Seven protesters stood outside the Empire State Building’s Fifth Avenue entrance on Wednesday morning holding Tibetan flags and signs, most of which bore some permutation of the accusation, “Mao’s Empire State Building!”
Inside, in the lobby just before 10, a surreal scene was forming. Beneath the gorgeous art deco foyer’s main wall was gathered a handful of journalists in horn-rimmed glasses and sweaters, looking decidedly New York-media. Beside them, and far more serious, was a larger contingent of Chinese-language press, clad in suits and business wear.
The weird throng had gathered to witness the symbolic “lighting” of the Empire State Building to commemorate the People’s Republic’s first 60 years. The building is not “lit” in the a.m., however, so instead the Chinese ambassador turned a switch on a miniature replica.
“It’s just really shocking,” said Dechen Pemba, a London native of Tibetan descent, of the pairing of the American capitalist icon, the 102-story Empire State Building, and the anniversary of the world’s largest Communist country. “And bizarre… and ridiculous.”
First the Empire State Building’s general manager, Joseph Bellina, addressed the media. It is the “highest honor,” for the building, which, he reminded the group, is “the world’s most famous office building,” to welcome the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of their 60th birthday. May the building be a “beacon of unity between our countries,” he said. He also said that his building “looks forward to having Chinese nationals to this international destination for many years to come.”
Chinese Ambassador Peng Keyu then took the stage. It sounded like he said, “Since its founding 60 years ago, especially since the reform, the People’s Republic of China has undergone tremendous changes and [garbled verb] achievements in every … thing.” But, according to the printed version of the ambassador’s speech, distributed immediately afterward, he, in fact, said, “Since its founding 60 years ago, especially since the adoption of reform and opening-up policy 30 years ago, the People’s Republic of China has undergone tremendous changes and made great achievements in every field.”
He apparently also said, “China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue the opening-up strategy featuring mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, and make efforts to build a harmonious world.” But that was not nearly audible to the untrained Western ear.
Then, with the crowd giving off the vibe of a paid studio audience at a sitcom taping, a miniature Empire State Building that had been erected in a six-foot glass cube at the side of the ambassador’s dais was “lit.” For the rest of September, the real Empire State Building will glow red and yellow at night, the colors of the Chinese flag.
Afterward, the Chinese dignitaries erupted into discussion among themselves, and many pictures were taken. There was a musical performance involving a recorder-like instrument, some sort of string instrument and a tambourine.
By the time the event was over, about eight minutes after it began, the protesters outside had doubled in number and had grown much louder. Maybe no one expected the whole ceremony to be faster than a flu shot. Their sentiment was, in a word, “why?”
“Can you imagine if they dressed the Great Wall of China in red, white and blue to celebrate the Fourth of July?” asked Han Shan, 37, of Manhattan.
The post-lighting press conference was for Chinese media only.