Behind the Scenes at the Beautiful Hebei Photo Expo

23:46 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 06 NOV 2015 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

2015 10 31 Entire Group Photo

I took part in the Beautiful Hebei photo expo — something I wish I was involved with much earlier as it was one of these events where I absolutely did not regret being part of it. An extremely key reason for this being the case was because it was about Hebei, a part of China now about to be made famous by co-hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. In fact, that part of China, which the Western media preferred to think would be completely snow-less, was entirely snowed in just as this post went onto the Internet.

The celebration dinner tonight was a moment of appreciation for all who were part of this event. I took it very seriously as it involved something dear and near to me. My wife’s origins by family roots was from Hebei, that very same province that got highlighted there, and I actually taught for two years in Hebei (and would happily do so again in future). Hebei was a place for me to go to when I got fed up of Beijing (that would actually happen!… but not all the time), and I’ve basically explored all the major cities in the province, save for Xingtai and Hengshui in the south, and maybe Huanghua in the southeast. I wanted to be part of this event which involved a part of China that would host the Winter Olympics in 2022 because being part of the Games (even off the field) in 2008 was a great experience for me.

My role at the meeting was as event compère — or presenter or host — just pick your title here (I’m fine with all, really). For the rest of us, that translates to people who do little else than go onstage with a microphone, saying the right things, and trying to connect the dots for the audience. But that was only part of the story. With key events, you had to have two — a lady and a gentleman — so I had to get in touch with the lady presenter, Shuo Zhang, early onwards and try to figure out just how the scripts would work. A huge amount of details were put into the cue cards (which we tried to ignore as much as we can, just to appear more natural). I made more than the usual dashes to Waitrose, if only for the extra caffeine, because I’d be keeping late nights (up to 04:00 once!). No detail was spared — not even the back of cue cards, which could be spotted by eagle-eyed members of the audience. There was no complaints whatsoever: we just wanted to put on the best possible show for the audience.

The other thing some of us don’t really know about emceeing events (unless you’ve done it yourself) is that you’re actually not too different from a live broadcaster on television. (I kid you not!) Events can and do often change at a moment’s notice. We had a few of these happen to us, be it a change of speakers, or events shifted from one part to the other. You had to be absolutely committed to making sure they were in the right order. One other thing I had learnt from hosting Chinese and UK TV professionals in Xiamen last year was that introducing people the right way were absolutely key. In Xiamen, the other host literally got forced out because she started being too commanding onstage — and the UK delegates didn’t like that. The organisers then told me that for the event, things took a huge leap forward after I took my role seriously, and confirmed and double-checked details with all speakers, introducing them the right way.

Emcees have a very diverse life both on and off-stage — and it’s not all about the “bling” factor. In fact, for this event, it was anything but the “bling” factor. It included things such as printing event programmes, fixing printers that failed to work normally, and, at the end of the event, taking all picture stands apart and dragging them to the other side of Regent Street to a waiting van. None of us were complaining in any single bit about any part of this, as this was a total group effort. We were literally on a moment’s notice to do this or that. Our lunches were the simplest and quickest — we had to rehearse, perfect, optimise, collaborate and check with others, and ensure the right people were there at the right time. For any slight overruns or delays, we had to liaise with the audience and inform them that we’d be starting “very soon”. When the sound system had a problem, we had to ensure backups were readily available and were able to be put into use. We had to translate letters of congratulations and ensure we were reading the right bits of the translation.

But for all the work there was for us to do, this was very much worth the effort. Collaboration went ahead without a hitch, and we made every effort to appear courteous to all. No amount of pleases and thank yous were spared as we made our best effort to not only make people feel at home with the pictures, but also at home onstage with us hosting the show.

At the celebratory dinner, I made remarks which were recorded and no amount of gratitude was spared. The event was widely considered a success for the following three reasons:

  • The university deepened its already solid links with China. In this day and age, China really is the country that matters. Others, such as Russia and India, matter as well, but China is very much in a league of its own. And this time, it deepened such links by going outside of the classroom and into the arts world, associating itself with a part of China that’s deeply connected with the country’s future.
  • It made Hebei appear relevant in the wider world. For too long, Beijingers have thought Hebei to be the more “country bumpkin” part of the world. Your best case of that were in the case of highways — very-well maintained in Beijing, then the moment you went into Hebei, it became a nightmare of potholes. The realisation of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration plans will finally put an end to such discrepancies, and give Hebei the rightful honour and status it deserves. Much more importantly, Hebei will really have its coming-out party in 2022, when it will co-host the Winter Olympics.
  • This was a brilliant exercise in working together with the entire team. Of course, we as the hosts were very much collaborative, and ensured we were always in touch with the audience. We were lively, but also informative, and we kept the event largely under control, but also made sure those who would be speaking, performing, and joining the ribbon-cutting ceremony were very much valued. Everyone literally had their best moment simply being involved in this event.

I’ve had a few of these events in the past — the 05 December 2003 hosting of an English-speaking contest was a breakthrough moment for me, as was speaking and hosting at TEDx. The new benchmark these days will be 31 October 2015. It had to be: it enjoyed the blessings and full support of my wife, whom rushed onstage and made sure I looked perfect moments before the whole show began. Onstage collaboration was key, but knowing you finished the event and rushed to the warm, open arms of your loved one, just took it to a complete new level.