Saturday saw China’s first ever Miss Laowai competition in Beijing, a beauty pageant that “focuses on all beautiful aspects and talents of foreign women in Beijing,” (according to the host). The contest is designed to promote cultural exchange, showcase foreign female talent and support the community. Below is a detailed timeline of what actually happened.
6.30 Arrive to find a large crowd milling confusedly around the entrance to the Twenty First Century Theatre. No evidence to indicate that the pageant is being held here and, helpfully, every gate is barred while guards are refusing entrance to all ticket holders. The show is supposed to start in half an hour.
7.00 Backstage. No sign of my press pass but seeing as the New York Times photographer has a Staff Pass and I’m standing next to a male reporter wearing a Contestant badge, that’s a moot point. Oh look, there’s a press pass on the floor. A BON film crew is doing the rounds. Interview a few of the real contestants who enthuse about “cultural exchange”, “making a difference” and “showcasing female beauty”. Impossible to get anything remotely readable; everyone’s either been coached or, worse, they’re true believers.
7.10 One question no-one seems able to answer: what exactly is going on? There’s a troupe of children milling around in karate suits. What? The competing smells of various pungent perfumes is overpowering backstage so beat a retreat for now.
7.20 Ticket-holders can pay 580 yuan for a VIP pas that includes “access to a VIP lounge and… free food”. Well, I seem to have discovered a vacant all-you-can-eat buffet (that is, a few tiny sandwiches and some sausage on a stick)! No complaints, though – I didn’t have to pay 580 yuan. It’s all washed down with some warm, flat Coke.
7.35 No one seems quite able of answering even basic questions about what to expect. “How many rehearsals have you guys had?” “None.” “None? OK, when did you guys first check out the theatre?” The day’s run-through was apparently supposed to begin at 10am though apparently none of the girls bothered arriving till after lunch.
7.40 Bad news. Chow, the Chinese host, is a no-show. One of the female organizers has agreed to help out with the translation.
7.45 Large printed stickers are handed out, so each contestant can be labeled with a number (except 4) to wear all night (there are only so many Olgas and Svetlanas anyone can remember, presumably). “Put these on your dresses!” the organizer pleads. “But what do we do when we change costumes?” someone plaintively wonders.
7.55 Being backstage feels a bit like looking behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. Being front-of-house doesn’t feel much better, however. The enormous stage, flanked by two computer screens that will broadcast videos throughout the evening, seems dirty and bare, and we still seem no closer to starting.
8.05 And it’s on. The show starts with what we’re told is a traditional Polynesian dance: that’s a 5-man troupe (complete with coconuts bras and straw skirts) who give two long routines. For it to work on such a large stage, you would need at least five times that amount of performers and do something a little more exciting than just shaking your hips.
8.10 Pompous ceremonial music! Tonight “showcases what life is like, living in China, through the eyes of laowai women” we’re told. There’s a pause. “We are now going to introduce you… to these ladies of the night!” I look at my companion. Did she just call the contestants hookers? Yes, she did.
8.15 Each contestant is introduced over loud pop music, while an introduction video for each entrant with a separate soundtrack plays (the remarks are all predictable variations on the theme of “I love China/Chinese people/food”). There’s also a female MC who gives an introduction of her own (example: “We think they’re from Down Under – when really they’re on top! Yes, this contestant is all the way from Australia!”). The result of this mish-mash? Barely anything can be heard. You can’t help but feel sorry for the contestants.
As Number Two strolls on (Ellen from Indonesia), both computer screens crash. The audience watches a mouse desperately scroll through the desktop, looking for the right software (this takes a full two minutes).
8.20 “Contestant Number Eight is from a very cold country…” Is she? A manifestly African-looking woman just strode on stage. “Actually… Ladies and gentlemen… She comes from a country… with a beautiful ocean view: Liberia,”” the MC concedes.
8.25 One of the problems no one’s anticipated is the crane-mounted camera that periodically swoops and maneuvers over the audience and stage. Not only does it cast an enormous shadow, blocking the video screen, but it has an awkward habit of dive-bombing the models. The operator also seems to be quietly determined to get as much upskirt as he possibly can.
8.35 An interval features a man playing an electric erhu while lip-synching some Chinese pop, followed by an unexplained five-minute blackout. Next up are those kids in karate gear (aha!) performing… breathing exercises. Not exactly a showstopper but good for a few “aahs”. The judges are introduced, and made to stand up and bow.
8.40 Hooray: The first proper round, the “Traditional Dress Competition” is about to begin. The women have each chosen a costume that best represents their country. Cue one Canadian cowboy, some Eastern European Morris dancers and several fine examples of African “fruit bowl” couture. It all passes without a hitch (mainly because the contestants are allowed to do their thing without any technical assistance).
