Ten students from two of Wales’ further education colleges – Coleg Powys and Coleg Morgannwg – are on a trip of a lifetime, celebrating Wales Week in Chongqing, China (27 February – 3 March 2012), where they are performing a theatre production of Under Milk Wood and hosting workshops on costume construction, makeup and performance for their Chinese counterparts.
Days 5 -8
by Simon Pirotte
Day 5: Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant
The day begins with rehearsals in the Welsh Government offices in Chongqing. Tonight, our students are representing Wales in the Saint David Day’s celebration for Wales Week.
We weave Calon Lan into the Chongqing folk song together with extracts from Under Milk Wood. This will be strange! After rehearsals, we go to the market in Old Chongqing. Some of the Chongqing students join us for extra support in the haggling. Our students love it. The smells, the sights and the noise and bustle are exciting. The schedule has been intense and they enjoy some relaxation time. Ian from Coleg Morgannwg shopped till he dropped … he is a new man and his friends back home will never believe that he is now a shopaholic. All sorts of things are bought … framed ancient Chinese names, silk, kites, pan pipes, satin dresses, jewellery, hand-made shoes, candy floss in the shape of flowers, fish-shaped caramelised sugar, engraved wooden combs and 6 colour photos of Llareggub. I made the last one up.
Back on the bus to travel to the St. David’s Day celebrations. Things are a little frenetic. There is no sound system set up yet and we have to restage to fit the layout of the room. As usual, the students are real troopers. Nothing unnerves these wonderful students and they are determined to do their country proud. I think they each deserve an international cap.
It is a slightly surreal experience. We are celebrating St. David’s Day in China. We start with Rachel singing a solo and she is amazing. The room is full of Welsh and Chinese and we are all so impressed. As our students work through the piece, everyone who is Welsh is proud and full of Hiraeth and Chinese members of the audience appreciate the excellent performance. It’s a great way to celebrate everything Welsh. By the time they get to the Reverend Eli Jenkins prayer, it becomes quite moving. “We ask a blessing on the town”… does this mean Chongqing? Or our home town? We are all moved … we are coming to the end of our experience and we will miss our friends. The audience really appreciate adding the folk song and some Chinese text. They join in with the song.
Our students just continue to impress all who come into contact with them.
Day 6: bless this town
Today’s performance is in the Chongqing City School of Management. It has 12,000 students. It is vast. It feels more like a town than a college. Sophie, one of the students there, tells me that she shares a room of 6 in the accommodation block. Again, students are inquisitive and want to take lots of pictures. More speeches and more exchanges of gifts. Mr Sun is keen to develop cultural exchanges with us.
The performance is in a huge sports hall so the acoustics are terrible. Yet again, our students step up to the plate. The audience is quieter, probably reflecting that the standard of English is quite high. Our Chinese performers are even more confident than two days ago – they are so keen to do well. It gets quite emotional towards the end. This is the last time we will perform with them. By the time we get to the Eli Jenkins prayer, we all realise the significance of the words. Taylor delivers the speech over the harmony with such generosity. He looks into the souls of his fellow performers, Chinese and Welsh, and “asks a blessing on the town” and “says goodbye but just for now.” There is something simple and pure in the room and you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this moment. After the performance, one Chinese student tells me that she wanted to be involved in this project to improve her English … but this experience has become so much more. I know exactly what she means.
In the afternoon, Fran and Steph from Coleg Morgannwg run costume design workshops with fashion students. Both workshops have a Welsh theme and all students are engaged. Coleg Powys actors are models and Chloe even takes over photographic duties. I am pleased to see Coleg Powys students supporting Coleg Morgannwg students who have provided great support for actors all week. The workshops go really well and Chinese students love them. More photographs. I have a cheeky tour around the college with Mr Sun. He is a lovely man and very engaging. They face some of the same challenges that we face in Wales. Interesting to hear him talk about their efforts to engage with industry.
Dinner in the college canteen. It is HUGE! I reflect on the logistics of feeding 12,000 students in a lunch hour. The whole campus/town was built in just 18 MONTHS! They have a saying in Chongqing … ”we will do it” … and I have no doubt that they will!
