There’s a much anticipated annual event, a bit of cultural breeze in this money-driven milieu, with their fancy name: Shanghai International Literary Festival. And you know what, they are so openly studentophobic. To my question 2 days ago why reduced-priced tickets are not sold online, the chief organizer snapped, I quote: “Bfff, ha!, sure, student tickets! Then hundreds of them turn up and take all the seats! And how do we check whether they really are students?” – he skurried in and out of the room, meanwhile repeating that he’s been organizing this festival for 10 years. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Doesn’t it take one split second to ask the guests to present their ID upon entrance? Anyhoo, ten years is ten years.
Remembering the crowds in which I found myself whirling last year, I wanted to make sure that this time I book the tickets well in advance. So I started running around in circles early, no problemo, I thought, it’s China, I sure by now am prepared for chaos.
The official program on the website clearly states that the only way to purchase entrance tickets is online: mypiao.com. Tickets cannot be bought on the spot in advance. Well, this at once makes the situation complicated as, in order to shop on a Chinese site you need 3 things: understand the language, possess a bankcard that allows you to webshop and prices should naturally correspond to the ones that are offered on the program. If there are both adult and student tickets, then both should be available at the allegedly only place where tickets are sold. Logico. Trying my luck a few times on mypiao and failing each time, was only the beginning of my frustration: students tickets were not offered by the electronic system, only for adults, which were 3 and a half times more expensive. Where are they sold then, if neither on the spot nor online?
Bueno, the only possible way out of this catch-22 was to phone them and inquire how to get students tickets then. Calling them was yet another puzzlement as the only number they provided on the program was that of mypiao, the online ticket sale guys. The only decent solution seemed to be contacting the restaurant directly (where the entire event takes place) and asking them how to get hold of the students tickets – since the only venue they stated did not. The girl, who answered and introduced herself as Anita, super kindly explained, in some enviable command of English, that I should worry not, she’d confirm with her bosses and she’d simply reserve some tickets for me that I could later pick up at the restaurant in person.
We were on the phone for 25 minutes and we went over the 4 talks and writing workshops I’d planned to attend. Rest reassured, she confirmed again when she conscientiously called on Monday: just pass by our restaurant any time next Saturday to pick them up and really, no worries, we are here all day for the clients anyway. So, anytime.
5 days later I call in, late morning. First I notice the small queue of people behind the restaurant, browsing in a make-shift bookshop and buying tickets, in person, for lectures and talks. Bueno, Mypiao then must be a challenge for others, too. Good for me, I’m not the only clumsy one, but how come tickets are sold here as well? Second, I ask a few staff members where Anita is, the girl who has my tickets. Nobody seems to know this soul. While they come to their senses, I think, in the meantime, I want to slip into the loo but that has also disappeared. I’ve been to this building so many times; this must be just a trick. I go ‘round and ‘round and I find it got cordoned off: since there’s already a talk going on and only those with an entrance ticket inside listening to this dude are permitted to their sudden biological needs. Miss, you can go to the one upstairs or…you know what, just move the folding screen and pop in to this one. – whispers a lady in a calm voice then rotates towards the speaker at the back of the other room.
On the way out, tiptoeing halfway in between the oriental-themed folding paperboard and the bookshop, already feeling like a trespasser so trying to blend in by switching to stealthy shoe-gazing mode, I bump into a Benny Hill. A morose Benny Hill. He looks at me, from above down on me, like an angry schoolmaster (the one without that concealed/ modest wisdom in their eyes) on a naughty child, how I dared move the temp walls and sneak behind it. Perhaps I even managed to pocket some stolen tunes from the ongoing performance undulating from inside which I had not paid for. Ooh, I only hope he is not the one who would know Anita, the token-lady’s, whereabouts.
I ask at the bookshop. No idea. I should try the office at the back. I knock, I enter. What a cool office. Reminds me of some Parisian, fin-de-siècle tenement house. A woman’s talking, pretty wound up, facing the large windowpane with the grizzled sky in the background over the Huangpu, looking out on the Bund, probably wondering when this gloomy cold will finally decide to give our glassy skyline a break. She doesn’t turn to acknowledge my presence but from the door I notice another room opening from the one I stand in and a Chinese girl typing in it. She comes and she looks like someone who could be Anita. No miss, tickets are sold in the bookshop. She doesn’t give her name away. Then, when I faintly move, and there’s Benny behind me, towering and frowning again at me through the thick optic frames. I am trespassing again. I should not be loitering in the back office. Life is going on at the front: performance with its access to toilets or bookshop. He has a German accent. Make up you mind, miss, pay and/or leave – suggests, almost palpably, the whole ambience.
