Equestrian sports come into fashion in China
Mainlanders are joining expats for lessons at riding clubs on the weekends, while premier show jumping events like the Longines Global Champions Tour in Shanghai are evolving into social celebrations
Decked out in elegant dresses and eye-catching hats, the 1,000 or so women could have been easily been mistaken for an audience at a fashion show.
But they were gathered to watch a top-class equestrian competition, the Longines Global Champions Tour, held in a square in front of the China Art Museum in Shanghai last month, the latest addition to the mainland’s broadening sports culture.
The number of Shanghai residents who take part in equestrian activities is estimated to run only in the low thousands. But that did not deter the municipal government from bidding for the rights to host the show, which is recognised by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports as the leading show-jumping series.
Jiang Lan, general manager of the state-owned sport event organiser Shanghai Juss Event Management Company, said 200,000 foreigners work or study in the city and about seven million visited from overseas every year, so the local government should foster a cultural environment that can serve international residents and visitors.
“This is part of the reason to hold equestrian contests, as we do with other international games, the Formula One and ATP World Tour, for example,” he told the South China Morning Post.
Xue Jinfan, deputy director of Shanghai Equestrian Sports Administration Centre, a government body supervising sport development in the city, said equestrian activities were gaining in popularity.
The first horse club opened in Shanghai about a decade ago, and the city now has 19, while the number in Beijing exceeds 100.
At first, the facilities were mostly to serve the expatriate population, especially the pupils of international schools. But most members now came from the local communities, according to Xue. As mainlanders’ incomes rose, their interests in sports and culture became more sophisticated, he said.
The clubs in Shanghai are scattered throughout the city’s suburbs, and more than 3,000 young students and hundreds of adults attend regular sessions. There are more than 100 licensed trainers, Xue said.
“Shanghai people are generally open to new things and many people like equestrian sports because it is not only healthy and challenging, but also combines sport and culture,” the official said, noting that a century ago horse racing took place in the downtown of Shanghai.
The Longines tour is also aimed at testing the waters for a wider adoption of equestrian activities. Western horses cannot enter the mainland, due to differences in quarantine standards compared to Europe, Jiang said. That is also why the equestrian competitions of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 were held in Hong Kong.
The Oriental Morning Post has reported the European Commission last year voted to allow a one-month lifting of the restrictions on sending horses to Shanghai after the city’s quarantine authority ensured the hygiene of the area where the horses would be kept.
With the permission, Shanghai became the first mainland city to host a Longines tour last June, About 4,000 seats were available, and 70 per cent of tickets, priced at 1,480 yuan, (HK$1,876) or above were sold. The quarantine ban was temporarily lifted again this year, and about 90 per cent of the tickets were sold.
And mainlanders appear to be taking to the fashion aspect of equestrian activities with ease. In Britain and the United States, key races are important style and social occasions. At last year’s event, many in the audience brought umbrellas to shield them from the sun and dressed casual. But last month, the women took their cues from overseas and turned the day into a celebration of fashion
“I saw a slew of girls dressed beautifully having their pictures taken by their friends or media in front of a wall of flowers,” Jiang said. “A girl came with her boyfriend and when she saw what other people looked like, she blamed our staff for not telling her the dress code and she immediately left. She felt embarrassed for not dressing appropriately.”
Club owners say it was an uphill battle to attract clients at first, but their persistence is paying off. Wu Qiang, owner of the Shanghai Songseng Equestrian Club, said he opened his club nine years ago believing that “equestrian activities would be hot in Shanghai sooner or later”. He’s still waiting to realise a profit on his 100 million yuan investment, but is encouraged by what he sees.
“I am a little bit relieved that over the past two to three years our member numbers have increased quickly and the market is more mature than before,” he said.
His club has more than 500 members. Two-thirds of the 100-plus horses at the club are breeds from Europe and 30 horses have been bought by riders. Members must pay about 60,000 yuan a year for the care and accommodation of the horse.
