August 17, 2008
I’M Singin’ in Beijing I’M Singin’ in Beijing
By GAIL COLLINS
DID YOU realize the Chinese Communist Party was that much into cute?
The world knows now that the adorable little girl we saw warbling "Ode to the Motherland" at the Olympics opening ceremony was not really singing. She was a Potemkin performer. Lin Miaoke, 9, was fronting for Yang Peiyi, 7, the girl with the best voice but imperfect teeth.
"The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression," said Chen Qigang, the music director, who went public with the news that the dual-little-girl strategy was concocted after a member of the party Politburo intervened at the last minute.
Now this is an Olympic crisis everybody can get into. While your heart goes out to the athletes suffering the agony of defeat, very few of us can internalize the trauma.
But having the whole world know that you've been deemed insufficiently attractive - now there's Everywoman's nightmare. When Peiyi told a Chinese TV station that just being able to sing was an honor, you could imagine her in 10 years insisting that she didn't care about going to the school dance since she was having so much fun sewing carnations onto the homecoming float.
If she grows up to discover a cure for cancer, when they hand over the Nobel Prize, will everybody say that it was nice that she found a way to make up for those unfortunate front teeth?
The idea that appearance is valued more than performance is one of those painful facts of life that people always hate to be reminded of. But Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics and human rights at Columbia, seemed puzzled by why anybody would be surprised by this kind of switcheroo in a country where help-wanted ads make it clear that job candidates must be good-looking and the 380 hostesses to the Olympics were all required to be the same height and weight.
"This particular technique seems so standard. I'm a little puzzled about why everybody's stuck on this example," he said. "I really don't know how a little girl in China might respond to being told your teeth are not good enough. But doesn't that happen all the time in Hollywood?"
Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, saw the story more in terms of consumer fraud. "What she sings is a very moving nationalistic song," he said. "The people were so emotionally involved. ... Now the Chinese people feel they are fooled. The psychological hurt is enormous."
One could certainly argue that American outrage over Peiyi's situation is overkill, given the fact that families here gather together in front of the TV to watch reality shows in which unattractive people are permitted to audition for talent contests so that the judges can make fun of them.
And in China, the fact that authorities were trying to put one over on the viewers was somewhat undercut when Chen, the music director, disclosed the switch in an interview on Beijing Radio.
Actually, the organizers had started with a completely different little girl, 10, who was fired at the last minute when the ceremony's director, Zhang Yimou, decided she looked too old. We do not want to imagine the repercussions when this kid hits her 30th birthday.
Miaoke then got the part - until a senior Communist Party member, sitting in on one of the final rehearsals, announced that her voice "must change."
It's not actually clear whether it was the party boss who decided that while the voice had to change, the cute exterior needed to remain. But Zhang, a well-known movie director, seemed to start channeling "Singin' in the Rain." Peiyi (whose teacher described her as a well-behaved child who didn't like to show off) got the Debbie Reynolds part - the nice girl singer doing all the work behind the curtain while the star mimed under the spotlight.
Meanwhile, Miaoke was apparently singing her 9-year-old heart out onstage under the illusion that the world was hearing her voice. According to Jim Yardley's report in The New York Times, Miaoke's father said he had to tell her that everybody was hearing Peiyi instead. "The only thing I care about is that my daughter will not get hurt by this. She'll understand when she grows up," he added.
You have to wonder. Miaoke may turn out to be the real victim in this story. It's one thing to be thrust into the role of Debbie Reynolds. It's a lot worse to go overnight from symbol of the Olympics to Ashlee Simpson.
Gail Collins is a columnist with The New York Times.
Originally published by BY GAIL COLLINS.
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