25 October 2007

Chinese are subtle creatures

It was an exhilarating evening. A well-loved Chinese colleague was moving on to our Beijing office, and everyone that mattered agreed to come to his farewell dinner. despite the short notice. I picked a steamboat place for greater interaction. It paid off - it is difficult to remain distant when everyone is tackling hairy crabs with bare hands and suckling prawn curry off their fingers.

The colleague was a true northerner. He toasted every single one of us with a full glass of beer each and then quietly paid the big bill on the pretext of going to the bathroom. More toasts should have happened for an occasion like this, but our predominantly southern team was generally an alcohol-intolerant one and a married-with-kids one at that. While I was a better-than-average drinker, the context was not appropriate for me - a woman - to make alcoholic advances, even extremely platonic ones, to a man. In any case, our team was already much more chatty and relaxed than any other team dinners I had ever been (which were ALWAYS with the big boss), so I should not grumble.

Slightly bolstered by inebriated exhilaration, a few of us decided to go for karaoke after dinner. I typically do not fancy karaoke since I sing like Miss Kermit, but I readily agreed since I enjoy the company of the other three colleagues and I have often heard that the well-loved colleague (WL colleague) sings incredibly well.

It was true. In general, Chinese are subtle creatures (perhaps not when doing business), so when they say the WL colleague sings incredibly well, he sings like Leslie Chung. The amazing thing is of course he is an extremely down-to-earth man. He is hardworking, quietly knowledgeable and produces good work. His wife and teenage son are in the north, so he has been hoping to go back for the past two years. The few times I have walked to the subway station with him and another colleague after work, I have always been amused by the northern idioms and anecdotes he cites.

I also re-discovered Chinese songs in the 3 hours we were singing. I was reminded once again of how much I enjoy them and why in spite of that, I never play Chinese songs at home: they are so subtly expressive that they strike you at the deepest.

I therefore reaffirmed a personal observation I have always harboured - the Chinese language is able to encapsulate much more in one single syllable compared to English. It is perfectly normal, actually even poetic, to sing in Chinese, "If you walk under the spring rain of Taipei | Hong Kong will also rain | The mood of the walls is getting mouldy waiting for you"*, but to sing about getting mouldy sounds quite strange and banal in English indeed.

After a particularly involved song (Anita Mui's 《女人花》) at the end of three hours, you could see that everyone was thinking about it. Everyone alluded to how it reflected Anita's life, but no one said anything about their own.

The Chinese poignancy hung in the air, but it was one that was not to be pierced.

* Karen Mok's 《双城故事》:"...当你走过下梅雨的台北|香港也会|就连墙壁也为你心情发霉..."

06 October 2007







03 October 2007