Hollywood East

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am

They train their whole lives - mastering sciences and maths, bracing themselves for massive gravitational forces, and risking their lives - for the honour of being the first men in their long and proud country's history to walk in space, and how are they rewarded? They have to sing in public.

It has always been a strange practice of mainland (and Hong Kong) officials that any public hero has to also act like an entertainer. The crew of Shenzhou VII might be rocket scientists, but back down on Earth they have to perform like variety show celebrities.

Watching their Sunday afternoon patriot-fest at Hong Kong Stadium, I felt a twinge of embarrassment for Liu Boming, Zhai Zhigang and Jing Haipeng as they were corralled into singing Descendants of the Dragon, one of those nationalist hymns complete with flag-waving children in the background.

Nationalism is one thing, singing is another. I can understand a country using its most famous and gallant citizens for jingoistic leverage, but why do they have to be treated like circus monkeys - trotting them out to entertain the masses and making them perform tricks for cheap amusement?

How about we just let them dazzle us with their professional expertise?

It's the same thing the gold medal-winning Olympic athletes had to endure this summer.

Frankly, these tours can't be fun for them. After years of rigorous and disciplined training - forced to forgo a normal life away from their families for the honour of China - they have to take part in a cross-country tour; sitting through long, self-serving banquets with bureaucrats and politicians, before singing pop songs with local artists.

It might be fun the first few times, but city after city the athletes were marched out like cattle to do the same tricks and silly diversions.

I remember watching a live press conference in Hong Kong as a bureaucrat prattled on, but what intrigued me the most was the bored and fatigued faces of the athletes in the background. Some of them looked like they were going to slit their wrists if they had to sit there for another 10 minutes. A week later the same thing happened at a Macau press conference and the desperation factor looked to have exponentially increased.

Similarly, China's first astronaut Yang Liwei had to grin and bear the dog and pony show by himself when he returned from space in 2003.

Perhaps a little public karaoke is a welcome respite from all the other tiring duties. I bet they even had to practise the songs before the trip.

I wonder if these national heroes even have a choice in the matter? Perhaps it's part of the Asian psyche to celebrate any occasion by including a karaoke act. Whether you're qualified to sing or not is irrelevant, maybe the ritual of singing is itself an indication of success.

That may be so, but it's still bizarre to see three middle-aged astronauts acting like the Three Tenors in jumpsuits.

I wonder if Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were ever asked to sing with Dionne Warwick or Neil Diamond on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1969? And despite his multi-gold medal success, I don't believe the US Olympic Committee requested swimmer Michael Phelps to drag his butt across the country as a sideshow for nationalist glory.

Reducing these real heroes to undignified activities far below their accomplishments is humiliating. I'm sure the organisers would argue that's what the public wanted to see. After all, it's just a cheerful little song.

Well, here's a new concept: who cares what the public wants? How about giving these esteemed men the respect and honour they deserve?

Let's go 'old school' and offer any future national heroes a ticker tape parade. It'll satisfy the curious public who want to see them and cheer their accomplishments. For those who are still curious and want to hear the astronauts talk about their experiences, we can arrange lectures and seminars at universities and schools.

Let's forget the tedious tours to The Peak and other attractions where - surrounded by security - they barely have time to take in anything of interest. I'm sure if they want to see our sights, they'll come back and enjoy them later - out of the spotlight. And if they really want to sing, there's always the opportunity for them to retire from their professional careers and sign up as entertainers with the Emperor Group. That would be the Hollywood East way.