CHINA INTERNATIONAL BEER FESTIVAL
Thursday, July 28 was the grand opening of the China
International Beer Festival 2005. The festival is held annually for a week
and a half at Xinghai Square, a mere ten minute walk from our apartment.
However, the word “international” is dubious. The adjective could be
interpreted to mean the beers are international, which would be true. But
if you interpret it to mean that the festival is international, and people
come to Dalian from all over the world to drink beer in Xinghai Square, that
would be a stretch. But it’s a stretch the organizers desperately try to
make. In order to ensure that foreigners would be photographically visible
at the festival, specific invitations were issued to western teachers at the
English schools in Dalian. That is how Zac and I, along with some other
western teachers, scored coveted seats at a prestigious VIP banquet on the
opening night of the festival.
The dinner was held in a red-carpeted banquet hall in
the brand new convention center, adjacent to Xinghai Square. While several
officials gave speeches, well-dressed cuisine logistical engineers whisked
around the room filling wine glasses with beer and pouring tea. After the
speeches, our dinner began to miraculously appear in one exquisite dish
after another. All the while, we were being entertained by a variety of
Chinese musicians and one “international” group playing some German music,
thrown in for good measure. There was only one painful performance, given
by a small boy who was some sort of Chinese opera prodigy, singing what
surely must have been “the ode of the dying goat.” When the dying goat was
finally put out of its misery, the mostly-Chinese audience heartily
applauded for much different reasons than me.
After the dinner, all of the guests got into large vans
to be transported to the special VIP area of the square, to watch fireworks,
drink free beer, and be photographed. This is where the foreigner publicity
plan ran amuck. The foreigners, unable to understand the announcement to go
out to the vans, were late to organize themselves and reach the vehicles.
Our group finally got out to the last bus, which didn’t have enough room,
and reminiscent of Namibia, we had to literally sit on each other to fit.
The end result being that it took a long time and the van was separated from
the motorcade and couldn’t get in through the festival gate without the
proper permit. Being the impatient, ill-informed foreign mob that we were,
we abandoned the van and Chinese bureaucracy and decided to try and make our
own way into the festival, VIP tickets or no. We joined the crowd pushing
at the cattle chute, were quickly enfolded into the mass, eventually churned
through and found ourselves in the midst of an alcohol dynasty.
The festival basically consisted of outdoor bars set
up for every kind of beer, each with a stage for various types of
performances. We never made it to the VIP area, undoubtedly to the
disappointment of the paparazzi, who had to track us down elsewhere. We
wandered around and mused at Chinese hip-hop dancers in plastic red outfits,
a pair of girls on roller skates who swung each other around using ropes, a
magician, some Russian line dancers, and barmaid modeling shows. Wherever
two or three westerners gathered, a camera man was sure to be among them,
taking photos and doing brief interviews consisting almost solely of the
question, “Where are you from?” The implication, when put on TV or in the
newspaper, would be that the foreigner was a tourist who traveled to China
specifically for the “international” beer festival.
The festival is China’s blatant imitation of the
Munich International Beer Festival and aspires to reach the proportions of
Oktoberfest. But fortunately, copying DVD’s is easier than copying
festivals, and the event still had a definite Chinese flair. I haven’t been
to the Munich festival to compare, but I doubt that it is has inflated red
arches everywhere and illuminated “WC” signs suspended in mid air by helium
balloons in a desperate attempt to keep people from using the lawn as a
toilet. An awning with the word “Oktoberfest” and girls wear German barmaid
outfits thankfully did little to take the Chinese out of China.
For me, the beer festival illuminates some of the
dissonance that I notice in China right now. The Chinese often assert their
uniqueness while at the same time maintaining a prolific culture of
imitation and pandering to western approval. They are exceedingly proud of
their 5,000 year history, yet they neglect cultural development in the name
of economic development and modernization. They are so concerned with
rising, caught up in the inertia of progressing, that they sometimes seem to
forget to consider what they are, not just where they are going.
So what is China now? Is it more than a booming
economy? I think it is—and the beer festival is an example of some of that
unrealized potential. The festival is well organized, big, loud, fun, and
full of local talent. It is a place where foreign residents and Chinese
nationals intermingle at tables packed with beer bottles. It failed to
emulate the Munich beer festival, but by inadvertently retaining its Chinese
characteristics, it became something distinct and enjoyable. So what if
tourists around the world don’t flock to Dalian to drink beer? Who cares?
The important thing is that a hundred thousand Chinese and expats came out
on a Thursday night to do what they do best: sit outside drinking beer,
shoot off fireworks, sing, dance, and generally have a good time with their
friends and family. I think that’s a picture worth taking.
click here to see more
pictures from the beer festival