Crowd control Chinese-style

Most activities in China for tourists involve large crowds. One example was my trip with two friends to see the evening performance, Impression Sanjie Liu, on the River Li in Yangshou, a tourist town nestling among craggy limestone peaks in China’s southern karst scenery. The show, directed by the film director Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is performed on the river by 600 local people, including boatmen on bamboo rafts, dancers, and singers from local ethnic minority groups, not to mention water buffalo and cormorants. Lighting is used to dramatic effect to illuminate the surrounding mountains, bamboo forests, floating scenery and eventually the costumes of the performers themselves. The show is so popular that it runs twice a night every day of the year for 2,000 people at each sitting.

Our guest house organised transport for us to get close to the performance park; the reception area thronged with noisy crowds, like a football ground on a Saturday afternoon, but with less transparent organisation, especially to a foreigner. Our taxi driver led us to a woman who gave us a small post-it note with indecipherable characters. She told us to follow a man holding a placard with 77 written on it. We clung nervously to each other until Mr 77 gave us three rather more official tickets and then marched us into an inner sanctum, where people seemed to be sitting in a large pavilion. Was this the auditorium? Where would our seats be? Where could the performance take place?

We must have looked pretty forlorn, as a young Chinese woman showed us yet another queue on an outer path and told us to wait there. It dawned on us that we were a long way away as yet from the real auditorium and that we still had 20 minutes or so to go. The idea of the crowd surging forward scared me, and I insisted we stood at the edge where we might escape any crush. In fact, about 15 minutes later, the crowd moved forward in a relatively orderly manner, and we soon found ourselves at official looking barriers, which scanned the bar code on our tickets. An usher took one look at us and saw that we had no idea how to find our seats and led us to them. We had made it!

As is so often the case in China, the people watching it proved to be as fascinating as the spectacle itself. The extraordinary light, sound and watery effects dazzled the audience who oohed and aahed appreciatively. There was a rather flimsy narrative but that wasn’t really the point of the show. It presented a nostalgic and satinised vision of the now rapidly disappearing and gruelling rural life on and around the river. If you cycle around the fields and farms you can still find the old way of life, but I doubt if it holds much interest for the newly urban Chinese who prefer the fictional version.

Most of the audience had arrived in coaches and minibuses and about 10 minutes before the end, the row of elderly spectators in front of us, all in identical red baseball caps, clearly began to get nervous about how they were going to avoid the crush to get out and ensure that they found their transport. They stood up, blocked everyone’s view and started to edge towards the aisle. An usher approached and firmly told them to sit down again. There was a backwards shuffle and while some found their chairs again, others slipped and sat on each other’s laps. The real performance seemed to be forgotten in the general merriment.

Eventually the show ended and we were all released into the night. The crowd dispersed without mishap and we were able to retrace our steps past the entrance and on through the rows of coaches and cars until we found our taxi man waiting at the agreed spot. Crowd control is a risky participative art form in China and I’m always relieved when I make it through safely.