8.50 Time for another interval show: this time it’s Nan Tian, smug Romanian winner of some foreign-guy-sings-in-Chinese competition, who belts out a schmaltzy love song of his own making, replete with music video showcasing a qipao-clad Nan at various locales (among them the Great Wall) doing Chinese-y stuff. We’re spared an encore because, once again, there’s a technical hitch, leaving Nan to ask (in Chinese) stuff like: “Er… have we got anyone from Dongbei in the house?”
9.10 It’s time for the talents. These included making balloon animals, a love duet, innumerable traditional dances and a demonstration of traditional Chinese medicine – but sadly, no live sex show.
9.30 Bo-Yee Poon, 26, US, gives a soothing taichi demonstration in a shimmering outfit. Then, Efua Bucknor, 22, Ghana, emerges in full-body military uniform and marches silently around the stage, finally stopping center-stage with the air of a hardened military general. She gives what can most generously be described as an apparent homage to Nelson Mandela, concerning the plight of beef in Africa. (“Oh Africa. Africa needs beef!”). Only when the histrionics have died down does she enunciate the word “peace” – nothing to do with beef after all.
9.40 Two acts later, Musonda Banda, 18, Zambia, emerges with a steely expression and black streaks on her cheeks, dumps a bag of sand on the stage, says the sand is Africa, and fervidly implores the audience to “Look at my skin color!” She adds that she is proud – “Not ashamed!” – to be black and that the streaks on her face are “cheeks stained with the tears of Africa.” Her “talent” appears to be bollocking the audience.
9.45 Embarrassing enough, were it not for the astonishingly ill-timed performance that follows: a lusty rendition of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend from Russia’s Maria Makarenko, 18 that would have made Charles Taylor proud. The MC excitedly reminds everyone that Maria is a “natural blonde”.
22.00 I look behind to see that roughly half the 900-strong audience has left. Meanwhile, three female singers pose onstage (backs to the audience), patiently wait for the DJ to once again sort out the music.
22.11 Finally some excitement: a quzheng recital from Moldova’s Ana Ropot turns into a surprise salsa routine. An audience starved of entertainment is galvanized into raptures. We have a winner…
22.18 A word from the sponsors: a Wenling tourism board video, followed by a stilted speech from the head of Wenling tourism (an archetypal Chinese suit). Unfortunately, this leads to a further mass exodus; this even seems to include a couple of judges.
22.25 The evening gown stage passes by uneventfully.
22.43 Oh no! The Polynesian dancers are back.
22.49 The awards ceremony begins. Has it really only been five hours? “I hope this will [come to] be the greatest foreigner’s pageant in the world,” announces organizer David Sinkala. Contestant line up nervously and the judges are invited on stage to decide.
22.52 We’re “still waiting for the results” apparently. There’s nothing left to do except stand around awkwardly and smile.
22.55 The wait continues. Come on, guys, who hasn’t paid their bribe?
22.58 Impossible to adequately describe the chaotic final ten minutes. First, the 18 contestants are weeded down to ten, then the MC encourages what’s left of the audience to shout out their favorite numbered contestant. An ugly mob of shouting ensues. Suddenly the MC blurts out the name of the winner. Everyone looks puzzled – we were told that there was going to be a list of five runners up first.
11.00 In fact, there is and the early announcement was an error. No one knows quite what to do now: exit in shame? Out comes Sinkala to announce the winners in five categories. These are Miss Goodwill, Miss Charity, Miss Talent, Miss Congeniality, Miss Virtue, though how they are decided (especially the last) is a mystery. Some crowns fall off and the sashes don’t fit but no one cares. The all-you-can-drink after-party is now moments away and I can’t be alone in needing a stiff one.
11.05 Ana Ropot is crowned Miss Laowai. The address of the afterparty is announced and the audience turns as one and stampedes to the exits. Sinkala is still on-stage with the Wenling moneyman, threatening to return next year.
11.15 At the party, it turns out “all-you-can-drink” is a serious “misprint”. We all get one beer each. Those VIP ticket holders must be wondering who to kill. I ask the new Miss Laowai about her new role. “My father always used to say that if you can offer only beauty, you should do it,” she observed. “But if you can offer something else beside the way you look, you should use the second [route], because there are many, many pretty girls… but there aren’t so many girls that speak seven foreign languages.” Nice.
So there you have it: the female experience of being a foreigner in China encapsulated in one long, eye-opening, five-hour experience. Interesting to know how many return customers they get next year…