Chengdu Worldcon 4: The people you meet along the way

(This follows three previous posts about Chengdu WorldCon: Doctor Who, the pandas, and other panels and events.)

The very first person I met in Chengdu, at the spanking new Tianfu Airport east of the city, was a volunteer with a placard with my name on. They kindly took a commemorative photo.

It was a real thrill to discover that 尼古拉斯·亨利·懷特 – Nígǔlāsī Hēnglì Huáitè – is the Chinese version of my name. There was some confusion as to which was my family name and which my given name, but I was making the same mistake all the time in the other direction. I resolved to at least learn to write 尼古拉斯 by the end of the trip. (See below.)

Communication in China in general is greatly accelerated by the use of translation apps. When I mentioned that I got stuck behind a group of Austrian students trying to argue their way into the Forbidden City, the conversation was taking place by means of the museum staffer and the students typing furiously at each other on their phones. I noted that they were using English and not German for the non-Chinese end fo the exchange. There are several translation apps, and I didn’t develop a strong preference for any of them, but I did resort to them in case of grievous emergency.

This is probably also the place to mention that security on the way into the convention was heavier than most people are used to; you had to step through an electronic scanner and then a bored security guard waved a metal detector over your front, limbs and back and motioned you to proceed.

Readers who have memories of shopping in central Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s will be scratching their heads at the idea that this is anything out of the ordinary, and it was less intrusive than I had experienced at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City a few days earlier. But Arthur Liu comments that it was excessive by Chinese standards, in a piece well worth reading in translation.

Once inside the Zaha Hadid-designed venue, however, you got an immense buzz of untramelled activity. Like a lot of people I tried filming walkthroughs, but unlike many people I didn’t have an easy way to upload them at the time. This is my look at the main concourse and fan area.

There is immense curiosity about Westerners in China. Vince Docherty and I found that as we were staffing the Glasgow 2024 stall (with help from Ann Gry), people were coming up to us all the time to ask for autographs, selfies or (if they were journalists) interviews. Ken MacLeod, who is one of the Guests of Honour for Glasgow 2024, also helped out at the stall. When Vince put on his tartan, he was mobbed by adoring throngs.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, massed ranks of uniformed schoolchildren were brought to the convention by their schools, waving cheerfully to us as they passed.

We wondered if Vince was benefiting from his resemblance to Chengdu Guest of Honour Robert J. Sawyer; but I have photographic confirmation that they are in fact different people.

I did my best to work on my Chinese penmanship.

Judge for yourself.

Changing topic a little: Chengdu city and Sichuan province (once known in English as Szechuan) are well known for their spicy food, which locals kept warning me about, though it was well within my range of tolerance. I befriended an English teacher, I, and her little boy G, and on the Friday evening, they and G’s music teacher father L took me out to the Lakeside Ecology Hotpot, generally known by its Chinese name 茅歌水韵, Maoge Shuiyun, in the Suoluo International Ecology Park about 10 km southeast of the convention centre.

Sichuan hotpot is sheer delight. You get a shallow communal bowl of simmering spicy sauce, and a large number of strips of raw meat (and other ingredients) which you dangle in the boiling and highly flavoured water until they are cooked. I especially loved the thinly sliced pork kidney, and tripe, which I don’t remember ever having had before. Unfortunately I did not think to take a photo until after we had finished our meal.

Meanwhile there was a floor show on a platform in the middle of the small lake which was surrounded by the restaurant, featuring music, dance and even a clown, which I must say had little G’s full attention while we grownups talked about adult things such as Europe, China and education. I and L are from Yibin, 260 km south of Chengdu and the capital of one of the Sichuan province prefectures. It has a population of 4.6 million, greater than Croatia and not much less than Ireland; and I had never heard of it.

I strongly recommend Maoge Shuiyun if you happen to be in northwestern Chengdu. You don’t have to believe me; see the ecstatic reviews here. I enjoyed the convention very much, as I hope previous posts have made clear, but it was also nice to get away for an evening with friendly and hospitable company.

Back at the convention, I was very pleased to meet two Chinese writers in particular. My colleagues in Beijing had told me not to show my face in their office again unless I got a selfie with Liu Cixin, Guest of Honour of Chengdu Worldcon and author of The Three Body Problem; I tracked him down at the Hugo after-party, and he duly obliged.

At the pre-Hugo reception, despite its flaws, I was able to track down Shanghai-based writer Xin Weimu, who you may remember I raved about when writing up the Astounding finalists. Although her fiction has not yet been translated into English, she is completely fluent (having studied in Yale and Georgetown) and has written some non-fiction about aspects of Chinese society, which you can read here. We had a long conversation which was very educational for me. (You will note that I adapted my Doctor Who sash, given to me for the panel a couple of days earlier, for a different sartorial purpose.)

