Howard's Blog

Kunming: The Rite of (Eternal) Spring

  • March 14, 2012

For today’s edition, a tip of the hat to Igor Stravinsky, whose ground-breaking 1913 ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) evokes the orgiastic, untamed, pagan frenzy of ancient Russia. Here in Kunming, the “city of eternal spring” (so named because of its surprisingly temperate climate – remember, it’s 1900 metres above sea level), we too continue to experience all manner of exotic sights and sounds (no human sacrifices, however, a la Stravinsky). The weather is perfect, with highs in the mid 20s and lows in the high single digits. We’ve had a succession of sunny days, although there’s some cloud today. The continuing drought conditions have resulted in limited water rationing. With no prior notice, the water will suddenly be cut off for a few hours. We’re told this is to divert badly needed water to the nearby agricultural regions for irrigation purposes. However, it hasn’t really affected us yet. All of our drinking water is bottled water (we have a large 5 gallon dispenser in our kitchen). We have been advised not to drink the tap water, nor to use it even to brush our teeth. One of our 2 showers (talk about luxury) gets its supply from a solar-heated tank on the roof of our building. And that tank is always well supplied.

Wednesday is a day off for me, so it’s an opportunity to shop for groceries and continue our exploration of this altogether remarkable city. Today we headed to the local market, a 10 minute walk from our apartment. What an array of fruits and vegetables and meats and pastries! Our big purchase today was a half chicken which we intend to roast, probably tomorrow. The woman with whom we closed the chicken deal had hands covered with blood (the chicken’s, not hers). When I got my change, I saw one of the bills was covered with a lot of blood. I saw to it that that particular lucre was used in my next transaction – I couldn’t wait to get rid of it! Vegetables, strawberries, and some fresh-cut flowers all taken care of for the day, we headed out for another walk. We had heard about the Green Lake Hotel, described as one of the finest hotels in all of China. Well, we found it, about a 20 minute walk away, overlooking Green Lake, a beautiful small, shallow lake dotted with numerous islands all connected by a network of picturesque pedestrian bridges. The hotel is all it’s cracked up to be – a truly luxurious place with a spectacular restaurant. We had actually thought we’d skip lunch today, but the temptation was too great. We limited ourselves to salads (Caesar and Chef), and decided this would be a recurring “oasis” for us during these 4 months. Much as we love the local cuisine, there are times when we just crave something western, something non-Chinese!

The last time I wrote was Sunday. Much has happened since then. On Monday, we were invited to the old campus (a 10 minute cab ride away) of the university. First stop was a small concert hall (about 400 seats) where “Excess Baggage”, a 3 person jazz band from Norway was performing. After hearing their lustre-lacking concert, I decided that “Unclaimed Baggage” or “Lost Luggage” might be a more appropriate moniker for these 3 guys. Never mind, the students in the audience seemed to enjoy themselves. From there we were ushered to another building (on the 5th floor, wouldn’t you know – our apartment, you will recall, is also on the 5th floor) for a meeting with Chen Jingsong, the president of Wenhua School, a private college with some kind of adjunct relationship to Yunnan Arts University. (The labyrinthine nature of these associations still baffles me.) Prof. Chen is a charming man, in his early 50s, I would say, and he’s a conductor as well as a pianist and composer. The first thing always is the introductions which invariably conclude with the exchange of business cards. Business cards are HUGE in Asia. Don’t ever leave home without a generous supply in your pocket! Our son Anthony and his wife Vanessa in Taiwan had volunteered to have some bilingual cards made up for me just prior to our arrival in Kunming. Everyone is duly impressed by my Chinese business cards. And when you hand over your business card, do it right, always with both hands, understand? Prof. Chen then proceeded to play for us a recording of a recent choral-orchestral piece he had written for the Chinese Communist Youth League. The music, supremely cliched and unoriginal, reminded me of similar stuff which came out of the USSR during the Cold War years. Of course, Maggie and I were effusive in our praise! Chen then proceeded to what he regarded as the main point of the meeting, namely to ask whether I might be interested in rehearsing and coaching the solo cast and chorus in preparation for a June concert performance of Verdi’s La Traviata (which Prof. Chen will conduct). They were quite prepared to adjust their schedule to accommodate mine, with the result that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just before we take the bus from the old campus to the new Chenggong campus an hour away, I will be spending 90′ coaching these young singers in the delights of Italian opera. What with Maggie teaching English and Latin, and me having a go at Italian, this will be a truly polyglot university come the end of June! It seems that word has gotten out among the various colleges and universities in the city that there are a couple of “foreign experts” in town who, it is assumed, can be prevailed upon to teach most anything to anyone at all! In fact, Prof. Chen said with a smile that they are now determined to keep our presence here a secret, so as to discourage any further incursions into our schedules. (Not anticipating any opera work here, I had not brought any scores with me. I was promptly given a photocopied version. I have since sent an SOS email to friends of ours who will be coming to visit in about 10 days. They will bring a proper score. Whew!)

After  our meeting with President Chen, we were off to a rehearsal of La Traviata which just happened to be going on at that very time in another building. And guess what, that rehearsal room (which I will be visiting twice weekly starting next week) is on the 8th floor!! Note to all skeptics – I am about to become fit!

That rehearsal was followed by yet another lavish dinner at a private restaurant in a building which used to be the residence of a Chinese army general. We had a private dining room with the ubiquitous round table and carousel on which are placed the various dishes. The table was set for 12 guests, and there were exactly 12 different dishes – hot and sour soup, spicy tofu, a variety of vegetables, various noodle dishes, roast duck (complete with head and beak), etc, etc. Dominating the gorgeous array was a large fish platter sitting atop a charcoal burner in the very centre of the carousel. The main beverage was papaya juice, but there were also small wine glasses used for toasts. We were served French wine (so-so) bottled in Shanghai. The toasts are a performance in themselves. First, there’s a general toast for which everyone stands, and you clink glasses with everyone. I thought that was it, but nooo – that was only the beginning. Throughout the course of the dinner, everyone at the table (in descending pecking order) would come over to Maggie and me and offer a private toast. Each time we, the guests of honour, would stand, and take another tiny sip of wine. That prolonged ritual, combined with our still clumsy (but steadily improving) chopsticks skills, made for a long and very enjoyable evening. The dinner done, we headed out into a glorious evening, where a university van was waiting to whisk us to our apartment, 10 minutes away.

During these 2 weeks (almost) in Kunming we’ve met some interesting ex-pats. Patrick Scally runs (I think) an online newsletter for foreigners ( That website, by the way, is read by every ex-pat in this city! Patrick and his companion Sarah hang out at Salvador’s, a bar/restaurant on the ground floor of our apartment building. Speaking of the contrast of haves and have-nots, he mentioned that 1000 new motor vehicles are registered in Kunming every day, and apparently the most successful Lamborghini franchise in all of China is located right here in Kunming!

On the musical front, there are a couple of challenges (working out schedules of choral and orchestral musicians, for example) which we’re in the processing of sorting out. And because all of this is very new for the students, they haven’t quite twigged to the fact that they too have certain responsibilities (like showing up on time and learning their music between rehearsals). However, I’m starting to reveal just a bit of the Prussian in me, and I expect they’ll get the message soon enough.

These missives always seem to go for too long. Will stop now. Till next time!

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