First, let’s start with definitions. For the best description of what constitutes China’s unique form of the Craptacular, there’s no better place to go than here. I don’t know if China is the only place where you can find this phenomenon, and I’ve seen schlocky entertainment in lots of places. However, what separates the gauche from the craptacular, to me, is the scale. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is on a scale with China’s truly craptacular mega-spectacles – at least not in my experience.
A few weeks ago I had the dubious honor of being immersed in an event of immeasurable craptacularness, and it would be a disservice if I didn’t recount the experience here. (The photos here are from that event, and you can click on the images to see enlarged versions, if you really want to.)
I was down in Guangzhou for a big event; one of the big Western firms that does its manufacturing there was celebrating a milestone, and no expense was being spared to show the workers the company’s gratitude. An all-day celebration, it culminated in a huge entertainment extravaganza. Six thousand workers assembled in a vast field on which was assembled a gargantuan stage and skyscraper-high lighting towers. Three-story high video displays stood on each side of the stage, and videographers atop special platforms captured every craptacular moment.
This amazing singer can shift her voice instantly from high soprano to deep bass. Unfortunately, her earpiece fell out at one point and she stopped moving her lips – but the singing kept on going. In other words, the whole big show was lip-synched. All of that amazing entertainment was canned, and the audience conned.
I had seen craptaculicious extravaganzas on CCTV of course, and was always struck by how similar they all seemed – the lights, the costumes, the dance spectacles, the music, the Las Vegas cheesiness, everybody smiling so wide you fear they’ll get some kind of lip infection…. But seeing it up front was intense. I have to admit, I was mesmerized and in awe; it’ so overwhelming, you’ve little choice but to be in awe – - at least for a while. The performing isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, some of the singers were quite talented, and the comedian with the odd bald head with a splotch of hair on the side had an amazing ability to imitate the sounds of animals and whistles of birds.
That said, this went on for more than four hours. I only stayed for the first two hours and was totally saturated, my shlock-o-meter ready to burst. The other 5,998 people stayed on. Most of them were dancing and singing and loving every instant. And it wasn’t just the 6,000 workers. On all the buildings surrounding the immense field, hordes of townspeople had assembled and were watching the show with us. I don’t mean a few people standing on rooftops. I mean throngs of people, hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands), packed together on roofs as far as the eye could see, swaying with the music and laughing with the crowd. At one point the emcee acknowledged and welcomed them; the spotlights focused on them, and we all turned around to see just how huge this second audience was. There was a frenzy to the sticky Guandong night; these thousands of people were thrilled; there was electricity in the air as they swayed and shouted on the rooftops.
The night was strange (a profound understatement) and it was also wonderful. As we watched the spectacle, the music ringing in our heads, my business associate from Europe turned to me and said, in a very serious voice, “How can I explain this to anyone back home? How can I describe what we are seeing right now? Can anyone put this into words?”
This was a valid question, and it was also what inspired me to write this post – to see if words really could convey the true experience, the unique essence of craptacular . I suspect I will fail – crapatacular has to be seen, has to be experienced to be understood.
Yes, the entertainment was ostentatious, boring and fake. But the miracle for me was the reaction of the workers, their utterly irrepressible enthusiasm and delight. It was this more than anything that made My Craptacular Night so unforgettable.
The night was also a defining moment of my experience in China because it confirmed one opinion I had formed after moving back here, namely that for all the sins and depravities of the Chinese one-party system, many of the working classes are nearly delirious with joy at the opportunities afforded them compared with the wasteland of just 30 years ago. Now, these people may be wrong, they may be delusional, they may be brainwashed, and the government might be screwing them behind their backs, but that isn’t my point. The point here is simply the fact that they are indeed excited about the prospects for their future, and feel they are doing okay now and will do even better soon up the road. Tragically, several readers of this site feel that simply acknowledging that some people are thrilled with their opportunities (real or perceived) is in some ways an endorsement of the CCP. Hardly. It is simply a reality that you must understand if you really want to claim knowledge of this country (and I, by the way, claim none). If you see it only as a mountain of misery and a hole, you are only seeing what you want to see. I see the misery and I see the holes. I also see an incredibly ambitious and hopeful group of people who want to do better with their lives, and it would be heartbreaking to see those dreams shattered. And so I wish them the best, not the worst, and I am glad that in my own insignificant way I can help let the world know these people are really there, flesh and blood human beings with lofty dreams and a whole lot of hope. People who have been given hope not by their pig-headed government but by the freedom of free enterprise. Even if they can sit through four hours of craptacular entertainment, I still love them.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.