Xue said the main challenge to the further development of the field is the limited supply of land in Shanghai.
Takako Yoshikawa, a rider with 20 years of experience, said other impediments to wider acceptance of the activity included the high cost of training and the often remote location of some clubs.
In Beijing, the cost to rent a horse and trainer is about 200 yuan for 45 minutes, but in Shanghai the price is about 300 yuan. Clubs were located far from the city centre and traffic during the weekends was bad, Yoshikawa said. -- 2015 May 19 SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
Singapore’s richest horse race debuted on Sunday with hundreds of wealthy mainland Chinese in attendance, raising organisers’ hopes that their growing interest in the sport will fuel a regional circuit.
The jeering and finger-pointing familiar to followers of the city's political scene infiltrated its musical shrine when audience members started clapping at the wrong moment.
Sshhh! Dos and don'ts for concert-goers in Hong Kong (and everywhere)
After the rumpus caused by someone clapping in the wrong place at the Staatskapelle Dresden's Hong Kong concert, we explain why its frowned upon these days
Kevin Kwong, Arts Editor, as told to Bernice Chan
Clapping between movements was once expected, but clapping prematurely is a different matter.
Concert etiquette has evolved over the centuries - something that was previously deemed acceptable is now a sign of a barbarian in the house. Such was the case this past weekend during the opening concert of the 43rd Hong Kong Arts Festival, when renowned German orchestra the Staatskapelle Dresden performed Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen and, before the 20-minute piece ended, an audience member began to clap.
Conductor Christian Thielemann had an annoyed look on his face, and soon afterwards other audience members got into a shouting match over the culprit’s actions inside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.
However, it’s worth remembering that in the days of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the young composer and performer expected his audience to clap in between movements, and wrote to his father in 1778 about how excited he was at hearing the warm appreciation for his music.
By around 1900, though, some music lovers had come to believe that certain works should be appreciated in complete silence, and soon the moment just before the house lights are dimmed and the audience becomes quiet became known as the “Bayreuth hush”.
Richard Wagner, who staged his operas in the German town of Bayreuth, seems to have been a stickler for silence: he demanded this “hush” from his audiences, and didn’t want music fans wildly clapping for their favourite singers either. Later on in the 20th century, with the advent of recording technology, applause was seen more as a distraction than an encouragement.
Nowadays anyone who claps in between movements is considered uncouth and hardly qualified to be sitting in the audience.
Besides clapping in the wrong places, these are five more no-nos for audience members at classical music concerts (and yes, they've all been observed at concerts in Hong Kong):
Talking on mobile phones
If someone's annoyed you in other ways at a concert, do share it with us.
-- 2015 March 3 SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
Off notes: lessons in etiquette for China’s classical music concertgoers
When 27-year-old Beijinger Cynthia Li sat in the magnificent National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) near Tiananmen Square trying to enjoy Mozart’s Flute Quartet No.3 in C major, there were some off-note moments.
“There was always someone in the audience trying to use their camera phone to take photos, using the flash,” lamented the former music student who now works at a luxury hotel in Hainan . “Others were clearing their throats.”
For a musician on stage, Li said such behaviour was akin to the audience “performing its own concert, by sneezing loudly, dropping mobile phones or even cutting fingernails”.
Although concert hall ushers would gently remind the audience to behave, Li still felt annoyed and upset.
“This is the finest concert hall in the country, but if I feel annoyed here, imagine what musicians must endure in smaller cities,” Li asked.
Li’s concerns point to one of the obstacles China faces today as it aspires to be a cultural power.
Deng Xiaoping’s campaign of reform and opening-up in 1978 launched modern China’s rise to prosperity and with it a hunger for culture, including Western classical music.
In the past decade, local governments have spent billions of yuan building grand performance venues across the country that have hosted some of the world’s finest ensembles and orchestras.
Thanks to government incentives and generous corporate sponsorship, more mainland concertgoers can get through the door to enjoy the greats.
