Bill Kay's Review on "The Real Love" Concert -
August 28, 2011
Yesterday was one of my most extraordinary days since I moved to California five years ago. The Pasadena Convention Center complex was taken over by Supreme Master Ching Hai International for the fifth anniversary of its internet and cable TV station. The organization, founded by the 61-year-old daughter of a Vietnamese doctor, stresses that it is not a religion but instead is devoted to promoting Quan Yin meditation and vegetarianism and healthy living, including the indubitable wisdom “refrain from speaking what is not true”.
In baking heat I parked the car in the underground car park at noon and walked round to the front of the center, where a red carpet had been set up with a covered walkway, an obliging pack of photographers and a bland-looking greeter in a grey suit, holding a large microphone. He looked at me a shade quizzically as I approached, so I waved at him and announced “Her Majesty’s Press!” His jaw dropped and he let me through. It never fails.
With our friends Bobb, Barbara and Will, we walked round to an adjoining exhibition hall, showing a selection of the artistic creations of the Supreme Master Ching Hai. Asians in tuxedoes eagerly lined up to be photographed alongside life-size photos of a surprisingly western-looking SMCH. The quality of the art was less important than its purpose – to boost the works of the Supreme Master. However, the demands of peering politely at the exhibits were certainly relieved by free water and orange juice, chips, nachos, bags of mixed nuts and some very tasty mint-flavoured chocolate biscuits. It was a good plan to take plenty of these, as a long afternoon lay ahead.
The main event was in the auditorium, where we were to see the premiere of a musical, The Real Love, heavily based on the Supreme Master’s life story, followed after some delay by a brief concert from Don McLean. The day was to finish with a vegan banquet.
Several C-list US TV ex-celebrities opened proceedings, including a bizarre speech from 85-year-old Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman, who kept going off script. She was funny. Once upon a time.
The musical was professionally produced and performed, with expensive set design and choreography. But, as with all art created for an ulterior purpose, it lacked the spark that you get when something is put together simply to make the audience go “Wow!” The show dutifully covered the main events of Ching Hai’s life and how she left her German doctor husband and ended up in India in search of enlightenment. I particularly enjoyed the singing of Joanna Ampil as the heronie.
The intermission was the usual scrum of people lining up for water and the restrooms, which we solved by crossing the road to Gelson’s supermarket to buy bottled water and use their excellent restrooms. But that's our little secret!
The musical was followed by the presentation of checks to half a dozen worthy LA and other local charities – and a webcam appearance by Ching Hai in person. She said how much she liked the musical, which she had been watching, and then continued on to give an account of her philosophy whilst struggling bravely with some form of eye trouble. The Supreme Master said it was 3 am where she was, suggesting she was in Europe - possibly Germany.
By the time Ching Hai had finished, she had been interrupted several times by people chanting “Don McLean, Don McLean!” and “We want Don! We want Don!” This met rival chants of “Vegetarian is good!” which didn’t have the same ring about it, somehow. The time was about 6.30 pm, suggesting that the afternoon had been going on a touch too long for some people.
But we eventually got Don McLean, apparently for less time than intended, but he was on good form and got what was left of the crowd to its feet for American Pie.
That left us with a mixup over the catering. We went back, as instructed, to the art room, showed our tickets and the girl said “But these are double-0 tickets” – a reference to the fact that they were complementary. We were referred to a girl with a phone, who nervously phoned for advice and eventually told us to go to another building right over on the other side of the complex. Apparently there were four banquet venues. After lining up at the new one, another girl told us that this was the VIP event and we did not have VIP tickets. We would have to go back to where we started. Voices were raised. An Asian Ching Hai functionary in a striking yellow dress promised to sort it out and hurried away. Her American colleague watched her leave, turned to us and said “try these” – new tickets with the magic letters VIP.
Down we went to a magnificent banqueting suite laden with everything from sushi to cupcakes, delicious imitation prawns and chicken, mock-beef, sandwiches, and sweet potato stew. We got a goody bag to leave with, featuring a tasty bottle of non-alcoholic spiced wine that we decided would be excellent mulled on a cold night.
We sat next to an Englishman who used to run a shop near Chelsea football ground, and was naturally a fellow fan. We looked forward to today’s Man U/Arsenal game, little realizing what an historic game it would be – 8-2 to Man U! And that after Man City thrashed Spurs 5-1 in London. It's all down to Chelsea from now on, I think.
But that was all in the future. We had had an absorbing, fascinating and utterly fulfilling day that I cannot wait to repeat.