As Jeremy Szal points out in his must-read report of the convention, this was probably the most international Worldcon ever. I was maybe one of two Irish participants, and as far as I know the only Belgian participant (I had both passports with me); but other countries and continents were represented in numbers that I have never seen before. I made and renewed many other friendships among my fellow international guests – guys and girls, I love you all! (Well, almost all.)

Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos (apart from those already posted here), and I’m not going to name more names because I will forget people. In fact, the only other picture I have of talking to new friends is with Lisa Trombi of Locus and Arthur Liu of the Chinese Science Fiction Database, at the Hugo party, blurred by the bright lights. Symbolic, perhaps, and it seems an appropriate place to end.

Chengdu Worldcon 3: Panels and events

Apart from the Doctor Who panel, previously mentioned, I moderated one other panel discussion, was a participant in another and attended another two at Chengdu Worldcon. (I also spent a lot of time with Vince Docherty staffing the Glasgow 2024 desk.) Brief notes here from those panels, with photographs from the official convention photographer, and also from the opening ceremony and the Hugo ceremony (I missed the closing ceremony as I had booked an early evening flight, assuming that it would be in the afternoon).

The panel that I moderated was on the topic, “What Should I Have Read in 2023?” We had a really multinational group – left to right, Yasser Bahjatt from Saudi Arabia, Vince Docherty who is a citizen of the world, Lisa Trombi from the USA, Pierre Gevart from France and Dip Ghosh from India. You will note that none of us is Chinese; after the five panellists had given their recommended reads, I turned it over to the audience to recommend what we had missed in terms of local talent. Unfortunately I was too busy moderating to keep notes, so I hope someone else did. Pictures here, from roughly #650 to #800.

Vince Docherty and I both spent a lot of our time at the convention staffing the Glasgow 2024 desk. There were moments that we had to take a break, however, and one of those was for the presentation on future Worldcons. Photos are here, from roughly #340 to #500, but they seem to have got jumbled out of order as the first pictures on the page from this panel are of the last person to speak, which was me. Vince spoke on behalf of Glasgow 2024 next year, and I spoke for the Dublin 2029 bid.

The first panel that I actually attended was a reflection on Brian Aldiss’s early visits to China, with Wendy Aldiss playing a clip from his audio diary arriving in Beijing and showing some of the photographs he had taken with the other British guests on his trip. Who were they? Oh, nobody you’d have heard of, just Iris Murdoch and David Attenborough. Aldiss writes about his time in Chengdu in The Twinkling of an Eye with clear affection but also a clear gaze.

Wu Xiankui, now the president of the writers’ organisation of Sichuan province and an inaugural winner of China’s Galaxy Award back in 1986, remembered that he had been Brian Aldiss’s gofer on one of the early visits. Hua Long showed us the fanzines and newspapers in which Aldiss’s visits to China had been reported, and publisher Yao Xue talked about his available work in China. The moderator was Yan Ru, China’s Doctor Who superfan.

Shots from the panel are visible on this page starting at image 277 and ending at image 400. There’s a good shot of me in the audience here, but this is a nice one of the panel, followed by one of Wendy and the Helliconia trilogy.

The other panel that I attended was on “The Joy of being a First Time Hugo nominee”, chaired by Chris Barkley (who was a first-time finalist last year, and went on to win this year), with four other first-timers including Richard Man (who also went on to win), Wole Talabi, Marie Vibbert and Kuri Huang. I got to know all of them in the course of the convention (I knew Chris already). Photos from the panel here, roughly from #200 to #360.

This is the first year since 2018 that I have not myself been involved with administering the Hugo Awards, and I must say that I found it very helpful to step back and get the (overwhelmingly positive) feedback from the people who are most affected about what it means to them. Sometimes when you are wrangling statistics and eligibility criteria you can get decoupled from the human dimension, and I stood up in the audience to say so.

At all of the above panels, interpreters at the back of the room were providing simultaneous translation via earpieces. I believe that this was not the case for the majority of panels; as reported previously, the Doctor Who in China panel had a sole translator whispering into my ear (and my neighbour’s).

Simultaneous translation was also provided for the opening ceremony and the Hugos. We foreign guests were assembled at the foyer of the Sheraton and then bussed over to the formal entrance of the convention hall for both. (A lot of people also went to the Galaxy Awards in the Sheraton on the Thursday night, but I gave it a miss.) The opening ceremony was really dazzling, with a set of fantastic dance performances, an illusionist and a choir singing the convention official anthem, all introduced by noted Chinese anchorwoman Tian Wei, whose CCTV “World Insight” show I have guested on a few times.

Not on any of the recordings that I have seen, but still memorable, was a moment when Liu Cixin was talking to two twenty-somethings whose class had written to him as kids ten years ago, telling him and us how his work had inspired him. Liu was visibly tearing up with emotion.