In Beijing, the government-run NCPA, which took about six years and more than 3 billion yuan (HK$3.8 billion) to build, hosted 910 performances last year, entertaining 920,000 people.
Western classical music has been known in China since Jesuit priests introduced it to the late Ming imperial court at the start of the 17th century. But it did not make wider inroads until the early 20th century, beginning in Shanghai. The New Culture Movement in the 1910s and 1920s broadened its popularity; many Chinese musicians studied abroad and later at home when the Shanghai Conservatory opened in 1920s.
Music education, especially for piano and violin, is strong among middle-class families in China, as well as Japan and Korea – to the extent that many of the world’s finest classical musicians are East Asian by descent.
Unlike classical music in the West, whose audience is predominantly grey haired, more young faces are being lured to classical music concerts on the mainland.
Classical musicians from mainland China such as composer Tan Dun, and pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi, have gained international fame in recent years. Thanks to the government’s programme of affordable tickets, an estimated 185,000 university students have seen performances at the NCPA.
But some things haven’t changed. Zheng Xiaoying, the renowned 86-year-old female conductor of the China National Opera House, laments that while the first-class venues have been erected in record time, the concert manners of the rapidly expanding audience have barely changed.
Zheng, who founded the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra in Fujian, recalled the first performance in China by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in October, 1979.
The venue, the Beijing Capital Gymnasium, was filled with people who had just stepped out from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. The conductor, Herbert von Karajan, stood on the stage and waited until the whole hall was silent.
“Many people were late, and we waited for a long time,” Zheng said. “Everyone held their breath because we all knew what he was waiting for.”
In Zheng’s eyes, Karajan gave an important lesson in theatre etiquette to the audience: don’t be late, and keep quiet.
After that concert, Zheng devoted herself to passing on more knowledge of theatre etiquette to concertgoers. Between movements of her concerts, she takes a few minutes to explain aspects of classical music to the audience, from the meaning of a prelude to the correct time to applaud.
“I don’t think our audiences are intentionally rude, but they’re not aware of the traditions of concert etiquette,” Zheng said.
In Chinese tradition, concerts were often held in restaurants and teahouses, where applause and cheers from the audience were a sign of appreciation when performers hit a high pitch. In contrast, an audience of Western classical music refrains from applauding until all the movements have been performed.
The lack of national education about Western music also makes it difficult to spread such knowledge to all audiences.
“I taught them the very basics about concert etiquette 30 years ago, but I am still trying to teach them the same thing,” Zheng said.
Ke Hui, a Beijing-based music critic, agreed, saying change would take time and patience.
“They have no knowledge about it, just like jaywalking, waiting in a queue and travelling abroad – these are totally new experiences for many mainlanders,” Ke said. “They need to be helped and guided, by other audiences, musicians, and theatre staff.”
Change, in some places, is under way. Since the NCPA opened in 2007, announcements are made ahead of every concert to remind the audience about concert manners.
The NCPA management also works with Beijing schools in music education and theatre etiquette, providing 1,090 courses to 616,000 people last year alone, according to China Culture Daily.
Some efforts had started to bear fruit, Ke said, especially among regular concertgoers.
“When I first attend concerts at the NCPA in 2009, some of the audience would eat oranges, but we don’t see that anymore,” Ke said.
However, some express deeper concerns.
One Hong Kong classical music lover, who did not want to be named, said that after seeing the China National Symphony Orchestra perform at the NCPA in late April, she began to wonder if it was worth travelling to the Beijing theatre only to suffer from the audience’s bad manners.
During the concert, she observed, some people left after a movement had started, while others kept playing with their mobile phones.
Noises such as zipping handbags, flipping leaflets and loud coughs also left her annoyed.
“The musicians deserve our respect, but as a Chinese, I felt ashamed,” she said. “China has very fine music houses, and governments have gone to great lengths to arrange concerts by leading musicians. Bit if our audiences fail to behave properly, we will lose that edge.” -- 2015 May 19 SCMP