Xihu District is a district in Hangzhou, China near West Lake. It has an area of 263 square kilometers, and a population of 520,000. The postal code is 310013. A Palindrome. Please, please just shoot me.

It was my third trip to China and China's third International Clown Festival. Out of a cast of 60 each time there were only seven of us who had done each one. Prior to arriving this had made me feel special however arriving at the Shanghai airport alone and having no-one there to meet me quickly put paid to any idea that I was anything other than a convenient clown-cog.

This was unhelpful because the Chinese don't like strays in their airports. Less than harmonious was I. Two days before setting off my marriage had been canceled and I was still and would continue for a year to be, in befuddled self pitiful shock. Potentially helpful Chinese officials would approach but I had nothing for them. I was a teflon basket case. Not a single point of purchase could they gain. No phone number, no name, [well ok, A Mr Wang,go search China immediately] no name of destination, just my passport and case and stilts. Confucious says, someone else's problem.

So I simmered gently, my marinate of woebegonanity becoming richer and more viscous by the moment.

Some hours later I was remembered and the director himself came to meet me. Then followed a four hour drive to Xihu.


Population, Human,

numbers, numerous,

collective telepathic anarchy as road transport system, impeccable .

It's a form of ballet, the way this many people use the roads, it's not black and white, you can drive down the wrong side of the road if doing so increases the greater harmony. Confucius says, ..um.
"Harmony" is an ideal writ large in Chinese culture. In my humble opinion.

However Chinese people do not hesitate in yelling at each other when it's called for. It's not a transgression to berate someone with any measure of scorn and aggression, not physical, just vocally emphatic. It was comforting to me to see out the window as we drove examples of Chinese people yelling at each other. Discordance makes me comfortable, it's familiar and cosy. Between cities I saw misty peaks, terraced rice paddies, Ox driven carts, plows and nuclear power stations.

The Hotel we checked into, I was surprised to learn, sat across the road from the local prison and was used mainly to house visiting relatives. It seemed that Hotels of any higher status were not interested in the hassle that a large group of International clowns presented. I can sincerely sympathise.

Which was interesting because at the first of these Chinese festivals in Liuzhou we had received an amazing reception. A palatial hotel, two receptions with the mayor, before and after. Also hundreds of enthusiastic young volunteers whose devotion to our well-being was as enthusiastically genuine as it was disconcerting.

We had also kicked that event off with a parade downtown in which we later learnt, over a half million people attended. I would say it was probably the largest Parade dedicated to Clowns in the history of Clown. It was awesome. I had focused on the Chinese elderly in the crowd because personally I enjoyed giving them a short burst of directed attention just to watch the years drop off their formerly weathered stoic expressions as childish delight stole across their faces and radiated out. Call me selfish.

Also at our inaugural festival a venue was provided that was world heritage quality with stages built over a lake. The largest theater in the city was also lent to put on a special night-time performance, followed the next day by a performance of breathtaking quality put on by the provinces main cultural theater company.

We were given a trip after-hours to a museum of found rocks collected over 2000 years. A set of Clown postage stamps was printed in our honor and issued throughout China to herald our arrival and certificates in both Chinese and English were given us that certified us as cultural envoys for the city. We were also each given gifts, A book of photos of the city and area and a CD of a presentation on the city. Liuzhou is undoubtedly and will always be my Chinese hometown.

Three years later we were in a hotel used to house prisoners relatives with rooms that overlooked the exercise yards and turrets manned by armed guards. I was used to social elasticity, it's a perk of the trade and yet the speed at which China had demoted us was impressive.

Oh well, at least we had each other.