Here is the best of the dances, an amazing performance with masks and aerial ballet:

And here is the convention anthem which closed the ceremony, with apologies to those who it has been earworming for the last ten days. At the end, and I am not making this up, the curtains at the back of the stage parted to reveal a flock of glowing drones, flying over the lake outside, in formation, in the shape of a spinning planet with rings, followed by various panda shapes. Actually that brief description doesn’t do justice to it; watch for yourself.

Someone was heard to mutter, “Winnipeg would not have been like this.” It may have been me.

On the Hugos. Alison Scott, a finalist for Best Fan Artist, and her colleagues at Octothorpe, which was up for Best Fancast, had appointed me as their acceptor in case they won, so I attended the Hugo pre-reception, the ceremony and the after-party in that capacity. (This is not secret and they discuss it on the latest episode at 15:12.) All my previous times attending the pre-reception and after-party had been at conventions when I was on the Committee and/or the Hugo team, so it was a learning experience.

In summary, the pre-reception was the least satisfactory that I have been to, the Hugo ceremony had its good and less good points, and the after-party was the best that I have attended.

To deal briefly with the pre-reception at the Sheraton: there was no booze and, more important, no substantial food, for a bunch of anxious people who had been told to turn up at 5pm (after a rehearsal earlier in the afternoon), knowing that the ceremony would not end until after 9. (9.20, as it turned out.) I nipped out immediately to grab some fried chicken for myself in the hotel foyer, but as a consequence I missed the group photos for the two categories where I was involved. Snacks were eventually provided as we went into the ceremony, but it’s rather difficult to eat discreetly in the theatre, and of course we did not know that they would be available until we got there. The pre-Hugo reception does need at least some decent savoury finger food to keep people going. I had some great conversations, though, and will cover those in my next post.

Going into the ceremony, I was surprised to find that I had been seated far away from the main bloc of finalists, among a bunch of people who were not directly connected to the awards at all. I (correctly) did not expect either Alison or Octothorpe to win, but it is a bit off for that message to be delivered by way of seating plan. Another acceptor had been seated even further away than me, and that did surprise me, as I thought they had a much better chance of winning (and indeed they did; they have already written up their experience of the ceremony elsewhere and did not mention this incident, so I won’t identify them here). Both of us sneaked over to vacant seats in the main bloc as soon as we could, to sit with our buddies and enjoy the show. (And in my friend’s case, to accept a Hugo.) I am sure it was thoughtlessness rather than malice, but it was not the best start to the ceremony for me; and the leading Chinese magazine SF World had a similar but worse experience.

Apart from that, it was all very nice and collegial, starting with some shamanistic drumming to get us all in the mood, category announcements interspersed with video clips and more dance performances, and the Big Heart Award going to the much deserving Bobbi Armbruster. The whole thing came in at about 2h20m; I’m not a pare-it-to-the-bone purist and this was fine for me. I have my doubts about the Best Professional Editor (Long Form) category, but having been talking to Lindsey Hall earlier in the day, I was thrilled for her when she won it. The convention produced a short video featuring the names of finalists (which minimises the risk of the mispronunciation problems that have come up before). There was a good bit of business with a runner bringing the envelope with the results to the announcer on stage – an excellent idea from the points of view of both stagecraft and security. However we did also have an awkward moment where the hosts talked over an acceptance video, and there was the Riverflow incident which most of us did not find out about until afterwards.

I’ll write up the actual results when we get the full figures. The whole ceremony is online here: You’ll see me in shot for some of the winner announcements.

The after-party, however, was sheer joy. Booze: check. Food: check. Fun: definite check. Traditional crafts, decent food, a great atmosphere, lots of people posing with their Hugos (or other people’s), I had previously attended the Hugo Losers Parties in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2022, and three of those four were very disappointing – in two cases because of lack of decent catering, and in one case because many people were shut out. 2017 was great fun, but in a venue that was crammed to the gills, probably dangerously so. This year, we had adequate space, more than adequate food and drink, and enjoyable entertainment (with the decibels at a level that my middle-aged ears were able to cope with). I stretched my legs walking back to the hotel with Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf afterwards, and stayed up in the Sheraton bar until far too late. With more financial resources available than most European or American conventions, Chengdu were able to achieve magic on occasion.

Again, I’ll report in my next post on some of the conversations I had over the course of the evening, but I’ll finish here with a video clip of Chinese dancers performing ancient Scottish choreography.

Chengdu Worldcon 2: The pandas

Chengdu has many points of interest, but probably the most famous is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to the north of the city. I was lucky enough to go on a trip there last Saturday morning, hoping that these shy creatures might appear for us. Most of the pandas in Chengdu have been rescued and in turn get released into the wild. They are short-sighted and not really aware of the gaze of visitors; the first group that went to see them, on the Tuesday, were unlucky as the pandas mostly dozed off due to the good weather. As we arrived at the base, I wondered if the sculpture at the entrance might be the best view we got of them.