I shuffle back, still wondering who this mysterious Anita could be. Who here would know? She was the one who called me back, leaving her name; she must be working here. And where may the nicely and timely booked tickets of mine be lurking? And here she comes. And here she talks. First to the bookshop people, in Chinese, of which I now have a snippet of comprehension. But if not that, her sudden, bright-red blush, would also be easily readable: she has none of my tickets and some slots are already fully booked. She turns to me, sorry sorry so sorry, miss. Quietly explains, with a lot of nice words and endless sentences, after I’d talked to you on the phone and carefully put all your contact details, my boss asked me to erase the whole thing since you’d be able to buy them here today. Nevertheless, I only hear the most obvious: no more seats to the writing workshop I so wanted to take part in. I pout, maybe even sneer. It’s my problem, because of her mistake. She smiles, and disappears suddenly. Like characters in a Shakespearean play: entering-exiting in haste the scenes on stage.
And oh, Dios, here is Morose Benny again, the clumsy apoticketary man, prancing out of the office, this time flailing with an A4 in his right hand. “WHO and WHERE is the one who wants to buy a ticket to the writing workshop? (He’s scanning the small crowd in the bookshop, while I raise my index finger, like a first grader at a math class, attracting all the surrounding flock’s attention and I again seem to intrude, this time on his personal space, standing right in front of this tower’s nose). We always tell people: THERE’S NO TICKET SALES ON THE PHONE! I’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR TEN YEARS – somehow his breathing quickens and at one point his eyes starts going in every direction, or swiftly fixate on me suggestively – I’VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR TEN YEARS! This is exactly what we want to avoid” – he cavorts off in frustration.
This goes on a few more times, either Benny alone or he bobs up together with undercover ticket-mistress subordinate. They come to me and explain that I was clearly told on the phone that tickets CANNOT be booked on the phone and can only be purchased on mypiao.
Anita joins from the background, aligns to her boss’s right, nodding yes yes yes, she did call me but only to confirm that tickets cannot be booked on the phone. Bah! It starts sinking that, in some intangible, surreal dimension, I am surrounded by simpleton, halfwit, crooked baboons who bend truths to suit the company’s wallet. And to save their faces. We must be putting on quite a show to the gawking spectators at the bookshop. While looking incredulously at these two monkeys, who are trying to convince me that I’m Gozdilla, claiming some false rights here, I’m beginning to sense so sharply on the back of my neck the people’s eyes who are just paying for their tickets-on-the-spot at the counter. I’m probably trespassing the silence of bookstores, as well.
Moral of the story: A literary festival at a restaurant called Glamour. Of course they brazenly target the more lucrative, elegant adult priviliged, instead of potentially interested students, including local kids, with possibly thinner wallets. Who would want scruffy young intellects when they can have the elegant expat highbrows, exclusively? Well, I guess we have to think here of the local government control – by keeping it so “upmarket-low-key” Glamour is allowed to keep the event running without jeopardizing, with a bit of literary stir, the routine flow of the harmonious society.
What Glamour offers every year, the festivals’ program and the invited writers on it are exceptional, particularly in Shanghai, which always lags behind Beijing in cultural and art life. Still, their attitude and service need serious improvement: last year one of the organizers smirked at me when I wanted to ask for a complimentary juice at the bar (included in all ticket prices), just because he noticed it was a cheaper student ticket. This time, they not only denied the fact that one of the staff had indeed wrongly made a reservation on the phone, but went as far as scold me for making the phone call on the first place, and later presume that I could collect them at the venue where as I was asked to, let alone intend to get into talks that had already got full and to which my tickets I’d booked 7 days before, were sold, too.
I used to work at a university, where we organized pretty prestigious, international workshops and conferences. First, we never made it difficult for anyone to attend and second, it’s a human factor: we recognized “special” situations, especially when the mistake was made on our part: if there’s enough space for 10 chairs, there should be a tiny bit more ground for an extra one.
My 4 tickets have Mypiao.com printed on them.
“Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect”