Directing the cultural exchange between China and the globe

Chen Weidan, Chief Director for the Southeast Asian Games, reflects on his role assisting in the cultural exchange between China and Cambodia…

The opening ceremony of the China-ASEAN Year of Cultural Exchange was held in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. Over the past decade, under the strategic guidance of President Xi Jinping and the leaders of ASEAN countries, China and ASEAN have scripted a new chapter of pragmatic and friendly cooperation, achieving a series of fruitful results in cultural exchanges, which serve as a ‘vivid example of promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind’.

In 2023, Chief Director, Chen Weidan assisted in the cultural exchange between China and Cambodia through the Southeast Asian Games. On 17 November 2023, Weidan was awarded the Friendship Cooperation Medal by Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Speaking to TPi, he reflects on this landmark project featuring Enjoy Galaxy products…

Why did Cambodia invite you to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the Southeast Asian Games?

“I was the Chief Director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 32nd Southeast Asian Games and the 12th ASEAN Para Games. In 2022, my team and I were invited to Cambodia to participate in the planning of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Southeast Asian Games. I have previously been involved in directing various international events such as the Beijing Olympics. This period was crucial for my growth, as these experiences cultivated my global perspective and international thinking, learning to artistically present the cultural heritage of different races and ethnicities. Over the past 20 years, I have directed over five hundred large-scale events and performances. The accumulation of these experiences has made me more confident, thoughtful, and capable of presenting wonderful ideas to live audiences and the world.

“After the Southeast Asian Games concluded successfully, officials from the Cambodian Olympic Committee told me that the Cambodian government had selected many renowned directors domestically and internationally before, and I was the fortunate one chosen. They believed that I was a passionate and imaginative director who could understand their desired scenes through our conversations. They could feel that I could make Cambodia shine differently on the international stage through unique artistic expressions.”

Which challenges did you encounter and how did you and the team overcome them?

“For any large international event’s opening and closing ceremonies, three key questions must be addressed: Who is the audience? What will they see? What will they feel? Initially, when I was invited as the Chief Director, I was just a diligent student. In 2022, my team and I visited Cambodia multiple times for inspiration and exploration, listening, learning, and experiencing Cambodia’s unique cultural atmosphere. Then came the creative meetings, where we discussed with Cambodian cultural and artistic experts to develop the execution plan. The biggest challenge we faced at the time was cultural differences. Every major international sports event has different themes, under which the host’s requirements for history, culture, beliefs, and different ways of life must be perfectly presented, showcasing both civilisation and national spirit. If previous international events held in China mainly showcased Chinese culture, which we were more familiar with, this time it was an international sports event’s opening and closing ceremonies abroad, requiring us to listen to the opinions of the organisers, local authorities, and experts in various fields. Only by doing so could we have a clear understanding of the theme, followed by deeper appreciation and exploration. This was a learning process that required sharp judgment to condense the collected elements into a macroscopic and precise concept.

“With joint efforts from China and Cambodia, the four opening and closing ceremonies were successfully executed, receiving recognition from the Cambodian people, Southeast Asians, and even people worldwide. We succeeded, our ideas were fully realised, and we contributed the cultural power to promote mutual understanding and communication between different cultures and to the construction of a community with a shared future between China and Cambodia.”

What Chinese experience, technology, and high-tech assistance played a significant role in the Southeast Asian Games opening ceremony?

“Since the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, China has gained extensive experience and technology in presenting large-scale events, drawing significant attention from the international community. When we directed the Southeast Asian Games opening ceremony, we successfully integrated China’s experience and technology with Cambodian culture, presenting a magnificent visual feast.

“Firstly, there must be rigorous conceptual creativity. Generally, the opening ceremony of a major international event must showcase the host country’s strength in the shortest time possible. Therefore, the initial creative planning must be rigorous, highlighting the historical, current, and future aspects that resonate internationally, with unique features, aiming for perfection and uniqueness. After the creative concept was fully communicated and confirmed with the organisers, we proceeded with meticulous breakdown and design packaging, decomposing all elements such as music, costumes, props, lighting, stage design, videos, etc., organically, with the sole purpose of highlighting the highlight, conducting preliminary debugging and verification.

“Secondly, there must be an efficient rehearsal plan. Based on the opening ceremony schedule, we developed a rehearsal timetable, synthesis timetable, and rehearsal timetable, combining concentration and dispersion, tightness and looseness. Time was also allocated for modifications and adjustments, ensuring both the intensity of rehearsals and the balance between work and rest. Interactive rehearsals were conducted, resembling a 100-meter sprint where acceleration starts from the beginning.

“Thirdly, there must be scientific choreography techniques. Large venues require a combination of points, lines, and surfaces. Ordinary people need to be quickly trained into qualified ceremony performers, which involves designing choreographed movements tailored to people with different artistic backgrounds, avoiding uniformity and routine.

“Finally, there must be high-tech technical means. High-tech assistance in opening ceremonies is essential and indispensable. For the Southeast Asian Games, we utilised laser projection, suspended grid screens, Enjoy Galaxy wireless pixel lights – LED torches, Wiya, laser engraving, and other high-tech techniques. All of these elements served the theme and content, enhancing the audience’s visual and auditory experience, presenting better artistic effects. For example, we used over 25,000 Enjoy Galaxy torches in the audience seats, turning the entire audience area into the world’s largest wireless LED screen. This technology is energy-saving, environmentally friendly, and reusable, capable of being integrated into any performance space, sometimes appearing around you, sometimes participating in the performance, interacting with the audience through programming, and combining organically with other technologies such as screens and projections on-site, creating a stunning effect. When captured by drones, they could instantly transform into a planet in the universe or the brightest star in the night sky, resembling magic. The application of these technologies provided countless possibilities for my content presentation, creating a series of climaxes throughout the performance. All these experiences and technologies are commonly used means in large-scale events in China, but each time, they require new creativity and execution based on different themes and content.”

Chen Weidan, Chief Director of the Southeast Asian Games.

What was the feedback from Cambodian government and the international community to the opening ceremony like?

“From bidding to host the Southeast Asian Games in 1959 to obtaining the hosting rights for the first time after 64 years, this was a dream cherished by Cambodia for 64 years. Many people perceive Cambodia as a developing country, but its culture is rich. When I first saw Angkor Wat, I was amazed by its exquisite craftsmanship and beauty, which is a world cultural heritage. In my opening ceremony, I will tell the story of Angkor Wat to showcase its beauty and amaze the world. The live performance won countless applause and cheers because the content displayed allowed everyone to see a different Cambodia and understand a rapidly developing country. The theme of this opening ceremony, ‘Sport Live in Peace’ reflects the Cambodian people’s aspiration for a peaceful life. It was a gathering of hearts, and the success of the opening ceremony enhanced the national pride of the Cambodian people, playing a crucial role in elevating Cambodia’s international status.”

This was your first time directing a large international event abroad. What are some of your key takeaways this experience?

“The success of the opening ceremony has enriched my experience in directing large events abroad. I have effectively incorporated Chinese technology and experience into foreign events, promoting Chinese experience to the world and better disseminating it globally. China and Cambodia are close friends, and through mutually beneficial cooperation, we promote cultural inclusiveness and mutual learning. I feel very fortunate to have entered Southeast Asia through the Southeast Asian Games, understood different cultures and accumulated diverse experiences. Every creative process is challenging because you don’t want to repeat yourself; you always strive to reach new heights each time.

“What makes me happiest is the enthusiastic cheers and applause on-site, representing the successful collaboration between both parties. What gives me a sense of accomplishment is the recognition every time, which boosts my confidence to embrace the next new challenge with full vigour. I love this valuable work because every departure is a fresh start, driving you to maintain a high level of creativity, unleash your potential, and elevate yourself.

“Human civilisation is composed of diverse cultures, and I look forward to exploring more countries’ historical cultures and customs. Our world is like a large garden, and I am the one who walks into the garden, gathering sweetness and fragrance from different flowers. Through extraordinary creativity, meticulous organisation, and cutting-edge technology, I present a visual and spiritual feast to audiences worldwide, one after another.”