I checked in, went up to my room to find out who I'd be inflicting myself upon and sure enough the powers that be had in their wisdom paired me with Peter Panic. Peter Panic, a full blown eccentric with a purist street theater heart whom I had known many years and whose flaws were disguised by a tapestry of sharp wit, reckless creative impulses, a superb gift for storytelling and for the general public, a skills drenched juggling show. He's a wonderful friend. His boredom threshold is so high he's devoted his entire life and his impressive wry stamina into providing himself entertainment which for this festival meant leaving the hotel every evening wearing a Mexican wrestling mask, a cape, a cap pistol and a padded groin and push-biking out into the Chinese dusk occasionally shooting at policemen directing traffic as he passed until he was miles away and could feel for the first time fear.

Which was his signal to start the second stage of his nightly adventure. Somehow finding himself back to the hotel to join us all with a new story to tell over drinks .

He and I share rooms often, various administrations have no-where better to put us than together. We are cheerfully incorrigible and that can be distracting to many. I had put cooked chicken-heads in his bed the last festival we shared. He had, suppressing his gag reflex, jammed all the oily heads into his mouth, to his mind the simplest way to display feigned indifference as I pulled a hidden camera from my bedclothes. Another milestone of our relationship recorded.

I unpacked and dutifully walked the quarter mile to a preselected restaurant where clown stragglers were just finishing up with dinner. I smiled and greeted those few and ate. I was a couple of hours behind the social dynamic crest and my cohorts were long gone on their first nights adventures.

I ate and reconnected with Mia. Mia is a Chinese/American resident in the states, a professional cat herder, trouble shooter, maelstrom surfer, calamity wrangler and stress devouring circumstantial Jujitzuist with the outward appearance of a master poker player or Buddhist monk. She is a seriously powerful harmony generator and her receptors are tuned like a shark to perceive the faintest wisps of her diet, the disquiet of others, over astounding distances. I was to her, I suppose, like an abattoir washed into the sea. She absorbed my self centered monologue while I absorbed the minimum of Chinese smorgasbord. She listened. I needed that.

Shortly afterwards I went back to my room, still Monsieur Panic-less, and found respite in deserved and well earned unconsciousness.

Morning came, no day off for anyone, straight to business. Peter informed me that there were three set times for shuttles to the venue and which floor breakfast was at. Still jetlagged I headed for a dining room to ingest the company of fools which has always been rarer and more nutritious than any simulation of a western breakfast some well meaning but unqualified prison hotel could manage.

I've learnt better since but was still at the stage where food itself was an abstraction. Dangerous in my physical theater business but I'd survived twenty odd years on my abused body's reserves and in my then internally dank condition the idea of doing myself any favors was a theory that lay beyond my horizon. That said the 'coffee' provided at the hotel was an insult to all brown liquids that had ever existed.

With a cup of industrial slurry, once sipped never again ventured and the seed from which that days self hatred blossomed I walked into my vocational element. A room full of Clowns. Old friends and new, I'll lower a curtain of discretion to protect myself and them and write in only general terms.

We were the mother-load of international career journeymen clowns, a group 60 strong collected from America, NZ, Canada, Holland, France, Spain, Japan, Israel, Argentina, Belgium, Russia and Mexico. I had initially met many of these clowns before, either on a prior Chinese gig or simply wherever it is in the world clowns congregate. I've worked in Circus rarely, I was mostly an international street theater Clown but I'd done my share of corporate and private mercenary clown gigs around the world and so had bumped into both the North Americans and the Europeans. I had been and continue to be a free agent, lending my absurdity to whomever required it. On reflection and with all due humility I suppose I'm one of the few trudging street based globalists of my generation.

The Ringling's[ Ringling clown school trained] were a clique, the NY clowns were interwoven in and out of the Ringling clique. The Europeans were a clique, also mingling were the heavy drinking clique, combative chemical masochists from both sides of the Atlantic would meet over vast quantities of liquor to spill and spin tall tales that in a clowns world tend to be based more on actual events than imagination. One thing we do well amongst ourselves is tell good stories. We have high standards for legitimate hilarity but a lifetime of surreal potential to collect our tales.

