Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Movie stars and lantern dances

on November 11, 2013

As a diplomat, Papa’s job did not confine him to his office at the embassy. A very important part of his work was to interact and network with French VIPs –and also not so VI persons–, as well as VIPs from our own country visiting the host country.

Children were not usually part of all this social activity, except for special cases. One day, Li LiHua came to France.  Li LiHua was a Chinese actress who was then at the height of her career and a great screen legend. Mama and Aunt Lily were ecstatic! In one of her photo albums, on a page of honor, Mama kept a large photo of the movie star sitting on a sofa in the embassy, holding Saadia and me, smiling her famous classy yet beguiling smile.

li li hua

I’m not sure whether she came for a film festival or we showed the movie because of her visit. Anyhow, we got to watch her movie Yang Gui Fei (The Magnificent Concubine) at a cinema. Yang Gui Fei was a Tang dynasty concubine famous for her sensual charms, and for leading a perfectly good emperor to neglect his job in his older age and finally lose the country to invading barbarians. As the emperor fled with the remnants of his army, the soldiers demanded Yang’s death or they would not move any further. Heartbroken, the emperor sent her yards of white silk. This meant, I bestow upon you a full corpse. Go and hang yourself. In the movie, she wandered with sad eyes in an immense darkened hall where long white silk panels hung, softly waving in the breeze. I tugged Mama’s sleeve, “What is she doing?” Mama shushed me. “Quiet, she is trying to hang herself.”  My first encounter with suicide. The scene haunted me for weeks.

li li hua as yang gui fei

Every year, the two highlights of the embassy’s festivities were the Double Ten National Day, and the Military Day. By the time we were old enough, Saadia and I were drafted into the performance teams. We would go regularly to the embassy for rehearsals. I would watch the older embassy children and the scholarship university students practice their moves. Ribbon dances, with interesting footwork for giving the impression of floating on air. Short plays to music, a fisherman settling the dispute between the oyster — or was it a clam?– and the stork.

We, the little children, got to do a lantern dance. All we had to do was hold a long rod upon which a lantern was attached, and just walk. We practiced walking in various formation and singing a song that Teacher Huang had written. It went as follows: “Qing zhu shuang shi jie, celebrate the Double Tenth Festival; da jia lai ti deng, everyone come carry the lanterns; deng guang hao ming liang, the lanterns light is so bright; zhong hua min guo wan wan shui.” Papa translated and explained it to us. Upon reaching the final verse, he asked us, “What does it mean, wan wan shui?”

Now, when you sing, you cannot tell which tone the word is pronounced with. I though it over, and answered, “I know! wan wan means play play. Shui means sleep. So, play a bit and go to sleep!” Papa nearly fell over laughing. Hahaha! No, it means Long Live the Republic of China!

Then we were given envelopes with invitations that we were to hand to our teachers. I was way too shy to do that, so I think my parents must have handed it to my teacher. But Saadia did give hers to her teacher, a Mme Dabo, who did come to the Salle Pleyel to watch our show.

li li hua as yang gui fei

An adult came to light our lanterns, and we all held on to those paper lanterns that suddenly came alive with flickering lights. The music struck and we were told to start walking. No sooner had I started marching than my candle blew out. I turned around and called, “My candle, my candle…!!!!” but our trainer shushed me with an index on her lips, “Just go, just go!” So I walked onto the stage with the only lantern that was dark. I was miserable.

Afterwards, we had to descend from the stage and walk through the audience. Mme Dabo came out of her seat to pat Saadia on the head. However, since we wore identical costumes and all had heavy make-up on, she patted another little girl instead. All Chinese look alike, after all.



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