But no, we were fortunate, and the temperature being just a notch above 20° meant that several them were wandering around their enclosures, munching bamboo. One was sprawled out on his or her platform, indifferent to the admiring crowds.

Another sat with his back to us, but at an angle where you could selfie.

My best shot of all was the very last one I took, of a panda casuallymunching away in an enclosure within the visitor centre.

The institute also apparently has red pandas, but we didn’t see any, and I won’t complain. To be close to the giant pandas for an hour was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.

I don’t know what it is about them that stirs (almost) everyone to go “Awww!”. Certainly I am not immune myself. One of my favourite childhood toys was a stuffed panda, which I unimaginatively called “Panda”. There is something about these gentle creatures that appeals to the better parts of our nature.

My companions on the trip included Wendy Aldiss and her son L, and Carole and Ken MacLeod.

Much later on, in the bar after the Hugo ceremony, Carole suggested that next year’s Worldcon in Glasgow should make a similar trip to the Haggis Research Centre. I passed the suggestion to Glasgow 2024 Chair, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and I think I can honestly say that all possible efforts are being made to make this happen.

Chengdu Worldcon 1: Doctor Who in China

Before I start: Hooray! New Doctor Who episodes on 25 November, 2 December and 9 December!!!!!

I’ve been pondering how best to write up my experiences at Chengdu WorldCon last week. In summary, it was an amazing experience; tremendous hospitality from our Chinese hosts, a chance to engage with an ancient culture, and I saw the pandas.

Most convention reports just go chronologically through the two, or three, or four, or five days of the convention. I’ve decided to take a more thematic approach, looking at some of the things I really liked in a bit more detail.

Many aspects of Chengdu Worldcon were great fun. I will write about the things I especially enjoyed: the pandas, the set-piece events, and the friends I made along the way. (I enjoyed the WSFS Business Meeting even less than usual, so I won’t write about that.)

The thing that gave me the most unexpected joy was the love for Doctor Who shown by the Chinese fans. I have to give huge credit here to Yan Ru, 晏如, an English Chinese teacher from Wuhan, who may well be the leading Doctor Who fan in China. We had made contact before the convention, and had a lot of conversations about our shared passion.

Yan Ru invited me to participate in the Chengdu Worldcon panel on “Doctor Who in China” (in Chinese « 神秘博士 » 在中国 ) along with English fan Joseph B, and three other Chinese speakers. Joseph and I were I think the only non-Chinese participants in the room, which was packed.

The panel started with a joyous chant of the Doctor Who theme tune – all Doctor Who panels should start like that! – and a translator whispered to Joseph and me in English, as the other panelists and the audience engaged in intense discussions in Chinese. We spoke in English, and most people seemed to understand perfectly well (and those who didn’t were tolerant). I should add that a lot of the Chengdu Worldcon panels had simultaneous translation, but in this case, probably because Joseph and I were last-minute additions, that didn’t happen. There are some brilliant photos here from #154 to #322 – I especially like that they concentrate on my upper body rather than my tummy – here are two good ones.

With six of us on the panel, and only an hour, we only answered three questions. Not very surprisingly, the first two were 1) Who is your favourite Doctor? (a lot of love for Christopher Ecclestone in China) and 2) What does Doctor Who mean to you?; but slightly more surprisingly the last question was 3) what is your favourite Doctor Who book?

The Doctor Who books appear to be relatively bigger on the inside in China than in Europe or the USA. Yan Ru was running a Doctor Who stall (along with everything else) and sold out of the books on the second last day of the convention. I should say also that the main shopping area of the convention was graced by a large TARDIS, beside a screen showing the current Doctor Who trailer on continuous loop. It too sold out by the last day.

I had been assigned a young volunteer to keep me straight in the unfamiliar world of the convention, a young local student of English and French, who made sure that I went to all of the places I was supposed to go to on time, and also sorted out my phone issues and located my lost laundry.

As a parting present, I got her a signed copy of Yan Ru’s translation of Jac Rayner’s Ninth Doctor Novel Winner Takes All (and a cuddly panda). She seemed very pleased.

I’m glad to say that Yan Ru got home to Wuhan and discovered that she had been promoted at work, in recognition of her translating Who-ology and Winner Takes All into Chinese. She also received the prize for the best Chengdu Worldcon fan party for the Doctor Who party on the Friday night (which I missed for reasons which will be explained). More power to her.

I normally set my blog posts to go live after my working hours, but for this and the other Chengdu reports I’m setting then for lunchtime in Brussels, so that my Chinese friends can read them in the early evening.