Archive for July 6th, 2010


30 million to one

Now, here’s a statistic which is worth repeating. Yesterday’s South China Morning Post claimed that “there are 30 million budding Lang Langs in China”. Wow!

Forget the simple fact that there can be no hope of justifying such a preposterous claim nor yet of supporting that figure with anything like evidence, it comes to something when a once respectable newspaper clutters up its column inches with vague supposition which is so utterly baseless that one wonders what state of inebriation the sub-editor was when he leafed through the copy.

And on the subject of newspaper inanities, take this from yesterday’s Straits Times. (I’m afraid I have to précis as I tore my airline copy up in a fit of temper!); “My sister has just returned from a period working in Africa and says she can no longer settle back home in Singapore as there are too many foreigners here who crowd the streets and trains, take up all the available housing and bump up property prices to a level where we Singaporeans cannot afford to live here”. So, what was her sister doing in Africa in the first place? Of course, all those blackies live in mud huts, so a Singaporean bumping up the prices of African bricks and mortar to a level where locals can’t afford them is all right! What tosh! I don’t know whose mental ineptitude I pity the most, the writer who couldn’t see the sheer idiocy of what she was writing, or the sub-editor, who clearly couldn’t understand it in the first place.

And as for what I heard on the BBC this morning, words would fail me if such a phenomenon was possible. An American “academic” (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) bursting with unsubstantiated facts wrapped up in flowery language suggested that Wikipedia was “the largest collaborative creation in human history”. It may be that the white Americans have never pulled together to achieve anything worthwhile in their history, but what about the millions upon millions of other people from other cultures, who have passed on from generation to generation folk tales, songs and dances (not to mention language itself) adding their own seasoning to it? What, though, is ethnic art and cultural heritage when set beside the power of Wikipedia to make people think they have learnt something, when all they have done is read some imbecile’s self-indulgent plagiarisms given credibility by being available instantly and freely. That self-same “Academic” also suggested that Wikipedia had – and I quote verbatim one of the most imbecilic sentences I think the BBC has ever allowed to be uttered on its wavelengths – given a voice to “two billion people who previously had been locked out of media creation”. Locked out? Too lazy to get off their fat arses and write, more like.

But back to the 30 million Lang Langs. The figure is pure fiction and the mere suggestion that Lang Lang is simply a product of the Chinese state system, easily replicated by anyone with a piano nearby, is so outrageous as to be laughable. I remember a British newspaper years ago saying something similar about David Beckham; that there were x million “potential Beckhams out there”. Well, if there were, they certainly didn’t pursue an interest in football, otherwise how can we explain England’s laughable and wholly deserved World Cup capers? (I gather they lost, but football is such a pastime for the terminally brain-dead that I haven’t even the inclination to check my facts on this one.) Perhaps they have all emulated Beckham in growing designer stubble and injuring themselves. And, to that end, perhaps a “potential Lang Lang” forgets the piano somewhere along the line, and concentrates on the preening and commercial promotions for pointless products.

Let me not, however, in all this ranting and raving, overlook the serious aspect to all this. Lang Lang, for all his weirdness and personal failings, is a phenomenally gifted pianist. That he’s Chinese is pure coincidence; Chopin was Polish, Liszt Hungarian, Rubinstein Russian, yet I don’t see newspapers in those countries suggesting all Poles/Hungarians/Russians are naturally great pianists. The fact is that musical genius knows no national boundaries, and is no respecter of ethnicity. Just because one great genius is Chinese, it doesn’t follow that all Chinese can be great geniuses. Yet there will be parents who read this drivel in newspapers and think, “Ah So! Little Boy play piano real good, he Lang Lang style too” (if newspapers can promote offensive stereotypes, so can I) and then toddle off to the nearest sub-standard teacher and demand they get said child through music exams in double quick time so they can get on to the stage and earn mega-Yuan. It all ends in tears, but worse than that, it ends up giving everybody such a misplaced view of musical genius and performing skill that those who do possess it find their skills undermined.

I attended a performance of Carmina Burana in Hong Kong over the weekend given by the Shanghai Opera Chorus. It was a perfectly acceptable performance, well-rehearsed and competently delivered. But the fact that it was a Chinese choir and a Chinese conductor meant that the Hong Kong audience were leaping to their feet in fits of ecstasy which, as a musical performance, it simply didn’t deserve. This was a further manifestation of a phenomenon I am noticing increasingly in South East Asia; that, because of the ethnicity of the performer, an audience drops its critical sensitivities and worships blindly at the sight of Chinese people doing something well. Lang Lang is greater than that; but the Chinese are in grave danger of putting him on a pedestal for being a successful Chinese man rather than for being a brilliant pianist who is – and here the figure might have some justification – one in 30 million.

July 2010