Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On "Fake" Fireworks and Singers

I saw a post on a Chinese immigrant forum yesterday.

At work, someone expressed regret at missing the Olympics opening ceremony's TV coverage. Two American colleagues taunted that he only missed fake firework, adding they "can't believe the Chinese government used fake firework!" Hearing this, the writer of the post, a Chinese immigrant, argued that it wasn't a big deal, the show was beautiful anyway. A wrangle began and the American colleagues went ahead to accuse Chinese killing dogs, that there were protests outside the Bird's Nest, etc. The wrangle then, not surprisingly, progressed to arguing about Tibet and human rights. At one point the Americans said, "Every Chinese says the same thing. That means it's not your own opinion," as if they themselves had their own opinion and had not been echoing the mainstream media.

When I read the CNN report about the prerecorded images of the footprint-shaped fireworks, I didn't feel it was a big deal either. After all, fireworks were indeed lunched at the time, and a counterfeit image is different from a counterfeit event. I agree with some critics that Zhang Yimou needn't be such a perfectionist – so what if some actual fireworks couldn't be captured perfectly on the screen? That shouldn't be a big deal either. But considering his responsibility with such a big event, his over-caution is forgivable. The show is a work of visual art after all; the artist has license to manipulate his objects. Even if you regard the "fake" image as a flaw, to be fair the entire performance is still 瑕不掩瑜 – "one blemish doesn't mar the jade."

But the artist should exercise a lot more caution when extending his creative license to human beings. To "fake" the singing girl is a quite different matter because now it involves a person. And human beings, especially their feelings, can easily get hurt. We Chinese have a saying, 人言可畏 – "people's words are a fearsome thing." First, "the girl in the red dress" at the opening ceremony was hyped by the media and she developed a huge fan base as unsuspecting Chinese netizens cheered everywhere for her. In fact, many of the fans were touched by "her" voice. Then they found out the voice wasn't hers, and felt – rightfully – cheated. With their anger came all kinds of words, fearsome words. How would this sudden change impact 9-year-old Lin Miaoke? Would she feel a thousand-foot fall from honorable performer to cheater? All she did was to follow the arrangements of those respectable adults, in the name of serving the country's honor. Now people, with their fearsome words, are making her feel as if she cheated them.

It seems to me that this is another case of bureaucratic stupidity. The decision to show one girl's face with the other's voice was apparently made by "leaders from the Politburo." But, as you can see from the photo, the actual singer, Yang Peiyi, is a lovely little girl. I would think a girl as young as 7 years old with such a beautiful voice would be even more attractive to the audience. Who cares about her imperfect teeth? What 7-year-old is not changing teeth?

I hope this backfire will teach the stupid politicians something. Sometimes appearance, whether a child's or a country's, is not the most important thing.


Alfonso said...

I always had the feeling than Chinese put more emphasis in appearance that in substance.

Perhaps it comes from a society where rituals were important.

I consider it a cultural difference.

In the "west" it is rather the other way around. More importance to substance. Rituals do not play such a important role here. At least in recent history.

Somebody should have explained the officials about it, so they could find a more balanced way for the opening ceremony.

It can also be that they are guilty of trying to achieve too much perfection.

Interesting thought: total perfection may only be achieved by cheating (!?)
So imperfection may be more real than perfection

chamberoftenthousandflowers said...

Olympics are supposed to be free of political interference and BOCOG, like every other olympic organisation in every other country must be independent of the government, without that independence an olympic body has its authority and status taken away by the IOC; I believe this happened in a couple of countries earlier this year.

As President Hu said ““Politicizing the Olympics runs against the Olympic spirit and the shared aspirations of people all over the world,” - interference from the Politburo amounts to politicizing

The fireworks are no big deal, the effect was impressive whichever way you want o view it, but using one voice and a different face and pretending they belong to same person is different. The idea itself is bad enough, but the thinking behind it make it even worse.

wuming said...

A close reading of the transcript of the interview of music director Chen Qigang shows that Peiyi was not replaced by Miaoke per "politburo leader’s" insistence, it was actually the other way round.

During most of the preparation process, a 10 year-old girl was use for the role. But the directors decided that the girl was older than they wanted and narrowed their focus on a group of younger girls, 7 year-old Peiyi and 9 year-old Miaoke among them. Eventually Miaoke became their choice.

