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Sunday, February 18, 2007

XinNian KuaiLe

or Happy (Chinese) New Year! We had several guests over for a party, featuring homemade jiaozi and other dishes, both Chinese and American. After the food, we did what is a tradition in any household with someone from China: we watched a five hour variety show. The show is done in Mandarin, so my very bad Mandarin was given a workout. My wife and our Chinese friends were happily watching the show, or ignoring it and chatting, for the duration.

The show itself is always interesting; this is the seventh year I've watched it. It has various comedy acts, song and dance numbers, pop singers, "ethnic solidarity" numbers (with at least one skit featuring happy Tibetans - oddly, the Dalai Lama wasn't invited), with a fair bit of red flag-waving.

Some interesting aspects of the show: they clearly spare no expense, and there are probably several thousand people on stage at one point or another. This year, they had big rear-projection TVs that allowed for "live" sets with running water, etc. My wife said this show was particularly conservative, although there was one interesting departure: a group of peasant kids whose parents work in the city lectured the crowd on the need to improve the schools available to them.**

This show is also interesting for its politics. The audience shots are obviously done for political reasons, and occasionally some Big Guy will be shown. However, this year, no leader got a special front-row seat.

One odd thing: this is probably the only show of this kind where the live audience is actually smaller than the number of performers. I've seen Vegas lounge acts with bigger crowds. It was odd seeing a huge song and dance number with dozens of beautifully dressed performers finish and hear what sounded like ten people clapping in the distance. But the performers are well aware that a billion-plus people are watching them on TV; a good performance by a rising pop star can make a career.

Happy Year of the Pig!

**An aside: China has an odd arrangement where one needs a residency permit to live in a city. Getting these is complex and often involves bribery or other - expensive - trickery, and many people, especially peasant workers working in big Chinese cities don't have them. This creates a sort of "illegal immigrant" problem in China, with lots of workers working off the books.

The pay is far better than it would be in the countryside, but not having a residency permit means the peasant kids can't enroll in the city schools. There are unofficial private schools where peasant kids go - if their parents pay - but these are very low quality. The kids in the show were attracting attention to their school situation, clearly showing a sort of "officially approved" dissent.

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