the conversation. It transpired that someone had been in touch with the train company who would let us know when the passport had been found, which was far more encouraging than anything we had heard so far!
In the meantime, we made phone calls to the British Consulate to report the missing passport and to find out what we would have to do if it wasn’t found. Luckily, however, during lunch at the hotel, we received a phone call to say the passport had been recovered and would make its way back to us shortly. The news was received with a great sigh of relief from everyone—most of all Sophie!— and Zhu Bu Xi held his glass of tea aloft and happily proclaimed, “Ganbe!”
Lunch was the best meal we’d had so far, and featured the first Lazy Susan of the tour, which pleased many of the singers (for whom the Lazy Susan experience wasa a definite highlight from previous trips). We were served bowls of rice, prawns, pak choi, meat (including a mysterious claw…), spicy fish and much more.
Well fed and watered, we retired to our rooms for a rest before making the short walk to the theatre for an afternoon rehearsal in the space. Today, we were five singers down: two sopranos, two altos and a bass, plus many of the remaining sopranos feeling a little under the weather themselves. We took rehearsal gently, and managed to persuade Bu Xi to cut The Summer is Coming from the programme for that evening, which was a relief as it’s a big sing for the women
Thanks to the hotel being just round the corner from the concert hall, we were able to rest and change in our rooms before the concert, which made a nice change (particularly as the theatre facilities consisted of more holes in the ground!). The rooms at this hotel were amazing—absolutely huge, each bed about the size of a regular double, and a stunning bathroom to match, complete with spacious, circular jacuzzi-style baths. They even came with authentic Chinese tea sets on beautiful wooden trays!
The concert went very well, and the Chinese is definitely improving each day; The Joys of the Torch Festival was sounding particularly clear this evening! Bu Xi seemed incredibly pleased and even had us take an extra bow in the middle of the concert!
Tony Henfry and his friend, George Muir (who will both be joining us for the reaminder of our time in China), met us back at our hotel after the concert and joined us for dinner. Dinner was similar to lunch, with still more exciting dishes introduced (minus the mysterious claw this time), including a beautiful egg custard with clams and a delicious dish of tender pork belly.
We were informed towards the end of the meal that we were leaving at 4am the following morning. This was met with groans of despair, and a hurried cancellation of the planned jacuzzi party!
Day 4: Friday 21st March Jinjiang Breakfast this morning featured an even wider selection of unusual breakfast foods than the previous hotel; these included deep fried pak choi, broccoli, and even potato smiley faces! We were driven to the station where we arrived, much to everyone’s irritation, over an hour and a half before our train was due to depart. The train journey took us through more rural China, with absolutely stunning mountains and more paddy fields and run-down farms, but also larger towns in various states of disrepair. It wasn’t a long journey, and we arrived in Jinjiang where it was quite noticeably colder that anywhere we’d been so far. It was then that Sophie Simpson realised she had managed to leave her passport on the train. There was much confusion, quite a lot of panic, and lots and lots of phone calls to try and work out what to do. The rest of the choir were led to the coach to wait while poor Sophie was taken into a small station office, where the train guards insisted she empty her bag again (just to double check) and, upon finding a definite lack of passport, took her details and made some more phone calls. We eventually persuaded the guards to let us check the walkway under the platform in case she had dropped it after getting off the train, but weren’t allowed past the top of the steps onto the platform itself. Eventually, a very kind young Chinese man who was fluent in English heard Sophie and Ying (Dragon Lady) struggling to converse with one another and acted as translator for the remainder of the conversation. It transpired that someone had been in touch with the train company who would let us know when the passport had been found, which was far more encouraging than anything we had heard so far! In the meantime, we made phone calls to the British Consulate to report the missing passport and to find out what we would have to do if it wasn’t found. Luckily, however, during lunch at the hotel, we received a phone call to say the passport had been recovered and would make its way back to us shortly. The news was received with a great sigh of relief from everyone—most of all Sophie!