A Banquet and a trip to a Dentist
May 5 4:00AM
At 6 o’clock, the time we are to meet in the lobby I am wakened by a knock at my door. I had just gone to bed for a little rest and have passed into a deep sleep. I was frantic. After a wet towel and quick dressing – still numb and not even remembering I am in China. The bus leaves 15 minutes late for the Beijing Hotel. Size is difficult to relate. I think two Royal York hotels could fit comparably in this hotel. Certainly the lobby is twice as wide. This, I think, is where we should be staying. We walk a good city block or more, having entered the central door, passing stores, counters of goods and hundreds of well-heeled Westerners. Why don’t we meet each other gaze? I feel rather self-conscious – precisely the way I felt when I obediently followed a doorman through a very exclusive Chicago club and the appraising stares of its membership. I realize, however, that this message was not coming from the people hoteled at the Beijing. It was coming from our hosts. I felt angry that we had been brought here. I would rather not have seen where we could have lived during our stay.
The banquet was in a long narrow room – just one of the hotel’s dining rooms. A placard in the entrance told visitors that this was the gourmet Chinese food restaurant. We passed through a reception line and separated into 3 round tables. An opening address by one of the officials praising our international status and artistry. The growing ties and friendship between Canada and China and, of course, how much the Chinese hoped to learn from us. Then Mao-tai, a lovely fiery somewhat oily clear liquor from a province of the same name. A gold-medal winner in China–the ” King of Spirits” as our translator later remarked. Only at the last toast when we were told the Chinese drink the cup dry for good luck did I learn how to properly handle this drink. Toss it down Robin! Do not hold it on your tongue to savor, just throw it down in one gulp and get it over the palate as quickly as possible!
In a slightly larger glass was another liquor the color of red Cinzano. Sweet and rather cloying without Cinzano’s bite. No one at our table bothered with more than a sip of that. Our speech maker, a strong angular face with a voice to match was into Mao-tai in a big way. John decided he had better give his speech now before his alcoholic content rose any higher. He did a marvelous job to much applause and appreciation for the time spent memorizing Chinese words.
An official banquet or reception is a curious affair. Everyone there knows someone else, no one knows everybody. But everybody is important in some way to everyone else’s being there. To my knowledge and I made discreet inquiries, no one in that room had ever heard us play a concert. They had only heard words about our concerts. Mr. Rose, a Canadian Embassy official did mention the Ragtime album. I was delighted to find someone who was familiar with at least one of our recordings, but he was surprised and then dismayed to learn that all of the percussion on that album had been played by one person and that person had died a couple years ago.( Michael Craden died in 1981)
Most of the Chinese officials were dressed in what I would refer to as Mao suits. I was very interested in their origin and color but I restrained myself for fear of broaching the subject which might lead to indelicacies. For I also noticed that some of our host were in Western dress : sportcoat ,slacks, sweater, tie. My particular interest was in the colour of the Mao suit. The most important officials suits were gray, the others black.
The 1st Secretary from the Canadian Embassy spoke: Nexus’ visit was particularly propicious because on May 4th 1919, the students at Beijing University demonstrated in the great square over the Versailles treaty granting Japan a hold on China – the 1st modern nationalistic statement by Chinese. More important historically I take it then its immediate results.
One of our host said, “Percussion is the father of music”. I waited a long time to hear if anyone would discuss the mother of music before deciding not to broach the subject. The man next to me was the honorary director of the Beijing Conservatory–teacher of music history and a nonperforming and teaching pianist. I was attracted to him because of his curiously familiar look and presence. Much later I realized he reminded me of Tom Monahan, principal bassist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Short hairy spikes on his chin, more ill shaven then beard–sunglasses–very heavy with the physical immobility common with such weight. A pipe smoker. He asked Jean’s permission before lighting up. Three times during the meal one of our hosts would laugh, leave his seat and grab a Mao-tai bottle to fill glasses, not waiting for the waitresses to serve us. It was during one of the last courses – the front of a cap came off on one of my front teeth. I had to take a pass on the last courses and wait, frustratingly absorbed in my own predicament, for the dinner to end.
The grey Mao suit said something about the good food and rose. Everyone followed suit; gray or not, and it was over. I cornered one of the Canadian embassy staff and related my problem. He told me that there were not dentists in Beijing. If staff wanted dental work they went to Hong Kong. “What we do” he said,” is send the car around for you tomorrow morning at 8 AM and bring you to the Embassy. From there we’ll call this Chinese fella who I’ve heard has done some emergency dental work. We’ll send a translator along with you and you can see what happens. Let us know how things work out we’d be interested to know”.
So here I sit. It’s now 5:45 AM with my cup of Chinese tea and half a tooth beside me waiting for what could possibly be as what Russell would undoubtedly say ‘The most interesting part of the tour”.
A postscript: Our speech maker apologized to our table for the hotel accommodations. He said that this was the height of the tourist season and they could do no better. But, as evidence of their willingness to try, we did have only one person per room, something that other visiting artists such as Les Grande Ballet Canadian coming next week would not have. It may be my nasty nature but I prefer to believe that we are housed exactly where they want us. They can get $150 US at the Beijing and those tourist dollars at their craft counters. Artists don’t spend that kind of money and because the Chinese provide free hotels for visiting artists, they don’t want to lose the income. Me thinks he doth protest too much. John replied that it was a pleasure enough for us to be in China and that we were happy with our accommodations.
May 6 6:30 AM
A car took me and our translator to the Canadian Embassy. Guy St. Jacques and I then went to another car to the Capital Hospital–6th floor, registration first, where Robin Engelman was somehow put into Chinese characters. Fee 2 yuan. Then to the 4th floor and Room 28 Dentistry. A very firm but polite and smiling lady in white seated me in the chair of a vintage Czechoslovakian, art deco, beige dental machine and proceeded to grind the old glue off my tooth. She applied some cement to the cap and held it in place with her thumb while conversing with Guy for almost 10 min. She told me it would set in 24 hours. She had a Canadian flag pin on her sweater. Her teacher, if Guy and I got it correctly, is Jacques Mallet from Canada. He comes to China, sometimes with his son, who is also a dentist, and teaches her dentistry techniques. She tells me matter-of-factly that the cap will come off again–sometime–and try to chew on the sides- particularly duck. Price 5 yuan, about C$25. The whole process took less than an hour. Competent, informal, efficient. I apologize to Guy who assures me that the trip was good for him. He was able to check out the source of their dental equipment and being his 1st trip to the hospital, he has learned the procedures which may come in handy in the future.
August 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm
Wonderfully written. Becky and I having visited China, this brought back a flood of memories……..some beautiful, some disgusting, some heartbreaking. We never knew what real, I mean REAL poverty looked like until we visited non-tourist areas. Beijing did have one of the most modern, efficient airports we’ve ever been in, however. I’m looking forward to the next installment.