Random Play by Graham Reid


The Chinese envoy is here

Last night we went to the performance by the Divine Performing Arts group, the touring company out of New York made up of Chinese-North American singers and dancers. There was a large audience at the Civic, and judging by the smiles on the faces of the predominantly Chinese attendees they enjoyed it as much as we did.

Now, I am sure some of the dances were about as traditional as Jesus Christ Superstar is faithful to scripture, but that’s hardly the point. This was a broad-brush concept show and among the seventysomething strong ensemble -- which has been on the road for four months and now goes to Korea, Taiwan and Canada before heading home -- there were some exceptional dancers . . . and costumes!

Gollygosh, no expense was spared on glitter and silk, and with a slideshow backdrop (someone said straight out of the old television show Monkey, but that seemed a wee bit unfair), acres of mascara, booming pre-recorded music, and two charming bi-lingual hosts who jibed with the audience and introduced the acts, it was fine and very interesting night out.

Okay it wasn’t Wagner -- or even Cats probably -- but some of the dances were beguilingly beautiful or athletically vigorous, and the highlight for me was the performance on erhu (a stringed instrument which is bowed).

I mention all this because you will probably not hear much about this show after the event, although you may have been aware of the controversy surrounding it.

The Divine Performing Arts ensemble has an overt pro-Falun Gong agenda and a few of the songs and acts directly referred to the oppression of this quasi-spiritual group in China.

The Chinese consulate here applied pressure - as is its habit when it comes to matters Falun Gong -- on local mayors not to attend, and it appears ads were cancelled in the Chinese Herald after consulate phonecalls.

According to what was published in the Herald yesterday the troupe’s publicist was somewhat disingenuous when she said that while some members of the ensemble were Falun Gong practitioners the show itself was not a Falun Gong production.

I have no idea how she might draw that fine distinction, especially in a performance which has songs which refer directly to Falun Dafa (as it is sometimes called), oppression in Tiananmen Square, and a dance piece in which a worshipper is bashed up and killed by guys in military uniforms (who really get theirs in the end, I can tell you).

It was pretty Falun Gong alright.

But that’s okay.

Godspell was pretty Christian, Mama Mia was pretty Abba, and Penumbra in the recent AK07 festival was pretty awful. But they are allowed to be, just as you are -- or should be -- allowed to go and make up your mind. Or not go.

What was disappointing is that on the night it seems -- from enquiries -- that only one of the seven Auckland mayors who received invitations chose to attend.

They are perfectly entitled not to attend of course: prior engagements, time with the family, Easter and “we’re going away” all seem reasonable excuses to me.

But the reported comments of North Shore City mayor George Wood give cause for concern, especially if you extrapolate that other mayors and dignitaries might have felt something similar.

According to the Herald he had previously accepted an invitation then, after being informed by the Chinese consulate of the Falun Gong connection, said he felt “uneasy about the whole thing”.

“I’ve got more to do than get into a situation where I’m going to be the meat in a sandwich,” he said.

Mr Wood also admitted he didn’t know what Falun Gong was (!?) and had never really understood the merits of either side of the argument, “but I realised attending wasn’t in my best interests”.

He added he felt he had been misled by the original invitation and was “not going to subject my wife to being harangued”.

A question: harangued by who exactly? Falun Gong people or the Chinese consulate office?

I have written about Falun Gong a couple of times -- notably a long article for the Listener -- and I don’t recall being harassed afterwards. (Although maybe I shouldn’t bother applying for a visa to visit China.)

But I am small fry and maybe if you are a mayor then you need to watch out for your people -- and their financial interests in China. But doesn’t even that suggestion sound a little . . . what? Loaded with menace?

We were away when Chinese journalist Nick Wang -- who insists he is not a Falun Gong practitioner -- was prevented from attending an event in Parliament. A Chinese official called in the Diplomatic Protection Squad and had him ousted from a thing where the Chinese vice-premier was going to be.

Perhaps the Chinese didn’t want a repeat of what happened on the White House lawn when journalist Wang Wenyi yelled at president Hu Jintao? Whether Wang would yell, or simply ask difficult questions, is beside the point. The guy is an accredited member of the Press Gallery and was entitled to be there.

Right up until the Chinese object, it seems.

These bully-boy tactics by the Chinese are so common now we take them for granted.

During AK07 there were a number of politically didactic works of art scattered around the city -- but I am unaware of off-shore governments suggesting strongly that local dignitaries should stay away or that there was any heavying curators. Imagine the kerfuffle among the artsy crowd if local reps of the American administration had objected to Australian George Gitteos film Soundtrack to War, or the Guatemalans had started ringing around objecting to Regina Jose Galindo’s work.

Why, all over the city wine glasses would have been thumped angrily on dinner tables in disgust.

But we seem to expect that when it comes to Falun Gong -- for which I have no particular passion, but can see why the Chinese might object to it in their midst -- or issues pertaining to Tibet, or indeed anything that the Chinese don’t much like, we will sort of roll over.

Yes, trade is very important.

But in our own country so is a fundamental right for Mrs Wood to be free of harassment (and you know it wasn‘t Falun Gong he was talking about). In the words of Peter Dunne the recent actions of the Chinese consulate are a “reprehensible intervention in our democratic way of life”.

By the way Mr Wood, you missed a good show. Your wife might have loved it. We did. Politics and all.

The ensemble is promising -- threatening? -- to come back next year. Plenty of time to do your homework Mr Wood.

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