Tuesday, December 06, 2005
China, part three...
Perhaps predictably, despite such larks, a little heavy-legged impatience did start to set in, and while Lyndon and Jessie continued to stroll around - trailed by two arms-flailing and aggressive official photographers - most of us stopped for coffee and biscuits at, where else?, but a handily-placed Starbucks... While taking turns to nip into the historic Yuyuan teahouse, that is, to follow in the footsteps of previous visitors such as Queen Elizabeth II, the Clintons and, er, Peter Mandelson - only whereas these distinguished guests were there for the tea, and the Queen for the "exquisite dumplings" as a photo caption proudly informed us, for the time being we were restricting ourselves to the toilets. Happily, a few of us would return for proper refreshment later that week.
After finally reuniting with the returning soon-to-be-weds, it was felt we had fallen a little behind schedule - it was now well past 3pm - so a second picturesque and historic site visit which had been planned was abandoned, and we returned to the hotel. About half-an-hour was granted before the actual rooftop ceremony, but instead of heading for rooms, most of us continued rising in the rickety lifts to the top of the hotel to await the actual exchanging of vows. Or tea. Whichever it was to be first.
As hotel officials finalised their feng-shui touches to furniture and decorations, on the windswept verges, I took a few pictures from the top, before stepping into the warmth to admire the proud list of former guests who had shared this "view across the whole of China". They included kings, queens, presidents - and, somewhat oddly, Mr McDonnell from McDonnell Douglas Arms Company. Well, of course, he'd have been there...
Gradually, enough of us had gathered, pink buttonholes in place, badges conjoining the Chinese and Union flags speared into our lapels, to pick up and pass on the feverish Chinese whisper that the happy couple were indeed about to leave the building... and join us outside.
I hadn't quite imagined such an entrance, mind. Gone were Lyndon's sober Beatletogs, replaced by a dazzling yellow and red suit, topped off by a velvet red beanie-esque hat with two blue feathers plonked on the peak and a pair of little helicopter rotors attached to the back. Jessie's get-up was even more eye-catching - though for the time being we were denied a glimpse of her own eyes. For her face was entirely covered by a crimson red veil, while Lyndon gently tugged her into our midst at the end of a cord. Apparently this was to encapsulate the guidance he would provide as husband - but the ritual of keeping her face shrouded at first was undermined by the wind which kept whipping the veil away. One of Jessie's bridesmaids had to rush forward and painstakingly attach the shroud a little more authoratatively, before our wedding compere introduced himself to the proceedings for the first time, to finally get this latest phase under way.
Of course, I understood not a single word of what he was saying, but he seemed to be enjoying himself - or so was suggested by his sporadic crowd-pleasing "jokes", handily signposted for us imponderables by his oh-so-sincere 'hahahahaha....hahaha' guffaws... But the gestures were easy enough to comprehend. The bridesmaids and best men helped Lyndon and Jessie escort both sets of parents to seats in front, before bride and groom offered stately bows to their elders and then to each other.
Then here came the tea. Lyndon carefully carried an intricately-designed pot to Mr and Mrs Jessie, inviting them each to sup in turn while making what I presumed to be the appropriate promises to care for Jessie, and requests for their assent. Which they duly granted by tucking in. Sup, sup.
Jessie - by now de-veiled, and showing off a frankly-spectacular hat which seemed a cross between a peacock's plumage and whatever box any self-respecting ping-pong national association will store their balls tightly-packed inside - then did the same for Dad and Mum in turn, before Lyndon and Jessie resumed their places and - well, that seemed to be it for now. I had been expecting the ceremony to last longer, and include some equivalent of vows being uttered, rings exchanged, etc, but it seemed these were to be saved for later. I was unsure whether they were now officially man and wife yet, or not, but of course we were all too busy taking photos from every which way, and new poses were quickly being set up alongside all key family members and friends, it looked like the hard work had been done for now. Well, on our immediate part, anyway... And it was very endearing, to be brought up in this lofty setting, goggle at the latest costumes and customs, and feel some part of an ancient and enchanting tradition. And, for all his wryness and sarkydom, I at least felt a little uncoolly atingled, to get a sense of just how engaged and in love Lyndon was now, not just with Jessie but with the very different way of life he had so embellishingly embraced out here.
I must confess to finally now returning to my room and grabbing almost an hour's worth of dozy kip, having tried but failed to keep my eyes upon for a few more pages of Mao (perhaps a few tales of torture from his bloody Cultural Revolution purges of the 1960s were not quite suitable for today anyway), before rousing myself just in time to head back up to the 16th floor at 6.30pm for the evening meal and reception.
Our family were seated on a table right next to where Lyndon and Jessie would soon come, as given away now by the tower of Champagne glasses just waiting to be filled tricklingly, George Best-style, and the five-tiered wedding cake - just as you'd find back home, I satisfied myself to quickly think...
Again, a dramatic entrance was to come. This time Lyndon was back in Beatlegear, but outdone in star-style by Jessie's elegant red, floor-length wrap jacket - reminiscent of actress icons from Hollywood's golden era. This time she was not being pulled along, but clutched and clutching arm-and-arm with Lyndon, as they beamingly lapped up the rapturous applause, awe-struck gasps and flash photography, and a scatter of red petals.