Near the end, they started to have doubt about Miaoke voice. Here was when the "politburo leader” came in. The leader didn’t say they must replace Peiyi by Miaoke because Peiyi was not the choice to start with. Instead he insisted that they can not use Miaoke’s voice. Therefore, as a last minute decision, the directors used Peiyi’s prerecording instead.

So why they still let Maioke lip sync? Chen said that Miaoke presented the best image, which referred both to her appearance and her acting ability (she has being acting since she was 6.) Chen didn’t say why they didn’t select Peiyi instead. Maybe she is too young? Maybe she does not have enough acting experience?

Should they have let somebody performed live? Now I think about it, I would certainly not let a young girl of 7 or 9 to perform solo and live in front of billions of TV audiences and dozens of foreign heads of state. Although Chen didn’t say it, my opinion is that they would have used prerecording regardless who appeared on stage.

It seems to me the same perfectionist streak got the directors in trouble. The song and the young flag carriers were meant to tug on the heart strings of Chinese, and it worked certainly on me. If they used another adult pop singer for the job, the effect would have been very different.

I must admit that it is a bit surreal that a bunch of adults across the ocean actually know so much about the lives of these little girls in China and talk about them at such length.

Rob said...

"I always had the feeling than Chinese put more emphasis in appearance that in substance....In the 'west' it is rather the other way around. More importance to substance. Rituals do not play such a important role here. At least in recent history."

I have to STRONGLY disagree with you. The West concentrates more on substance?...rather than appearances? We in the U.S. concentrate so much on aesthetics and on beauty. We are a society driven by the visually pleasing; where cosmetic surgery and treatments are second-nature. Our television and movies are filled with mindless reality shows and programs that have been stolen from other countries because we can't think of anything original...

I DO NOT disagree that the China's obsession with perfection has led to poor choices, but you have to understand: this is their one chance for glory and celebration. The stand-in singing girl was definitely wrong, the fireworks I thought were not that big of a deal. The point is the event actually DID occur, but a computer generated version was used instead due to visibility. In the states, a majority of our programming is edited beyond recognition. Scenes are added an manipulated all the time due to filming schedules and plot needs. And yet millions tune in every night to watch Laguna Beach and the Hills, where everything is scripted and re-shot from every angle.

But that's a conversation in itself. in the end, fireworks: not a big deal. The little girl bad move. Back on topic...

Being Chinese-American I am immersed in both worlds. I have seen China drift away from being an influential and culturally beautiful nation, synonymous for its ingenuity, attention to detail and priceless contributions to our society. Now, they are a nation plagued with issues and negative stigmas. From its numerous failings regarding human rights, decency as well has the countless global recalls of its faulty and sometimes deadly products...

If you look at our history, it seems that for the Chinese, our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness: the innate ability to see opportunities and the determination to do what it takes to succeed...whatever it takes.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Wuming, thanks for providing the details. I searched for Chen Qigang's interview in Chinese yesterday but whenever I clicked a link that showed up in Google, the content had been removed. Would you like to post a working link here?

By the way, I actually don't object to using prerecording of a singer's voice for a performance. The problem here is not about to prerecord or not to prerecord; the problem is that the voice is not the singer's.

Alfonso, you asked a very good question. I do think the desire for total perfection tends to encourage cheating.

CoTTF, I agree with you that mixing in so many political considerations is actually damping the event.

Rocking Offkey said...

The problem is the wedge between the expectation and perceived realities.

If you listened to the NBC coverage of the opening, they made quite clear Zhang Yimou's concept was to "make cinematic reality in real time". But for a viewer, they are half expecting the spectacle was at least conceptually "real".

So, from the stand point of a director who want to create something ascetically "flawless", the use of digital stand in wasn't a big deal; the stand-in singer wasn't too big a deal either. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Peggy Lee situation. But some people expected those show to be "real", at least the "live part".

The social context, is totally another matter. Although I personally think it's "wrong" and unnecessary, we can sit here all day and argue.

The press, understandably, likes to emphasize the social context, and to point singers to "China", which in itself is a hollow concept here. The decision was made by a few person. We do not know if the said official has personally seen Yang and rejected her look. But you know, the press thrives on controversy, and controversy you will get.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Rob, I hear you.

Rocking, there is also the wedge between different angles. If it's not for the little girl's predicament, and the disappointment from the fans of "her" voice, I might agree with you that either incident is no big deal.

一桥跨文化 said...

