By Jillian Smith
In the cold mist of an ungodly morning hour, I sprinted for the bus heading to Chongming Island. I dared not think about what would happen if I didn’t catch it. Today was the grand opening of Chongming Island Folk and Cultural Center, and for some insane reason, my friends and I had agreed to headline the festivities’ entertainment.
As I sat on the bus, eating my Jianbing (something like a cross between a burrito and an omelet), I rehearsed the steps over in my head. We were dancing a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Apparently, he remains a hugely popular icon here. I was feeling particularly nervous, as I was slated to have a solo featuring a very Michael-like kick in the air that arched down to a full split, and I wasn’t sure how flexible I was going to be in the cold of the morning. Assuring myself, I reasoned that Chongming is a small island, typically used as a nature preserve, and therefore the crowds would not be that great.
Such wishful reasoning was dashed, however, the moment we stepped off of the bus. Throngs of young and old, men and women, musicians and monks were all congregating around the outer gates of the center. Parents were fussing over their children’s bright, ornate costumes. Young army boys high-stepped back and forth in formation. Older women giggled at us and asked to take selfies.
I gulped at seeing such a mass of humanity. My nerves were furthered by the realization that I had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into.
My friends and I, around thirty in all, were shuffled into a large temple, where a giant dragon, pieced together from the wood of ancient wealthy families’ beds, stood imposingly. There, bald-headed monks with bright yellow robes handed us sticks of incense. We were told to put it in a large container near the dragon’s snout. I came to find out later that the dragon was the symbol for the emperor of China, and all Chinese people, as it is believed that they are descended from a dragon. Therefore, showing respect to the dragon symbolizes a wish of goodwill on China and its people.
After this, we were blessed by the monks and escorted into a massive courtyard. Here, a man sat with what looked like a giant cannon over a fire. Immediately, I jumped and covered my ears; the “cannon” had fired deafeningly. All laughing, the locals brought us over to what was on its inside, popcorn. The legend is that popcorn is a gift from the dragon. The god of heaven had tried to bring a famine to the world as punishment, but the dragon stopped the famine by giving people this new food.
After our popcorn feast, we were taken to the main square. Here, hundreds of people had gathered. Seated above us on a dais was the mayor of Shanghai and a host of what looked like red arm banded party officials. Porcelain looking girls with red dresses and stringed instruments played as we walked by. The crowd parted and we were suddenly in the dead center.
A hush came over the crowd and I knew that our time had come. My friends and I scooted into a formation. A quick breath and the first long, low blast of “Beat It” sounded.