Jessie unfolded herself from her ballgown jacket and its headhigh collars to reveal the latest and last in today's selection of skirts, another shimmering red - yet shorter and sleeker - creation, before our MC again took the mike. This time, it quickly emerged, we were to have rings exchanged, and vows swapped, and that first lingering Mr-and-Mrs kiss. No doubt about it this time, they were and are married, setting up the speeches as parents and bridesmaids joined them up-front. First came Chinese-language versions from the bride's parents, haltingly translated into English by one of the bridesmaids, and full of warm affection for Lyndon. Then it was Dad's turn, a speech he had claimed on the flight to have done veryverylittle so far to prepare, but which came across as effortlessly heartfelt, witty and loving. He had been given two lines of Chinese to prepare, to the effect that "We love China - but we love Jessie even more", and also spoke of the initial trepidation he and Mum had experienced when Lyndon first decided to venture to China, only to see him blossom and grow so happily and life-enchantingly.
But my favourite part was the pay-off: "We already have four sons. Now we finally have a daughter."
Okay, okay, so somehow I have got to know and spoken to Jessie much, much less than everyone else in the family, it seems, having not visited China a year ago as Mum, Dad and Noel had done, nor seen indulged either myself or her too much in talks when she and Lyndon came over to England last Spring. But having heard so much of what the others have had to enrapturedly say about her fun, friendly, effervescent nature, and the overwhelming effect she clearly has on Lyndon, I do hope I can, soon as, get to know better this new member of the family, in the many years ahead. And it suddenly struck me at the moment, like never before, just how significant a new addition this was - a new sister, eh? A new anyone, really - bring 'em on, this should be interesting at least...
Lyndon himself also made a charming speech, proving himself startlingly fluent in Chinese, and translating himself as he went along. And he got the most raucous reaction of the night, "Many people have described me as a miserable so-and-so, but now I have all the happiness I'll ever need" - though judging by the initial response, especially Jessie's open-mouthed unhumoured laugh and sharply-hooked eyebrows, he might have used a slightly stronger idiomatic Chinese expression than "so-and-so". Fair enough...
If we hadn't got the message about just how linguistically limber he is by now, mind, he swept away any remaining dusts of doubt later on in the evening by picking up his guitar and crooning a rather lovely little Chinese ballad to Jessie, before covering The Beatles' "I Will" and perhaps risking my wrath - or so he said - by finishing with Kermit the Frog's "The Rainbow Connection". That is, he self-consciously apologised to me and the audience - but no, actually, more me - for "stealing it again, but Jessie loves it so much", so how could I possibly begrudge him the signature song I had actually-only-instinctively introduced to family occasions many years ago now? Of course not!
Especially to hear him singing it so truly, carrying beautifully across the room and deftly inflecting every swoop and cadence with both passion and purity.
I would later take my revenge on the musical gods - of the Far East, at least - by launching into slightly less than impeccable renditions of a few Beatles songs, but not until plenty of firewater had already passed under the bridge, or, more precisely, down my throat. That is, a spirit we on our table dubbed "firewater", having been unable to make head nor tail of the Chinese labelling, save to realise that the 53.5 per cent proof inscription made this a rather toxic concoction. Unfortunately the piles of platters which kept on coming offered very little too appetising for the vegetarians amongst us - the turtle soup, complete with bulky shell nestling in a huge bowl of sickly green stew, looked especially off-putting - so in between mouthfuls of mushroom, broccoli and beans, it seemed only right and proper to knock back the Great Wall wine and firewater provided complimentarily on our table.
Well, everyone else seemed to be indulging. Mum had made the inspired decision to bring over two huge barrels of Celebrations and Heroes chocolates, having seen how popular they proved with Jessie in the past. She and Dad took them around to each table, providing another source of amusement for the rest of the week. Whereas your English, stereotypically stuffy, may spend half of Christmas Day gingerly fingering individual chocolates and their wrappers, taking an age to decide which one to choose, the Chinese guests here showed no such hesitation. "Ah, xie xie!", they would gleefully, eyes-alightedly exclaim, before plunging in and scooping out a hefty handful - rather reminiscent of those mechanical claw machines at fairgrounds, only this time everyone was guaranteed a prize - or several dozen.
By the time the tins returned to our table, they were almost empty - gratifying proof of what a happily successful gesture it had been.
Mum and Dad had also brought Lyndon and Jessie a pair of matching, engraved bracelets, after the design of their own wedding jewellery from 1976 - and some lucky horseshoes, which they presented to their pair before us all. Lyndon also paid tribute to his longest-standing friends and guides from his tentative early days in China, and also gave hints of how he and Jessie first got together, in a special quiz they had put together. The questions ranged from where the pair met - outside a bank, apparently - to naming ten Chinese cities, ten British counterparts, famous historic sites, and so on. As he compered some fairly chaotic scenes with great aplomb, Mum approvingly noted the lingering legacy of his One World Players training, from the drama group she ran during our childhoods.
I was unable to speak much with the Chinese contingent - there were between 100 and 150 people attending, in all - but did chat with some of Lyndon's English colleagues from the Chinese school where he worked. They also joined in when I inevitably picked up the guitar and indulged in a few Beatles covers of my own - Hey Jude went down especially well, perhaps not surprisingly, and the "Na na na" chorus became steadily more raucous.
Not that anyone was complainingly, thankfully, even when we took our impromptu gig into the hotel bar - having smuggled in the last drops of firewater and dripped them into glasses of Sprite, ordered by myself, Dan, Uncle Dave and Christy - and added the cocktail bar piano to the accompaniment.
After which, things become a little bit of a blur, after knocking out "I''ve Just Seen A Face, "Things We Said Today", "Hey Jude" a few more times, along with several others, before bringing a long, lovely, memorable, magical day to an exhausted ending.
So that was how the Chinese did weddings, eh?
Everyone should enjoy a spectacle like this.