I’ve landed in Shanghai with the group of about 30 plus masqueraders ready to showcase a bit of West Indian carnival. And already I can tell that this will be an interesting trip! There are a few colourful characters in the group. The larger than life, the full of double entendres, the fearless, the quiet observers, the bossy ones and the ones in their own world. But this is what is to travel, to experience the new and the different, to have your mind expanded.
And here I am. As close as I will get to carnival in China. We will be before judges, in costume and doing our routine. But just how did our culture get to Shanghai? Well it all began with Ansel Wong of Elimu Mas Band. As he told me, in his capacity as the chairman of the Notting Hill carnival at the time, he was invited to be the only international judge of the floats for the Shanghai Tourism Festival. In the first year of this role he observed that there was an exhibit from the United Kingdom and it was a very poor representation. He told the rest of the judges that the exhibit was poor as there is a carnival in the UK and the given exhibit was not a true representation. The Chairman of the judges asked whether he could do better. Ansel stated he could. Ansel then resigned his post as a judge and began to bring in a band that represented United Kingdom Carnival. And that as they say is that. Nine years later and Ansel continues to bring representatives to China and spreads our culture east.
To be honest my first immediate impression of Shanghai was ‘ok there are differences, the written and verbal language being the most salient. But as a city it really is not that different; loads of high rise buildings and rushing traffic’. And there is English everywhere under the written Chinese. I thought I would be gawked at a bit more and although there are the few initial looks, it wasn’t so much that I got uncomfortable. Maybe it is because it is a big city used to different people and cultures. I guess sometimes your initial impressions are not always quite correct. I’ll explain in my later articles.
We have a tour guide Lily (Chinese name Fei Fei) who is with us for the duration of our stay here. She has a little toy tiger on a stick which is our rallying figure. As we are very early for our check in time at the hotel, we have lunch (our first Chinese meal of many for the trip) and go to do some shopping in an underground market before check in. This place is enormous where almost anything can found. Fei Fei told us don’t be afraid to haggle as they will start with the most expensive price. And there are various class standards of copies. C class, B class and A class. But they are still copies. We begin to wander around. Those who have been here in the years gone by know exactly where to go and head to particular vendors to get suits made which will be ready for collection in two days. Others such as me walk around with the vendors attempting to attract us with their wares. One of our group Symone turns out to be an absolute natural genius at haggling and some of us fall on her to get us amazing prizes for goods. She talks down a vendor from 600 yuan to 150. That was probably what it was worth anyway but the way she got down to it was nothing short of genius.
We head back to the hotel and check in. I’m sharing with a really nice lady from Barbados called Janice who has been on this trip before. We head out for dinner again and return to the hotel. The more adventurous of go out see check out what was happening on the opposite side of the road where people congregated. Turns out the older folk were out there ballroom dancing. Fei Fei tell us it is the done thing, that is how the more matured people exercise at night, by dancing. It was very cool to watch. We head to the local Tescos to get some essentials such as bottles water (we could kinda figure out what was what) and then head to Mc Donalds. Back at the hotel, Ansel shows the video of last year and it slowly dawns on me the reality of what I will be doing!! I will be performing in front of judges and loads of people which will be broadcast to over 200 million people. Yes. I became a little anxious then.
The following day, it is breakfast and we head to a local park to begin practicing. It was a small park but absolutely stunning!!! We find a clear spot, and begin going through the steps. I began to think, this is going to be a lonnnnnggg day. But then we only had 45 mins before our coach came for us! We go through the steps in sections; once, twice, then in time with music; once then with part of our costume on, (the wings) once, twice. In that time, we have built up a little audience of onlookers curious to see what we were doing and who were these new people invading their space. Some wanted to take pictures of us. One or two came to take pics with me whilst I am trying to learn steps and keep in time with the music as they were fascinated with the faux locs. Seems like my initial impression was wrong. The locals are asking me questions in Chinese which I can’t answer and want to touch and feel my hair. Practice done, (we need more practice) and we head out to lunch again. Feels like it was only a few moments ago I had breakfast. But the time is fast approaching that we will have to do this choreography for real.