Pitch Perfect in Beijing

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After several tries, Penn’s Glee Club finally gets to China.

By Alex Feldman | “Run!”

The airport-service agent screamed as members of the Penn Glee Club breathlessly dashed through the empty corridors of San Francisco International Airport. Our flight from Philadelphia had been delayed nearly two and a half hours because of poor weather. With only a two-hour window built in to connect to a Singapore Airlines flight to Hong Kong, we were faced with missing our trip to Asia. Through expensive Airphone calls from the rear of the coach section, we had contacted an agent who informed us that the airline couldn’t hold the flight. In fact, because of overbooking, the airline would not be able to accommodate us for a week. After a few more calls, pleading, and additional updates of our estimated time of arrival, we were told that if our plane arrived before 1:25 a.m., they would hold the flight to Hong Kong. The wheels of the plane touched down at 1:23. It was time to run.

One week later, as an imposing painting of Mao Tse-tung watched over us, we prepared for the concert of a lifetime. 

“Drink A Highball … ” we began. 

The Penn Glee Club was performing in Tiananmen Square. As we hit the first note of that tune, a bevy of guards spun around to inspect the commotion. After confirming that we only had the friendliest of intentions, they returned to their posts. As a crowd gathered in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, it finally hit us: this was China, the very heart of it. 

The Penn Glee Club—at 142 years, Penn’s oldest performing-arts group—has traveled internationally since 1959. Director Emeritus Bruce Montgomery, who retired in 2000, had dreamed of bringing the Glee Club to China one day. Under his direction, the Glee Club had traveled to nearly 30 countries around the world; its members have long been Penn’s musical ambassadors to places such as the former Soviet Union, Egypt, the Czech Republic, and Peru. But China always seemed out of reach. The club had tried three times under “Monty” to visit the country. All three attempts were cancelled for various reasons, including the student uprisings in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In 2002, with the club under the direction of Dr. C. Erik Nordgren Gr’01, undergraduate presidents Abraham Lo GEd’02 and Jonathan Ozark W’04 EE’04 resurrected the idea. Working with the office of International Operations in Penn’s department of development and alumni relations, Lo and Ozark were introduced to Paul Liou G’90, a professor of Chinese at St. Joseph’s University who had studied international relations at Penn. Liou had recently planned a trip to China for the Chicago Classical Symphony Orchestra and agreed to organize our tour and accompany us as a coordinator and translator. 

By spring 2003, with airline tickets purchased and performances planned, the Glee Club was finally ready to go to Asia. We planned to leave just after Commencement and travel to Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei. SARS canceled the trip four weeks before our departure. Instead, our “tour” consisted of a dinner in Chinatown, where we pledged that this trip would one day become reality.

One year later, I worked with David McMillan W’05, Matthew Kalamar C’04, and Paul Liou to re-plan concerts, re-book flights, and make travel arrangements, adding Singapore to the itinerary. SARS was nowhere in sight. With fingers crossed, the Glee Club was really going to Asia.

On the day we arrived in Hong Kong, a grey mist hung over the city, shrouding the famous skyscrapers of the business district. “Hong Kong is like a beautiful lady,” our tour guide, Mike, told us as the rain poured down on our bus. “She needs to take a shower, but she will emerge more beautiful than ever.” As the day progressed and the clouds dispersed, Hong Kong appeared: brilliant, shining, dirty, loud, hectic, and modern. Everywhere we looked, tall apartment blocks rose from steep hillsides and gleaming office towers rose from the shores of Victoria Harbour. Traffic clogged the main arteries, and people, bustling in every direction, crowded the sidewalks. Vendors peddled their goods, business people talked on their mobile phones, and crowded ferries crossed the harbor. 

Our real reason for visiting Hong Kong was to perform at the annual scholarship dinner hosted by the local Penn Alumni club. The event, held at an old colonial club in the business district, raised $40,000 to help a student from Hong Kong attend Penn. As the audience joined us in waving arms for “The Red and Blue,” it became clear that the strong feelings for our University reach across oceans and political borders.

A brief visit to Taipei, Taiwan, was next on the itinerary. Our first performance there was hosted by and in conjunction with the Youshi Arts Chorus, a local youth chorus consisting of university and high school students. They welcomed us to Taiwan with a choral/rap performance specially tailored for our visit. 

Our second and final night in Taipei concluded with a Mongolian barbeque dinner hosted by the Penn Alumni Club of Taipei and a brief concert. As we learned of Taiwan’s uncertain political future from the alumni, the Glee Club began singing the country’s national anthem, Sanmin Zhuyi. Before long, the entire room was singing along. The Glee Club has a tradition of learning the national anthem of every place it visits, and that night, in the pensive yet hopeful faces of the Penn alumni singing along with us, we understood why.

In Singapore we performed for 250 invited guests of the United Overseas Bank (our hosts) and members of Singapore’s Penn Alumni club in the acoustically splendid Esplanade Recital Theater. After the performance, a post-show gathering in a neighboring bar proved to be an excellent opportunity to meet future members of the Class of 2008 as well as alumni. At the end of the night, we felt so welcomed and so comfortable in Singapore, many of the Glee Club members did not want to leave. 

Two days later we found ourselves in Tiananmen Square, singing to a small crowd of onlookers. We already had so many fond memories, and there were more to come in the days ahead. 

When a performance was canceled at the last minute, Paul would arrange for us to perform at the Beijing McDonald’s in exchange for dinner. 

We would “survive” a harrowing bus ride to the Great Wall as our driver, “Mr. Joe,” weaved in and out of lanes at breakneck speeds and made left turns into incoming traffic. On top of the ancient wall, several of us would hold an impromptu concert for visitors from all over the world.

We would make new friends in every city we visited. In Beijing, we would be invited to go clubbing after a concert with members of the Renmin University Chorus. I would meet a young man named Vincent, who told me that one day he would very much like to study in America but, because of the difficult visa process, he knew his wish may never come true. 

We would be welcomed with gifts, delicious meals, and wonderful hospitality. After most concerts the audience would rush the stage, asking for autographs and posing for photographs with us. We would feel like rock stars.

But for the moment, hoping the guards wouldn’t return to shoo us away, we kept on singing under the gaze of Chairman Mao, adding a bit of blue to China’s red. 

“… Here’s a toast to dear old Penn.”

Alex Feldman C’05 is an architecture major from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, who is minoring in urban studies and art history. He is president of the Penn Glee Club.

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