In the evening, we take our students to The Cotton Club. We walk passed the fast food stalls. I think this the Chongqing of equivalent of Caroline Street in Cardiff or Wind Street in Swansea. The difference is that here you can feast on pig snouts, pig tails, duck heads and other meats of various origins. In the club, we see a brilliant band. There are so many great musicians here. I persuade the owner to let Rachel sing with the band. She sings “Someone Like You” by Adele and the audience go crazy. I write the headline in my head ….”Welsh girl takes Chongqing by storm!” Chinese/Welsh musicians performing so brilliantly … you just couldn’t write this script. Rachel holds her hands in the air… “Thank you Chongqing!”
We are all tired when we get back to the hotel. I think about Yolanda, one of the Chinese students. She gave me a gift today. She made it herself. Earlier in the week, I had shown her pictures of my family. Her gift must have taken her ages to make. It was to wish my family, and particularly my 8 month old son, health and happiness.
I just hope that she becomes a decision-maker of the future. The world would be in safe hands…
Day 7: a magical setting
Today starts with a cultural visit. We make sheep/duck/cow/noises as we get on the bus because Nia has misheard and thinks it is an agricultural visit! There is more laughter as Nathan does his impression of Paddy from Take Me Out. “Let the Chong see the Qing!”
Rita, a Chinese student who has been working with us this week, is translator for the visit. She is charming and exudes warmth in everything she does. She joins us at 9.30. It is a Saturday. And she has already taken a Business exam this morning and ran all the way here to join us. If you asked her to build us a rocket and take us to the moon, she would do it … and with a smile. Positivity and a strong work ethic just run through her very core like so many people we have met this week.
It is a lovely visit to an ancient temple. There is a beautiful stage where ancient Chinese opera was performed to the Emperor. Our students are allowed to step on this very old stage. They sing the Eli Jenkins Prayer. The sounds of Wales in an oriental setting echo throughout this magical setting. It sums up the week.
In the afternoon, we perform in the Nanshen Mountains Botanical Gardens. This is a performance without our Chinese friends. I sense that they are being missed. It is a tough performance as the audience wander in and out of the space and take lots of photographs. Again, our students are magnificent. The production comes to a close. The end of our visit is now very near.
In the evening, we have dinner. It is “hot pot”, the signature dish of Chongqing. As they say here, “if you haven’t had hot pot, you haven’t visited Chongqing.” Dinner is with Mr Chen Bin from the British Council and VIPs from the Chongqing School of Arts, the Chongqing City School of Management and the Szechuan Language School. They have all been impressed with our students and are keen to develop further links with Wales.
Our thoughts start to turn toward home and our families and friends. Tomorrow, we have the morning with our Chinese friends before we leave for home.
Day 8: We were as one
The morning begins with ice skating with our Chinese friends and then goodbyes. There is a melancholic mood on the bus to the airport. It is very quiet as we all think through the past week. I am so proud of our students. I would take them anywhere. They have represented their colleges and Wales so well. I ask them for their most memorable moments.
Here are some of the comments:
“The last performance with our Chinese students was my memorable moment. I felt so humble. They were crying in the last section and it obviously meant so much to them. And it did to us.” (Liz)
“The last song [Eli Jenkins prayer] became our anthem. It belonged to all of us. There were no divisions or barriers. We were as one.” (Rachel T) “The last song in our final warm up. No audience. Just us singing it simply for our friends.” (Nia) “The last song. Definitely.” (Rachel C)
“Too many life changing experiences. I can’t just pick one. If I was forced to pick one, it would be Arthur saying to me ‘Shung Di Ho’ which means ‘My brother. My family.’” (Taylor)
“Generally, just working with the Chinese students. They worked so hard in a foreign language.” (Nathan)
“Becoming closer to everyone and being able to relax with people from a very different country.” (Chloe)
“At the beginning of the week, I was disappointed that we weren’t getting out and seeing more of Chongqing. By the end of the week I realised that Chongqing was with us all along through spending time with our Chinese friends. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.” (Kirsty)