— and Zhu Bu Xi held his glass of tea aloft and happily proclaimed, “Ganbe!” Lunch was the best meal we’d had so far, and featured the first Lazy Susan of the tour, which pleased many of the singers (for whom the Lazy Susan experience wasa a definite highlight from previous trips). We were served bowls of rice, prawns, pak choi, meat (including a mysterious claw…), spicy fish and much more. Well fed and watered, we retired to our rooms for a rest before making the short walk to the theatre for an afternoon rehearsal in the space. Today, we were five singers down: two sopranos, two altos and a bass, plus many of the remaining sopranos feeling a little under the weather themselves. We took rehearsal gently, and managed to persuade Bu Xi to cut The Summer is Coming from the programme for that evening, which was a relief as it’s a big sing for the women. Thanks to the hotel being just round the corner from the concert hall, we were able to rest and change in our rooms before the concert, which made a nice change (particularly as the theatre facilities consisted of more holes in the ground!). The rooms at this hotel were amazing—absolutely huge, each bed about the size of a regular double, and a stunning bathroom to match, complete with spacious, circular jacuzzi-style baths. They even came with authentic Chinese tea sets on beautiful wooden trays! The concert went very well, and the Chinese is definitely improving each day; The Joys of the Torch Festival was sounding particularly clear this evening! Bu Xi seemed incredibly pleased and even had us take an extra bow in the middle of the concert! Tony Henfry and his friend, George Muir (who will both be joining us for the reaminder of our time in China), met us back at our hotel after the concert and joined us for dinner. Dinner was similar to lunch, with still more exciting dishes introduced (minus the mysterious claw this time), including a beautiful egg custard with clams and a delicious dish of tender pork belly. We were informed towards the end of the meal that we were leaving at 4am the following morning. This was met with groans of despair, and a hurried cancellation of the planned jacuzzi party!
Day 3: Thursday 20th April
We left the hotel after breakfast, just before 8am and were driven to the train station where we were due to catch the high-speed train from Shenzhen to Shantou. The station was impressively vast; a huge high-ceilinged modern atrium, containing several rows of seats and a few coffee shops. These stations were all built specifically for the high-speed lines and seem to be designed to demonstrate—quite effectively—how proud they are of their technological advances.
Shortly after arriving we were ushered onto the platform, all the time counting and recounting singers to ensure we hadn’t left anyone in the toilets or the coffee shops. After only a small amount of confusion as to why we seemed to be getting onto the wrong train (numbered differently and arriving at a different time to the details our tickets) we eventually found our seats and stowed our luggage anywhere it would fit. That does seem to be one thing missing on these impressive, state-of-the-art trains: provision to store any decent amount of luggage. We lifted several cases onto the overhead luggage racks, only for them to be removed and stored simply in the slightly wider corridor at either end of the carriage.
The journey took us through a mixture of small towns and rural China—past farms, paddy fields, rickety houses and what seemed like miles and miles of hills and forest. It was a perfectly pleasant trip, with plenty of leg-room, comfortable seats, in-seat refreshment services and, despite top speeds of 208km/h, a considerably smooth ride. The ample amount of leg-room prompted comparisons to the not-so-ample amounts of leg-room on Virgin flights!
We arrived in Shantou (known as “the polluted city”) just before lunch, and were driven to the hotel through the curious mixture of dilapidated streets and shiny new cars and flashing billboards. Stepping outside, the air felt thick and smoggy, and even though we were right on the coast, not even the slightest hint of salt or a sea-breeze.
We were served lunch at the hotel—a nice meal, for which we were able to choose what we ate from a menu with a very decent amount of choice. The food was good, and cheered people up no-end compared to the disappointing efforts from yesterday’s caterers!
We rehearsed at the venue in the afternoon—a reasonably-sized theatre near the sea-front which was slightly less glamorous than the theatre in Shenzhen. We experienced our first Chinese “hole-in-the-ground” toilets at this venue, complete with a severe lack of toilet paper or soap. The rehearsal was short, and we had a two-hour break before the start of the concert, which saw 90% of the singers taking full advantage of the sofas in the men’s changing room and curling up for a much-needed nap!
We were three singers down for first half, and four by the second, due to a mixture of illness and utter exhaustion, and the rest of the choir was still desperately in need of more sleep; nevertheless, we sang fairly well, with just a few silly mistakes here and there, and the energy picked up in the second half and we ended on a high again.
We were taken for dinner after the concert at a lovely restaurant, which served us a lot of “Pijou” (beer), beef noodles and curious meatballs and pak choi in broth. The food was delicious, and we all ate far too much, still making up for the chicken feet of the previous day! Led unashamedly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) by Nils Greenhow, there were many shouts of “Ganbe!” (the Chinese equivalent of “bottoms up”) as the beer bottles were opened and even Bu Xi joined in once or twice, prompting cheers and rounds of applause from the choir.
