Behind the Scenes: Being an Emcee at the Portsmouth Chinese Year of the Monkey Gala

03:27 (UTC±00:00), 18 FEB 2016 | GBR HARROW, GREATER LONDON

This was an evening very much unlike any other. For a long time, I had my eyes on China Central Television’s Spring Festival Gala — itself often ridiculed. I wondered why eight emcees were needed — but loved it when in early 2011, a CRH high speed train model rolled into the studio.

I was totally unexpected for something like this to happen to me, for my remote control to be replaced by a microphone, and for me to be standing in the centre of the stage in front of thousands — instead of leaning back on the comfy chair.

This completely changed on Wednesday, 17 February 2016, in the city of Portsmouth, right on the southern coast of England. I was to emcee, along with another host (a lady), the Cultures of China, Festival of Spring Year of the Monkey gala to a massive audience in Portsmouth’s King Theatre.

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Whilst I had been on a stage before, I had never had a spotlight shone on me (except for a fashion show I co-hosted in early 2004). To get this done in front of a crowd of upwards of a thousand (an estimate for attendance was along the lines of 1,500 or so) was just amazing. I had never been briefed how it worked. The other host had a fair bit more experience, and I was simply told, like a plane landing at Heathrow: Follow me.

A visible-to-the-hosts-only white cross was where we’d stand. In front were people, people, people, and even more people. But to seasoned hosts, none of us were scared in any single way. Indeed, in particular I relished the moment.

Never mind it was celebrating the Chinese Year of the Monkey; as emcee, I knew the audience expected a perfect performance throughout, and in a “typical David Feng” moment, I added a lot of elements I learnt from my previous event emceeing experiences, as well as my stage experience and 12 years of Switzerland. A nice, confident smile was visible at all times. Amplified was a voice that went up, down, up and down again, but in a natural way (not like the overreacting north Korean newsreader!), so to catch the attention of the audience in a “nice” and “natural” way. At times, both hosts interacted with one other, and hosts went between languages (in particular me, alternating at times between Mandarin Chinese and English, although I was mostly emceeing the event in the latter). We did what we can to keep everything lively and entertaining; having been treated to a great amount of humour in the onboard announcements on British Airways, but particularly SWISS (and the erstwhile Swissair), I took a little inspiration from these and tried to talk to the audience as if they were next to me as old friends — a particularly neat trick that separated me from “the rest” as early as late 2003. (I knew this worked because my wife told me they loved it!)

There were a few minor tech glitches — I had prepared written cue cards, but my pen gave up the ghost (although it worked perfectly for the China Immigration Arrival Cards!), so I had to rely on my iPhone. The iPhone was on its last legs, so I had to make sure Low Power Mode was activated. With that on, the iPhone would go to sleep every 30 seconds, so I had to play this amazing stunt of pull-dragging (yes!) the screen so it’d stay awake, whilst waiting for the other emcee to introduce our next stunt (read: performance) in Mandarin Chinese. Thankfully, everything worked great in the end. (That was smart of me to charge the iPhone whilst backstage!)

We introduced probably the most amazing crowd of people (read: talents) onstage. The Deputy Director of the Chinese State Council’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office went onstage first (they pulled it off), and I had to act as a whispering (read: amplified!) backstage translator (and somehow I managed to pull it off at times when I thought I’d switch off altogether; there was huge pressure on me to keep it brief whilst conveying as full a message from Chinese to English as possible!). We next had the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, as well as the head of the local Chinese association, address the audience at the very beginning. Zhao Dage and Zhang Lei, both stars of the most recent episode of The Voice of China, were introduced by me in English (and by the other presenter in Mandarin Chinese). Tracy, sitting upstairs in the VIP area, must have gone wild: she loved the divas and their songs. For her husband to introduce the divas of her dreams must have been an amazing Monkey Year gift!

Collaboration between backstage and the main stage was optimal. One very Swiss aspect I had learnt after Zürich for 12 years was that you had to be ready and prepared at all times when possible — full stop, no buts — and as far in advance as possible. This was why I prepared scripts for not merely the next performance, but at least a subsequent one, and where possible, two subsequent acts. We went through this backstage (mic off, of course!) and it worked perfectly. The design of the stage wasn’t too different from the TEDx stage in Guangzhou, as we could snap away pics of people performing (!!… Imagine having your emcee secretly snap away whilst you do your bit onstage!). Finally, we had to be as flexible as possible. There was a fair chunk of what we said that we decided upon probably moments before announcing the next show to the audience.

On the very last performance, organisers came and started congratulating us early. Always aiming for perfection, I reminded myself that all is not done until it is completely done. (This also applies to parking your car — in a typical Swiss manner!) Smiles replaced the “thank yous” until both of us wished everyone good night at the very end. Both of us were highly lauded, but my WeChat later that night was flooded in messages of support. I was told that amongst the Chinese communities involved (also those involved in getting me to emcee the Portsmouth gala), that I myself was a particularly popular host. The male emcee was brilliant. He was one real professional emcee that everyone liked a lot. This was a message that the Chinese communities later sent me via the Web. Your act was just absolutely amazing. Everyone, both guests and performers, really enjoyed you onstage. The tone of your voice, the way you presented yourself to others… you were a big plus to the gala tonight, went another message, this one straight from one of the organisers. I was flooded in appreciation, in love. Very much like one of my “life slogans” from late last year: To love and be loved.

Folks: I love you all for the love and for a great evening. Thanks for letting me and everyone else make it special to all.

I’m ready for an even bigger stage in future.   

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