East meets West

As a young documentary maker, I first went to China in 1983 to make a film about Ireland’s leading
traditional band, The Chieftains, who were embarking on a ground-breaking tour of a country that
had previously rarely opened its doors to artists from the West.

Remember, that is less than thirty years ago, however, soon after our Swiss Air flight had touched
down in Beijing, I was astonished to see a host of baggage-handlers cycling out to the plane to
unpack the hold, not a mechanised vehicle in sight. As our bus from the airport made its way into
the city, the streets were filled with bicycles, hardly a car to be seen. And everyone seemed to be
wearing identical clothes.

Even our English-speaking hosts from the Chinese Ministry of Culture found us a curiosity, and I
vividly remember my experience of going to the main railway station in Beijing one evening a few
days later to make sure all our equipment was safely stowed on a train to our next destination in the
city of Suzhou. As I dwelt on the crowded forecourt with my Chinese interpreters in tow, tens of
people walked up to me, several touching my beard, and examining me as though I had just landed
from Mars. All were remarkably friendly and far from threatening.

Paddy Maloney, the leader of The Chieftains, believed Irish music had a far more intimate
relationship with Indian music, rather than Western folk forms. He was convinced that somewhere
along the line what has become identifiable as Chinese traditional music crossed with the early
foundation of the Irish folk tradition, and whereas one strand moved east, the other moved west.
To help prove his theory, Paddy had an audacious plan to share the stage throughout the tour with
Chinese folk orchestras, teaching Irish airs to our hosts, whilst The Chieftains learnt traditional
Chinese melodies.

From the first day of rehearsals in Beijing, music became the common, instantly comprehensible,
language. As we filmed away, I couldn’t believe how verbal communication became redundant,
replaced by music as the universal language.

Much of the mystique about the two very different cultures was swept away, neither side remained
a curiosity anymore. Through the music performed on that tour, we all managed to get a far clearer
insight into each other’s culture than could have been achieved by reading a whole library of books.
We should never lose sight that, by and large, we all share similar aspirations and hopes, we all laugh
and cry, and our emotions are the emotions of one large family we call humankind.

China has changed beyond all recognition since 1983, and I never went back to the mainland again,
although I did become a frequent visitor to Hong Kong. I got to love its hustle and bustle, looking
down into basements packed with men playing mahjong, slamming down their tiles in fierce
competition. And, most importantly, experiencing some of the most delicious food I have ever
tasted, something never replicated save for more than a handful of Chinese restaurants elsewhere in
the world.

In bringing you our Evening of Chinese Delights, I want to share with you a flavour of some of those precious memories I have cherished for the last thirty years, reminded of them as I am each day as I glance at the beauty of my Sanxian, a traditional Chinese three-stringed lute that now hangs proudly in my living room.

Find out more about our Evening of Chinese Delights event here.