I have never been shy about singing, from glee club in elementary school to folk music as a teen, to jugband, bluegrass and country as a college student, to membership in the Southwest Bluegrass Association in middle age. Heck, I’ll even sing Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex” in my anthropology classes to make a point about the incest taboo.

And, as it happens, I had participated in the New Year’s variety shows of the campus Chinese student association in the past, so when the email crossed my inbox, announcing the opportunity to participate in the “Arts of China” contest for foreigners as sponsored by Beijing TV, I was to some extent already primed. I responded and was invited to audition in mid-December, conveniently after the end of the fall semester. But then the auditions had to be postponed because of difficulties in getting visas to the US for the Beijing TV staff, and they were rescheduled for mid-January, only a month before Chinese New Year, and thus only weeks before the qualifiers would have to depart for Beijing for the taping of the finals.

Sailing Through Auditions

The auditions were held in a beat up old studio on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, obviously rented for the occasion. It was during a stretch of unseasonal continuous torrential rain in southern California, and the ceiling in the old studio did its best to withstand the forces of nature with limited success. At one point, the leaking ceiling dripped on something electrical and the theater actually began filling up with smoke, but it quickly cleared, and the performances continued. In the end, my performance of a Chinese folksong “Kangding Qingge” (a song about a young couple in love in the mountain town of Kangding) and a song from China’s cultural revolution “Dahai Hangxing Kao Duoshou” (Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman, extolling Chairman Mao), made the cut, and I was to be flown to Beijing to participate in the finals.

Informed of my success, I was also informed that “Sailing the Seas…” would not be appropriate for Chinese TV in the present political climate, and I was asked to perform a different song. Well OK, I thought, let’s talk it over again when I get to Beijing. Surely they would listen to reason. This was after all the song that had won me the right to perform in Beijing.

Lifting Up the Veil

But in Beijing, there would be no compromise. None of my objections had any effect that this was part of history, that it had happened, that there was no denying it. Why not perform it? Why not let people consider the irony of a westerner singing the praises of Chairman Mao in a Willie Nelson style country idiom? In the end, the assistant director who had run the auditions in Hollywood informed me that if I insisted on singing the song, she might well lose her job. This song in particular, she reminded me, was based on a line first enunciated by now disgraced former defense minister, Lin Biao, quite politically unacceptable for airing to mass audiences.

Nevertheless, many people still know the words, and it is sung at dinners and karaoke bars when people get drunk enough. Indeed, the voice trainer, hired by the TV station to work with performers preparing their numbers for the stage, was able to accompany me in singing it at the table the first night over dinner. I proposed another cultural revolution song, one with a line in it about “the people not fearing American imperialism, but rather American imperialism fearing the people”. As an American in today’s world, I had no qualms whatever about singing it. But it too was rejected.

Their refusal to consider either song seemed another example of how in contemporary China, the more things change the more they remain the same, still controlled politically from on high. I was initially angry, then sorely disappointed. But then the next day, I visited with a folklorist colleague at Beijing Normal University, whom I had met some years before at an academic conference in Guangzhou, and related the story to him. His response was “When I hear those songs from the cultural revolution period, it just makes me angry. It brings back awful memories of suffering and pain. Those songs disgust me”.

As a result, my anger and disappointment toward the show’s director subsided somewhat, and I admitted as much to her later on. It seemed that for all too many Chinese people, there was nothing funny about the cultural revolution, nothing about it to make light of, nothing to joke about. I could well imagine my colleague, watching on New Year’s eve, reaching for the remote to change the channel when this foreigner from America had the cheek to render a song from the cultural revolution, hailing Chairman Mao as the great leader. And so I caved to the pressure and agreed to find another song to sing.