There's an iota of truth in what Wuming says, but he's being a little disingenuous. Let me explain:

The facts are as under (I happened to have watched the interview while it was up):

Yang Peiyi (whose voice we heard at the opening ceremony) emerged from the auditions as the girl with the best voice, but she was rejected at the first stage - because her looks weren't considered good enough (uneven teeth, chubby face)... Strikingly, this was felt necessary in the "national interest".

Lin Miaoke, who too went through the audition, was then chosen (on the basis of her cuter looks, even though her voice wasn't the best). But when a member of the Polit Bureau saw the rehearsal, he felt that Lin's voice wasn't perfect, which is why the organisers had Yang provide the vocal back-up to Lin's lip-synch. That fits in with the 'Best voice, best looks, ergo Best for China' formula.

So, it's true - as Wuming says - that the Polit Bureau member's intervention served to ensure that we heard Yang's voice at the opening ceremony.

But it's still a commentary on the mindsets that prevail in such matters that Yang, the girl with the best voice, was rejected in the first instance beause she wasn't considered cute enough. By rights, it should have been Yang's voice with Yang in front of the screen. It was only the emphasis on "looks" that ensured Lin was up there, lip-synching to Yang's voice.

wuming said...

I can't find the link to the transcript either. But on "Fools Mountain" blog they have a fairly detailed description of the original.

I think you basically agreed with my chronology of the event (partly my conjecture, since the exact chronology will never be known to us), my only problem is that you choose to ignore that the acting ability and age as possible criterion for their selection, in addition to their static physical appearances. Compare to Liaoke, Peiyi did not have enough acting experience and she is too young.

My guess is that they wanted somebody as young as possible but still be able to hold up on stage. Liaoke presented the best choice for them since she is a veteran actress who looked young.

By the way, the official program listed 3 girls for the music performance, Peiyi first with an "A" next to her name, Liaoke with "B". Frankly, I don't know how to interpret that. I can attempt to whitewash it as I have done so far, or I can join New York Times and such and launch a crusade against CPP. But I will do neither, I am thoroughly ashamed myself for even engage in debate about this affair for this long.

Rocking Offkey said...


About that other angle, I would feel the indignation if the other girl, Peiyi, didn't get the credit. But she did get the credit.

What's left to feel outrage for is because of the self-righteousness in us. We created this image conscious world and then pretend to have the ability to say: look honey, it doesn't matter how you look, the look isn't important at all.

Let's face it, in our world, good look, as well as stage presence in this case, is a talent, just as good voice and ability to sing is a talent. It makes us feel good, it's Western way of harmonious world.

As much as I am amazed how they couldn't find a perfect combination in one girl, I don't feel there's much "unfairness" to Peiyi. She was chosen for the voice, and she was credited for. And I don't see how this can be stretched into huge self-esteem issue if it's properly explained to her. She was not on camera for this event, there was thousands more that tried out. That's doesn't mean she's not cute, or she's too ugly. Only those who want to make it an issue would say that. As far as I can see, the girls were happy about it. Then who's us to judge? Who's the "fans of voice" to judge? how about "fans of image"? Should voice trump image?

The "national interest" part is stupid. But as stupid as it is, it also reflects that the image conscious problem is a world issue. They want to project that image to the world. If Zhang Yimou was chosen to do the 2012 London game, he'll probably do the same - choose a cute looking girl over thousands of others.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Rocking, your point taken. However the fundamental issue here - again - is not about which girl should have been chosen, better voice or better look. Whoever is chosen, it should be her look AND her voice, for otherwise there will be consequences in audience reaction. And my main concern was Lin Miaoke, the performer, not Peiyi, the actual singer. Can't imagine how 9-year-old Maioke could bear the consequence imposed on her after the fact was exposed.

Rocking Offkey said...

yeah, I can see it now. We are really worried Lin becoming China's Jessica Simpson.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe the fuss being made about all of this. I guess we really need something to complain about, especially if it involves another culture.

"More importance to substance" in the West!? Are you serious? Is there another culture more superficial than ours? I dunno, we see so much delusion and fakery on a daily basis here, but we jump all over something as miniscule as the fireworks and singer...?

Hey, it was a cool opening ceremony...let's leave it at that.

Matthew said...

The fake fireworks didn't bother me a bit--it's probably better for the air quality anyway.

I was bothered by the stand-in singer. I really didn't like the explanation for using her. I wouldn't mind if the song was pre-recorded, if the singer was the one lip-synching.

There was an interesting quote in the South China Morning Post last Friday about the faked parts of the ceremony, I'll have to look it up again.