The China Changing Festival returns to the Southbank Centre this year, taking over the building for one day to focus on the relationship between modern China and Britain, and to showcase some of the brightest artists uniting both countries. As a British Chinese person, just walking around and seeing so many people of different ethnicities besides all the Chinese people there was welcome and encouraging. There were panels, activities, and more music than Si Rawlinson, a featured dancer, could shake a bamboo staff at. And I only saw one white guy with dreadlocks there the whole time, so it was a pretty good day for racial sensitivity.
Project New Sun is a double bill presented by Chinese Arts Space making up perhaps the most anticipated part of the China Changing Festival, with a performance by Julia Cheng and Chris Chan’s one-man show Gongs, Songs and Hong Kong Thongs. Cheng’s solo contemporary dance piece, Orlando Warrior, took place in the Clore Ballroom, unticketed, for anyone to watch, and would have been one of the highlights of the day for anyone who managed to fight through the crowds to catch it. Combining wushu martial arts with waacking dance, and backed by a cellist with a loop pedal, Cheng creates something utterly transfixing, and with supreme effort (eye makeup running), shows us movement that are anything but gentle. Sometimes she seems the subject, choosing how she strikes with her body, sometimes the object, acted upon by forces we can’t see. I’m not Chinese enough myself to be able to tell you what kind of Chinese is being spoken when the voice of an old man is layered over her movement, but once it’s translated into English, its chastising sense and reminders of her age speak to something with which not only Asian kids but young people everywhere can sympathise.
The highest point of Chris Chan’s show, on the other hand, is its title. And I liked the thong image he ended on. Meant to point out the foibles, quirks, similarities and differences between China and the UK, nearly every joke could be spotted a mile off. His very long song comparing famous people to animals that the Internet has pointed out that they resemble (based on the banning of Winnie the Pooh from China due to comparisons with President Xi Jinping), is very middle of the road humour. He does not bring up any incisive points, and his (again, very long) song urging people to stop declaring things as racist which ‘he’ sees as inoffensive because they’ll perpetuate prejudice and contribute to a culture of shaming is no different from any boringly liberal, centrist or right-wing YouTuber.
So too his song about the relative beauty standards of China and Britain with regards to pale and tanned skin respectively fails to pack any punch, leaving many experiences out (what about black and darker skinned girls in Britain?) and his character of “Shaniqua” from Essex who speaks in a ‘street’ accent that clearly intends to demonstrate her shallow materialism, is a little painful. I had high hopes for this piece, but it was instead the other components of the Southbank’s programme for the festival that impressed me.
Photo: Pete Woodhead