There were six Clowns who had secured the dubious but financially secure tenure of being 'Ronalds' back in the US. They are sworn and contracted into secrecy, you only ever find out via some other clowns loose lips. There was one ex Ringling Clown who was also a police officer back stateside. Ages ranged from late twenties to approaching sixty. Some had come into this world late, some were born into it. Training ranged from self taught to Russian circus school Also a smattering of professional international eccentrics, a master face and body-painter or two and additionally from Scotland, Holland, France and Japan the worlds best balloon artists who were to put on a surreal fashion show and their lithesome models.

What a relief for me to be here.

I was a realist. My opinion was that China, much like Japan in the late 80's, early 90's, had created enough internal wealth that a means was sought to educate their populations and create that generator of wealth flowing back up to the proprietors of society. A standard by the numbers templated middle class was instigated.

A middle class is defined essentially by disposable income, a means of having them seduced by non essentials packaged as freedom of choice and sold for profit back to the stratum that invented them.

Clowns in my experience in Asia anyway can be used as the shock troops of this campaign. Along with more general commercial concepts like Valentines day, Halloween and Christmas .Events are manufactured in which pan-cultural experiences are sold at a profit to a portion of the public newly seduced with the reality of having more money than they need to feed their families. Hence products and experiences that we in the west are born with access to and so rarely examine are provided and a newborn middle class is defined and expresses itself in a commercial dance choreographed by their paymasters. Think of a mining town whose grocery store is owned by the mining company and apply that to an entire country. A new profitable seam opens up and the mining company opens a pay as you use activity center. Spend a moment ceasing to be abjectly grateful for the doo-dads acquired via third world slavery and you may see what I mean.

This is the reality I perceive. That does not blind me to the universal truth that laughter itself transcends any trite system that seeks to yoke it.

We all need our faiths. That is mine. Bite me. Over the next seven days I was about to once more immerse myself in the mirth and levity only collective comic engineers/ alchemists can muster. I do love my professional tribe.

The venue itself was a temporarily walled off ticketed section of a public park. Three main stages each with back to back programming. There were also roving clowns, roving models in balloon dresses and for a fee designed to heavily bruise but not lacerate your Chinese wallet you could get your child's face painted by an international artist in that field.

The days were spent hiding behind my makeup while being a backdrop for hastily contrived family photos. The crowds were too dense for anything else. Forty minutes at a time maintaining a brittle internal vigilance while being mobbed by competing family units who would fight for the opportunity to crowd around me and flash the universal peace sign at the camera. Oh the romance.

The evenings a gang of us had discovered a nearby improvised restaurant run by a local Chinese family. The prison guards ate there and after the first evening our collective internal hilarity as we bantered and spun tales and giggled earned some general tolerance. We adopted that family and they fed us and provided limitless beer. We gave them gifts and tipped heavily and they would stay open as long as we wanted. The mother would sit against a wall and create ornate needlework pictures on purchased quits. We bought all those as well.

Whatever the venue, where-ever we meet, however we happen to be exploited in our chosen pursuit of making strangers briefly gleeful.

These are my friends, my workmates, my brothers. Whatever my life had contained to get me here, with these people, these unstoppable, unquenchable flames of absurd eccentric incandescence who will not , who cannot simply grow up and stop playing and laughing and finding new ways to thumb their noses at that thing we all know, that thing that visits and attempts to devour us, that feeling of a life half lived, while they, blithely, for their own sake as well as for us all , test the borders of possibility and imagination and bliss, to, as Peter Panic did every evening in Xihu, return to show us that in fact there are no borders but fear. Whatever despairing inner provinces I've ever been stranded in have been worth enduring simply because I have the companionship of this fraternity that loves me as I love them.

I am so very very profoundly grateful.

I had also collected my 'X' my arbitrary alphabetical quest was over. A sense of achievement settled for all of two minutes. I needed something else to live towards. I decided to write these stories. In the order they were achieved and in the order they were written this was the last.

I wonder what my future holds?

I hope there's Clown in it.