[Skip to content]

Sign up for our daily newsletter
The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Laurel and Hardy

We flew into Beijing on the same dayas the Kirov Ballet. The next 14 dayswere full of paradox and irony. Ticketsfor the Kirov’s Swan Lake wereover £100, yet I was issued withbanknotes worth eight-hundredthsof a penny each. In major cities andalong the area of the three gorgeson the Yangtze people are relocatedto new housing without any negotiation;yet collective obedience doesnot extend to road traffic discipline,which is the worst I’ve seen. In acountry of 1.3bn people the conceptof self-service is unknown as labour isstill very cheap; there’s no need forparking meters as a lady can bedeployed on the spot to issue tickets;nor is there chewing-gum on thepavement as it’s removed by hand.Yet in metropolitan areas the shopsare full of consumer goods at westernprices; and the latest generationof Chinese is showing the telltalesigns of overweight, thanks to westerndiets and the imperialistic expansionof KFC and McDonalds. In theXintiandi area of Shanghai, which isredolent of the restored Covent Garden,there is a Bavarian restaurantand coffee at £2 a cup; the area liesnext to the site of the first nationalcongress of the Chinese communistparty! Thankfully, canned music isfairly rare as there are plenty of musiciansprepared to play in restaurantsand bars; a six-piece orchestra playingSchubert accompanied supper inthe Shanghai Hilton. What bliss!White snakeIn the end we eschewed the Kirovand on that particular evening joinedan intimate crowd of a quarter of amillion people in Tian’anmen Squarefor the flag-raising ceremony ontheir national day. This denial meantthat after two weeks I was hungry tosee the inside of a theatre but notdesperate enough to visit the Chineseopera.Eventually, it was Hong Kong Balletthat saved the day with a ‘rockballet’ called The White Snake. TheGrand Theatre in Hong Kong’s CulturalCentre is an imposing butsomewhat austere building. Thestalls were half full and the upper levelsempty. The air-conditioning wasfierce, so those of us there huddledtogether for warmth. The music herewas pre-recorded, another of life’slittle ironies, and comprised worksby, inter alia, Pink Floyd and Genesis.The performance was competent,the costumes colourful, and the plotobscure. It concerned a Chinese taleof a white snake, which is saved froma nasty fate by the hero, then transformedinto a beautiful girl, who inturn saves him and all live happilyever after.Legendary makeoverI have recently read Ovid’s Metamorphoses(in translation I hasten to add)and am struck by the way legends oftransformation permeate early civilisations.We are relatively familiarwith the myths of Egypt, Greece,and Rome, and without these andsimilar stories from other cultureswhere would artists derive inspiration?Think of Swan Lake, Ariadne aufNaxos, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,The Nutcracker.Earlier this year I was introduced tothe ‘Butterfly Lovers’ violin concertowhich, as with The White Snake,deals with a Chinese legend. Parallelcultures to those in the West developedsimilar ideas and I suspectthere are similar fables in all earlycivilisations.The notion that humans transforminto stars is a common one and notimpractical in the sense that theancients, without the bloom of citylights, could see, in effect, an infinityof stars and thus never be short of adestination for the latest makeover.Buddhists developed the logical consequenceof such thinking andpromise reincarnation as another lifeform on this planet. The Greeksfound it a useful way of namingplants. For instance, Daphne, inorder to protect her virginity, soughtprotection from the gods whoturned her into a temperate evergreentree. So she became laurel andhardy.