This was facilitated by an evening visit to a local pool hall/coffee house the following evening with my son Raph, who was a resident in Beijing, teaching English and trying to get his skateboard manufacturing firm off the ground. At the pool hall, I was able to poll a group of his local Chinese pals as to suitable Chinese songs that I might sing on TV in lieu of “Sailing the seas…”. I settled on “Xian Qile Nide Gaitou Lai” (Lift up Your Veil), suggested by one of his friends, since I was familiar with the tune. It is a slightly provocative song in which a groom asks if he may lift the veil of his bride before the wedding to catch a peek of her eyebrow, then her eye, then her mouth, then finally her whole face. I had only a couple of days to commit the words of its four verses to memory and to come up with suitable accompaniment/arrangement on the guitar. By the day before the finals, I was still a bit shaky with the song, but received a phone call before the dress rehearsal that afternoon. It was from the director, via an underling, informing me that I should wear the same clothes as the day before (requiring me to change from the fresh shirt I had already put on), and that if I wanted to, I could perform the same song in the finals that I had sung in the preliminary round, Kangding Qingge, which required no new preparation. Wow, I was greatly relieved. Now the pressure to learn “Lift up Your Veil” sufficiently well to perform on stage was off. I could relax. This was altogether sensible since some of the performers were indeed repeating their first round routine in the finals. Why should I have to do two different performances?

In any event, I went down to join the other performers in the lobby of the hotel for the brief walk up the block to the theater. And then, along came our usual escort with the news that the phone call that morning had been made in error. I was to go back upstairs and change into a different shirt, AND…I would need to perform “Lift up Your Veil” after all. Back on the hot seat again.

The Show Goes On

At the theatre, Beijing TV included Raph in the proceedings, taping a brief snippet of him wishing his dad good luck in the contest in his impeccable Beijing Chinese and having him on stage to present a ceremonial gift at the end of my performance. The gift he chose, in lieu of flowers, was a bottle of Jameson scotch whiskey, which I dispensed from a pocket full of plastic cups to all participants.

The whole show was surreal from start to finish. Big production numbers with dancing girls…and bubbles! I asked for a couple of xiao guniang (pretty girls) to dance behind me, but the director said I didn’t need them. I guess she was right.

By an incredible quirk of fate, one of the judges was a film director for whom I had acted in a Chinese soap opera TV series shot in LA some 7-8 years ago, Mr. Ying Da. Being naturally fair-minded, when I discovered that Ying was one of the judges, I went to the assistant director, and asked her if that was going to be a problem. “Nah”, she said, “don’t worry about it”.

In the end, when I had finished my first round performance, Ying spoke first, told everyone about our past acquaintance, described my role in his soap opera, said he knew I could act, but only now discovered I could also sing. He praised my countrified rendition of Kangding Qingge, saying its original composer would have been pleased, and then came up on stage and embraced me. Needless to say, I qualified for finals.

The Yings and Coopers went out for dinner together the following evening, but the show intruded on our reverie, as the assistant director called on Raph’s cell phone to propose that I do “Take Me Home Country Road” as an encore rather than “San Antonio Rose”, since the former is more well-known to Chinese audiences. I refused. For one thing I didn’t know all the words. For another, why not introduce Chinese audiences to something they might not have heard before? The next day I proposed a deal to the assistant director. I’d play “Take Me Home Country Road” if she’d let me do “Sailing the Seas…”. She walked away, without a word.  

As luck would have it, my second round rendition of “Lift up Your Veil” went off without a hitch, with the audience clapping in time all the way through, earning me two trophies, one for second place overall, and one for best audience (as opposed to judges) response.

The overall winner was a “Xiangsheng” comic dialogue routine, featuring a twelve year old Canadian kid, born and raised in Beijing and his Chinese friend who fed him the straight lines. They were really polished, their timing was impeccable, and I never begrudged them their first place finish in the slightest.

As for my new found fame? Well, I did get a spot on Jocelyn Ford’s segment of “Marketplace”. on NPR. And when I returned to the US, NPR contacted me for a second gig with “On Point,” but I waited in vain for what I had hoped would be a flood of endorsement offers from Chinese corporations—”Great Wall cigarettes, ahh, now that’s flavor!”

About The Author

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Professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies, University of Southern California

"Gene" Cooper earned his Ph. D. in Anthropology and East Asian Studies at Columbia University in 1976. He taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Hong Kong University before arriving at USC in 1980. He has consulted with business, industry and the legal profession, on Chinese rural industrial production, the import/export sector, and Chinese habit and custom.His most recent research is on the market temple fairs of Jinhhua municipality, Zhejiang province, China.