Tom Herbert

A Shanghai Morris

‘I’m sorry could you say that again – we have to do what?’

‘A performance. In front of 300 people and the Mayor of Shanghai. With British characteristics… Remind me, what do British people actually do again?’

Having signed up to help run the UK’s stand at East China Normal University’s inaugural cultural festival, I was expecting a reasonably relaxing afternoon. Handing out leaflets, answering questions about the nation’s ‘foggy capital’ and pretending not to notice as curious onlookers took pictures of my pasty white face at extremely close range.

However, this illusion was cruelly shattered when, with a week until the big day, the event organiser contacted my fellow countryman in charge of running the stand. He informed us that all countries had to put on a short performance fitting of their nation’s heritage and traditions.

Performances are a big part of Chinese society and most Chinese have at least one party piece they can trot out on demand, be it a song, a poem or a hidden talent that you never knew existed – and most are not afraid to show it off!

I think it’s fair to say, however, that unless we’re especially gifted in one field or another (or exceptionally drunk) most Brits are not great performers. I for one am particularly hamstrung by a combination of self-consciousness, false modesty, and much more importantly having no aptitude or desire for performance of any kind.

When I first came to China as a teacher in Beijing I was often caught unawares at staff dinners or other school events by senior management asking me to sing a song or show them a traditional British dance. The trouble is I’m almost completely tone-deaf – my version of the Tight Fit classic ‘In the Jungle’ was so bad that staff at Blackpool’s ‘Karaoke Klub’ actually turned off the speakers – and my dancing resembles the first stumblings of a baby giraffe.

Nevertheless, according the Chinese rules of giving and showing ‘face’ disrespecting your superiors by refusing to perform is much worse than looking a prize turnip for a couple of minutes. In order to get by, one has to try and strip away the ingrained societal programming and become a performing monkey, or at least develop a coping strategy to help get through it. My method was a raucous version of the Beatles classic ‘Yellow Submarine’, which once brought an entire downtown Beijing restaurant to a standstill…

And so back to the festival – what on earth do the Brits actually ‘perform’ that represents our culture? It was a tough question. As it was December we thought about Christmas carols, but as none of us could sing this was quickly ruled out. An executive meeting over a few bottles of Qingdao followed, during which the idea of Morris dancing was suggested, laughed at and quickly dismissed. Then – as no one could think of a better idea – it was decided that actually Morris dancing was the way to go. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, apart from the fact that none of us had ever even seen a live Morris dance before, let alone danced in one, and there were only three Brits at the university willing to partake in our project. What happened next could only be described as a ‘Morris Miracle’. Firstly, we needed to complete the Morris Square, and our Belgian friend Dennis was recruited on the promise of a great adventure.

A further meeting was held several days prior to the festival, where we drank more Qingdao and stitched together moves from various youtube clips for our routine. One rehearsal and we were ready to Morris. I assembled the costumes – complete with Morris sticks made from old broom handles – and this was the end result:

Morris men forever

On the day itself most of the Chinese thought we were German, most of the Germans thought we were taking the mickey, and friends who came along to watch were worried we were trying to imitate the droogs from ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

Costumes apart (and a few howling Morris mistakes from me), our dance was extremely well received, although we never did get feedback from the Mayor. We even featured on the poster for the university’s second cultural festival – although we weren’t invited back to recreate our masterpiece! You can catch video evidence of our mind-blowing routine in the video above.

Good day!

[This article was first published on the 6th of December 2008 on the now defunct ‘Chengdont’ China blog]

2 Responses to A Shanghai Morris

  1. Heather says:

    We are having an event at our school YCIS Pudong. Our stand will be a traditional fete, we would love to have Morris dancers at the event, dancing and maybe teaching some Morris moves to the students. The event is on the 10th of May 2014. Are you able or would you be willing to come along?

    • tomherbert says:

      Hi there, thanks for reading 🙂 Many apologies, but as only one of our morris circle now lives in Shanghai we’re going to have to turn down your kind request. I hope the event goes well and best of luck! Tom

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