In our last Blog about YeYe’s 91st Celebration (before the intervening video of my 77th!), I tried to recreate and outline my memory of the banquet and my first realization of the status I had been given as Ding Hongkui’s, “Di Yi Waiguoren Xuesheng,” or “First Foreign Student.” But an added surprise was still in store for me, although most of the other participants were all aware of this added and anticipated treat.
A riotous midnight parade from the 4th floor banquet hall down into the eerily deserted and winding, narrow, completely empty streets of what would be called Wuchang’s “downtown” to arrive in mass at an ancient high ceiling photography establishment’s entrance display room and on into large portrait studios in the rear, where we were to be arranged, more or less herded, onto a bleacher style seating platform.
My reference above to a “riotous parade,” and “more or less herded” is a reference to the amount of alcohol consumed that night at the banquet feast. This was one tight, happy bunch by the time the banquet ended and we stumbled out and down the streets to the photography studio. Maotai (also the name of a village or area of southwest China where maotai, the alcoholic beverage comes from), a fiery concoction of distilled sorghum, is just one hell of a sledgehammer drink, but food must be consumed along with it or psychotic reactions are the norm. Baijiu (White Devil) a category of clear liquors of which Maotai is member. Chinese feel that the food cushions the alcohol effect. Drinking this stuff with food slow the effects, otherwise just maotai by itself will fry the brain! More on this as we continue.
Photography portrait studios were common enough in small town America before and during WWII, we’ve all got wedding pictures of our parents or grandparents taken in them, but they were long gone by the mid 1980’s. So, it really was a deja vu experience to enter this establishment, and a complete surprise to me as no one informed me where we were going, I was just along for the ride or midnight stroll as it was. It was entering this studio that I had a further revelation about YeYe’s position in the community where we lived and his importance to it. First of all, having the whole studio open to us at this late hour made me feel like being in a Mafia Don’s entourage. The whole downtown was rolled-up for the night and here we were marching in drunken relvery as a rather unruly and boisterous mob. (Not everyone was tipsy, but I was for sure the only designated driver, if one was needed. Wives of some guests were pretty much in control of themselves, and there were no fights within my hearing or eyesight, as there were at the wake of his wife who died a few months later.)
The thing that really gave me an insight into my teacher’s high level of standing in the Wuchang community (later expanded into the larger Wuhan community, and later still into the National Wushu community that I was to discover years later here in America when the Internet World Wide Web materialized) on this excursion was the sight of single portraits of a phalanx of local Illustrious figures of one kind or another. The framed photos were huge, 3 to 4 feet high, hand colored and arranged high on the tall walls, lining both sides of the long, narrow display entranceway with its glass cabinets of equipment and photographs. What hit me like a mailed fist to the forehead were these framed pictures marching down the walls making a right and left turn to meet at the focal point of Ding Hongkui’s portrait on the far wall into the studios, looking more like a bald Albert Einstein contemplating universal cosmic theories while holding a hooked smoking pipe, than a Martial Art Master and foremost authority of the Tang System!!
By this time my head was exploding with trying to keep all the kaleidoscopic events, facts, experiences, both known and unfathomable to me, and to make some sense out of just what the hell was happening and why I was allowed to be here in the first place! If I had any reason to be at the banquet filling his wine cup it escaped me, though well trained monkeys can do something like that, but at this very important photographic event I was still ushered to his left side as a trusted lieutenant or family member, while my friend and translator, Liang Guojian, beside me at the banquet, was led up to the top right end spot in third row. I was later to learn that my position was purposeful and at the order of Grandfather Ding, so that even the inebriated friends who pushed each other out of the way for better seats near the living legend did not even try to bother me and usurp where I sat. I was to learn later, and very glad I was oblivious to the fact until after his death and the splitting up of his school, many of his students, long-standing and ranked as well as newly joined had, let’s say in today’s jargon, “issues” with the foreigner. At the time, at THIS time, I was in the seat of Heaven at the left hand of the Almighty. And had no clue as to why.
The portraits: of the three accompanying this blog, the one of Ding YeYe holding a pipe came from his family and was given to me by them. Selden scanned it and the quality is due to not being able to take it out of its frame. But it does offer a peek and idea of what I write about above.
The two group portraits, with their backdrop of a Chinese landscape with a pagoda sitting upon the promontory heights, will draw this story of an extraordinary Martial Art teacher’s 91st Birthday Celebration to temporary halt, but the conclusion of the group photo shoot won’t truly arrive until the last and final entry to the tale. Suffice here to mention the small group portrait was meant to be of Dr. Chen and his associate partners in his ground-breaking venture, and YeYe and his top teachers, senior students, and the strange out-of-place mustachioed waiguoren. The larger group I think included more of the medical establishment, wives and deserving wushu people who survived the evenings festivities and maotai ganbei (dry cup) challenges!