We watched the dazzling and inexorably interminable Olympics Opening Ceremony (开幕式 / kāi mù shì) with several thousand Tianjiners on a sticky, sweaty night around a giant screen in Tianjin’s “Milky Way Square” (银河广场).
As I predicted, Chairman Mao was nowhere to be seen the entire evening. I don’t think anyone was surprised, but it still seems like an awfully conspicuous omission. Here’s a little video:
It was fun seeing people’s reactions to different things. Everyone stood up for the national anthem, but hardly anyone sang! It was so weird, I thought they’d be going nuts. In Canada – and aside from overreacting to the U.S. we’re hardly all that patriotic in Canada – people would have been hollering the national anthem half-drunk by that time. The sound on the outdoor speakers was too low – maybe that had something to do with it. People ooh’d and aah’d at the artistic performances, yelling “hǎo!” (好) whenever an especially impressive performance was executed. They showed George Bush a few times, and he seemed to get a mild but positive response. These crowd shots show part of only one crowd; because of how the park is designed, there were three separate crowds around the double-sided screen:
Of the countries, Taiwan probably got the biggest cheers. Japan didn’t get booed much – just a few scattered loud-mouths who seemed to be doing it more as a joke, and the one near us got disapproving looks from his neighbours. Of individual foreigners the biggest cheers probably went to LeBron James. Canada came out, and who did they have with them but the ever-present Da Shan (大山 – “the most famous foreigner in China”)! He got a rise out of the crowd; they all know Da Shan (good CBC interview with him here).
You could hear reactions to some of the more exotic costumes and ethnicities from various countries. One of the African athletes smiled big in a close-up and the guy next to me said, “Wow, look at his teeth!” Particularly dark Africans and particularly fat women would cause scattered giggling and comments from a minority of the spectators near us, but it wasn’t too noticeable. The cameramen must have been male, because they kept zooming in on particularly glamourous female athletes, and this got a reaction every time from some of the males in the crowd. The loin-clothed tribal dancer in full body paint from Palau (I think it was Palau, maybe not) didn’t do unnoticed.
By the time China’s athletes finally appeared we’d been there sweating for about three hours and the crowd had thinned a little. People’s newspaper seats were baked with sweat into the pavement. But when Yao Ming carried in the Chinese flag, flanked by a pint-sized earthquake survivor from Sichuan, the fatigued but happy crowd loved it. People started cheering and clapping and chanting “Zhōngguó jiāyóu!” (中国加油 / Go China!) and waving flags – this happened a lot, actually – but only in pockets and for short amounts of time. I don’t know why but they couldn’t get the whole crowd into it at any time during the 4+ hours. A couple times a small group around the TV crew would cheer with wild abandon while they were being filmed. People also loved seeing the bigger shots of the Bird’s Nest that showed how big the Chinese team was. But in general I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more enthusiastic than they were.
They kept giving screen time to a really old official Chinese couple sitting next to the Premier. The crowd laughed lightly at him and especially his very-grumpy-looking wife. I recognize the man’s face – it’s someone obvious that I should know – but I just can’t recall his name. [It was former president Jiāng Zémín (江泽民), who invented the famously nebulous “Three Represents.”]
Here we are, some of the very few foreigners out that night – a TCK (African-raised American), a German, a Canadian, a Yankee, an Aussie, and another American:
We bought $1 Chinese-style folding stools, like what the old guys sit on to fish in the canal, but I opted to stand for most of the 4+ hours because those things aren’t designed with the chiropractic comfort of 6’4″ Canadians in mind. Most people sat on newspaper on the ground (in Tianjin, most people don’t sit directly on outside surfaces like the ground or benches).
Even though it was so long and literally painful, I’m returning to the square tonight to watch the China vs. Canada soccer match (assuming we can’t get cheap tickets from the scalpers hiding out near the hospital a block away from the stadium).
[P.S. — You can see what they would and wouldn’t let me publish about this event in a local expat magazine here: “National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin”]