Here Ricefield Arts volunteer Kevin Schneider shares his first experience of volunteering at Glasgow Mela, as well as some of the cultural background of our activities this year:
It has been a few years since Ricefield started its presence at Mela, the biggest free multicultural festival in Scotland. I joined this massive event for the first time and was quite stunned by the diversity of cultures, colours, music, and clothing gathered at Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow. The smell of Indian, Pakistani, and various other kinds of food was a blessing for the 45,000 people record crowd, but a curse for us volunteers craving for the plethora of cuisines.
The growing Chinese community in Glasgow was reflected by a great turnout of Ricefield volunteers, and together we tried to make visible what is often hidden from the public: our Chinese community’s cultural heritage. A big part of this heritage exists as memories of childhood: making lanterns out of paper; building and flying your own kite; learning how to write Chinese characters. With these and other activities we tried to bring closer some of this Chinese heritage to the Scottish public. This was accompanied by several dance performances in Chinese tradition on the main stage of the festival and around Ricefield’s workshop space and stalls.
Lanterns (灯笼, dēnglóng) have had a central role in Chinese culture since the Han Dynasty. At least one hundred and fifty years BC, Chinese Buddhist monks started using the mostly, but not exclusively, red lanterns as miniature versions of ceremonial bonfires. Since those times, the Chinese lantern has been engraved in the Western view of China and still forms a major element of decoration and ceremony in the Chinese heartlands and beyond. Similar but even more colourful lanterns were decorating Ricefield’s spaces at this year’s Mela, and, with the help of their parents and our volunteers, children produced sticker-covered paper lanterns in large numbers that could be seen hanging from trees all around.
The main stage at Mela featured dozens of dance and music groups, from the various groups performing the traditional Punjabi dance Bhangra to the joyful Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band, but this year the visitors also had the chance to see Chinese dance performances. The Lantern Dance by children of the Glasgow Oriental Dancing Association (GODA) was for sure one of the visitors’ favourites. Their flawless performance was enhanced by the fact that they were just adorable. An absolute novelty was a passionate cross-cultural performance by Chinese, Flamenco, and Kathak dancers, supported by Ricefield. What surprised me was how easily one could find similarities among those three dancing styles from three distinct cultures, such as the movement of hands or facial expressions. Offstage, two lion dance (舞狮, wǔshī) performances by the martial arts group Yee’s Hung-Ga attracted the crowds to Ricefield’s premises, where they were met with cabbage spitting by our beloved, very acrobatic lion. This year, some of our volunteers also showed off their Chinese dancing skills, in traditional Chinese attire, to the visitors’ delight.
Have you ever wondered what your name looks like in Chinese characters? Based on a name’s pronunciation, similar-sounding characters can be used to assemble a Chinese version of non-Chinese names. As it is hard for us Westerners to remember those complicated Chinese characters, our volunteers helped the visitors by using their calligraphy (书法, shūfǎ) skills to “engrave” Chinese tattoos on their hands. Protected by a tent from the unusually strong Glasgow sun, guests were then invited to make their own paper dragons, which led to some splendid results. Dragons (龙, lóng) have been an integral part of Chinese tradition for at least 7000 years now, and were a popular symbol of power during the imperial days.
With a tradition even longer than that of lanterns, kites (风筝, fēngzheng) were invented in China at least as early as the 5th century BC, in the early Warring States period (战国时代, zhànguó shídài). Originally the kites’ sails were made out of silk instead of paper, which, together with a bamboo framework, made for a lightweight design. The first record of paper kites dates back to 549 AD, but they may have already been used earlier than that, since paper had been invented about 700 years before that. While historically they had been used for communication, signalling, and testing the wind, kites soon gained importance as a form of entertainment, which lasts until today. The skill of building kites was taught at the Mela Festival by our volunteers most skilled in handicraft, and the children were immediately filled with joy when seeing their own kites up in the air.
Chinese kites, paper cuts, calligraphy tools, and many other items connected with Chinese culture could be purchased at our merchandise stall. There, fortune favoured the bold visitor who bought our red pockets or Chinese fortune cookies. Both fun and delicious prizes awaited the winners.
Mela 2018 was a sunny summer treat for thousands, and I am already looking forward to our next big event, the first ever Glasgow Kite Festival on 22nd July! Come along and volunteer, or just fly a kite with us!