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White Facing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts

A month ago I was sitting in a 2,000-person concert hall a block from Tiananmen Square as a packed crowd of Chinese clapped enthusiastically to the "William Tell Overture." There is something campy and American about the piece—associations with the Lone Ranger come to mind. Though it was neither written by an American, nor popularized in the United States, it has been described as the “frequent target of plunder by brass bands in the years during which they dominated the American musical landscape.” I don’t think that was meant as a compliment, but it is nonetheless a canonic piece of music.

I’m unable to say if the “William Tell Overture” has been absorbed into the Chinese culture through a foreign transmission of Bugs Bunny cartoons. So much of American culture seems off limits here that I had my suspicions that the audience was just playing along. It’s an easy enough song to pick up the beat. For an encore the band played, "Hail to the Victors." The crowd went wild. My suspicions deepened. Maybe I was just embarrassed.

“Hail to the Victors” is, for any college football consuming American, the iconic if a bit obnoxious fight song of the University of Michigan. The song does away with the any pretenses of sporting competition, and moves right ahead with the presumption of victory. That is, to my mind, one of the differences between Michigan and the rest of the state school landscape—that is, success is assumed with a certain brash inevitability. Cal Berkeley just plays The Grateful Dead after touchdowns.1

There is a strange mixture of amusement and horror watching the uninhibited celebration of something unknown. The audience adopted the fight song, winged helmet and all, wholeheartedly. It felt like a snapshot from future reality in which the University of Michigan had finally succeeded conquering the world, which is sort of why I was there in the first place.
We went to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (designed by Paul Andreu, opened in time for the Beijing Games) to see the University of Michigan symphony orchestra play a small concert with a relatively well-known Chinese violinist. I, of course, didn't know him. We had been recruited as event staff in exchange for a free ticket, a chance to meet the provost and score two free meals. Once we arrived at the Beijing-Raffles hotel, the de facto venue for hosting foreigners where an initial event was held, we realized our services were basically useless.2 We were simply American faces in a crowd of admitted Chinese students.

This is apparently not an unusual practice. In China, it’s called white-facing, a somewhat out-dated but still employed ritual of renting pale Westerners for purposes of appearing alongside Chinese businessmen. Typically this takes place when a company wants to give off the appearance of having a global presence or an educated workforce. Having white people on staff is, I’ve been told, a symbol of power. 

Having gone into the event with my own ulterior motives, the slightly objectifying nature of this arrangement felt more like a quid pro quo, one in which the University, having already cashed my tuition check, came away with the upper hand. I performed dutifully as a silent brand ambassador, providing just enough bland pallor for the potential cohort of foreign students (and their four-year unsubsidized tuition commitment) to digest as being authentic to the American college experience. Had I known my true purpose, I would’ve ditched the business casual (purchased only days before from a discount market) for blue jeans.

And while you might think that this would be an easy entrepreneurial venture for an otherwise unemployed graduate student to make some cash, apparently white-facing is mostly reserved for the portly and the well-fed. Not great prospects for a group that showed up for the free food.

1. I made this up.
2. Interestingly, the Beijing Hotel was the only building within the old city taller than five stories until 1959.