After dinner, it was time for more sleep to prepare for another 8am departure the next morning…
Day 2: Wednesday 19th April
Our first concert was at the Shenzhen Poly Grand Theatre—an impressive building, shaped something like a giant egg.
After a breakfast of noodles, rice, various types of egg, fresh fruit, croissants with surprise pork in the centre and our first Chinglish fun, “fresh mike” (milk), we took the twenty-minute bus-ride to the theatre from the hotel.
We rehearsed for a few hours in the morning with a much-anticipated reappearance from our excellent diction coach Ying (affectionately nick-named “Dragon Lady”), and had some time in the concert hall itself in the afternoon. Rehearsals were long and tiring, but very necessary as, even though we had seen Bu Xi in England the week before, we had had little time to rehearse much of the repertoire with him.
Lunch and dinner were somewhat disappointing; for both, we were whisked up to the fifth floor of a building with an abundance of exciting-looking Chinese eateries … to the staff kitchen, where we were served some mystery meat, rice and Pak Choi for lunch and—something which no China visit is complete without—chicken feet and rice for dinner. The chicken feet did very little other than cause some amusement amongst the singers, and many comedy photos were taken to prove how brave we all were to have actually picked up the gnarled claws … although very few of us actually ate the gristly “delicacy”.
The concert went well, considering how little rehearsal we had had on some of the pieces, and the audience seemed appreciative—when they weren’t chattering, screaming or playing on their phones! This sort of behaviour, however, is fairly usual for China, and we tried hard not to take it too personally; they cheered enough for an encore of one of our favourite Chinese numbers (The Joys of the Torch Festival), so that was reward enough for us!
We had fun with the four accompanied pieces, when the pianist went charging off at a tempo far beyond what Bu Xi had indicated, testing our already limited grasp of the Chinese language! But we all ended on a post-concert high and departed back to the hotel, happily chattering and very much looking forward to bed!
And so, after a mammoth 26-hour day, we head to bed, rejoicing at the chance to shower, and sleep horizontally. Upon landing in Hong Kong, we were met (eventually, after several confusing phone calls) by the Shenzhen Poly Theatre Performing Arts Company, who will be looking after us for the duration of the Chinese half of our tour. We piled onto a very colourful coach—the pinks and yellows pleasing Elspeth, among others, greatly—and were driven to the mainland border, where we unloaded ourselves and our luggage to go through immigration for a second time that day, with yet more bag and security checks. All cleared, we were ushered back onto our colourful coach which took us to our Shenzhen Hotel. Both the descent in the plane, and the drive from the airport to the border presented stunning views of Hong Kong and surrounding cities and countryside. From the plane we saw trails of islands that varied from tiny beaches ones that seemed grow up out of the sea into clusters of jagged mountain peaks. We landed as the daylight began to fade and as we drove through the dusk past the twinkling lights of the skyscrapers that glittered in the sea, the view gave way to towering mountain sides that stretched away from us on either side of the road. Shenzhen itself is a busy Chinese city, full of unfamiliar sights sounds and smells. Although the roads and restaurants were quiet when we arrived, car horns can still be heard almost constantly wherever you happen to be, and the faint odour of Chinese cooking lingers temptingly in the air inside and out. Of course, with the abundance of local noodle bars, all empty and ready to serve a hungry group of singers, we were whisked straight past them all to what is clearly a treat for the locals: Pizza Hut. We collectively decided that, as it was late and we were all tired and hungry, we would simply go with the flow for the evening and eat what we were given. There was some—not entirely unexpected—confusion in ordering, but eventually everyone ended up with a few pizza slices or a plate of spaghetti. We left (non-the-wiser as to what had actually happened) to head to our comfortable hotel rooms, complete with Chinese trade-mark glass-walled shower… facing straight into the bedroom…
Wearing matching grey hoodies with CHINA AND HONG KONG 2014 emblazoned across the front, we were quite a sitght traipsing across London and towards Heathrow in small packs, excitedly chattering about the adventures to come over the next few weeks.
Now we have all arrived safely (James Cave winning the first award for lateness as he trundled up forty five minutes after everyone else), double checked our luggage (Jack Comerford weighing in at an impressive 29kg) and made our way through to departures (Bill Brooks not quite losing his trousers as he was searched at security checks), we await the much anticipated 12 hour flight to Hong Kong...