China’s dazzling place setting

Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- A billion Chinese do care.

Under a blue-gray-black-white-brown August sky, the People’s Republic of China put on a marvel-arts show here on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008. It was a five-ring Olympic circus under the stars, even if the stars were scarcely visible through an every-hue-but-purple haze.

How they did what they did, who can say? Ancient Chinese secret.

What I can tell you for sure is, the opening hour of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics bent the mind and stretched the imagination. It was a floor show that made the most spectacular revue in Las Vegas look like a church picnic, and it was a privilege to see it in person.


Chicago is going to have to go a ways to top this if the 2016 Games do come its way. Los Angeles and Atlanta staged opening and closing ceremonies with everything from 84 grand pianos to a parade of pickup trucks. (Take a guess which city did which.) What could Chicago come up with -- 2,016 dancers in Blues Brothers suits? Hundreds of Second City comedians, each doing their stand-up acts?

I had a bird’s-eye view inside the “Bird’s Nest” stadium. It was yet another of those steamy summer nights China is having that make you long for someplace cooler, like, oh, Egypt. You know, the kind of night where you leave a pool of perspiration wherever you go and your freshly laundered shirt soon turns as damp and limp as a car-wash rag.

This being the Far East, I couldn’t even be sure what day it was, let alone what hour. Let’s see, was today today or was today yesterday? Does anybody from Chicago know what time it is? If it’s 8 o’clock on a Friday evening in Beijing, then what time is it now in New York, lunchtime or bedtime? And when do people in L.A. get to see this on TV, 15 hours from now or 15 hours ago?

To pass the time, as the National Stadium clock counted down toward the start of the show, I made a lame attempt to come up with a better name for the arena: Mandarin Square Garden came to mind. I also considered Yangtze Stadium. Feng Shui Way Park. Chairman Mao Ravine.


But the sobriquet “Bird’s Nest” really does fit the bill. From the outside, the place really does resemble a thatch made out of about 20 million Popsicle sticks.

And it wasn’t very long before a flight of fancy began to take shape. A production of industrial light and magic that was dazzling in its scope, as I am sure a few thousand Olympic athletes, 91,000 personal eyewitnesses and 4 billion television viewers will agree.

Beijing began with a preshow show. It was sort of a Super Bowl prior-to-the-kickoff thing to get you in the mood for the socko one at halftime.

A master and mistress of opening ceremonies came out first, mugging and nudging each other and giggling and acting just too darn cute. I can only assume that they must be talk-show hosts here. Yao and Kathie Lee.


But then it was Fou time.

A Fou is a drum. It is a medieval instrument made of ceramics or bronze that sits atop a square wicker table. Hundreds upon hundreds of them were rushed into the arena. It looked like somebody was having a sale at a Pier One Imports.

Ah, but then the drumming began. The drummers strummed the drums. They slammed the drums. They beat the drums. And pretty soon the Fou fighters were rocking the house.

I wasn’t sure anything could top that. But in steady progression, the Chinese gave us a little bit of everything. Human kites, flying high in the sky. Temples constructed out of thin air. (Or thick air, this being Beijing.) Enormous scrolls, large enough for Gulliver at his largest.


Uplifting and wholesome and altogether inspiring. I thought of it as Up With the People’s Republic.

Well, I should have known. What did I think the Chinese were going to throw at us, a game of Yahtzee?

By the time the Parade of Athletes had begun, I’d had my fill. An hour later I might be hungry for more. But this was the no-business-like-Olympic-business production number that China had worked on for years, and nothing, not even the monotony of the athletes walking (and walking and walking) in a variety of preposterous costumes “Project Runway” would reject, could be anticlimactic enough to spoil the show.

I emerged from the Bird’s Nest as satisfied as a canary-fed cat. Chicago, if you do get the Games, you’ve got your work cut out for you. You have only eight years to come up with something even more original than this. Get to work.