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The Redcoats in China

reported by Tom Jackson (AB '73, MPA '04)
and Georgia Magazine staff

They called the dogs from atop the Great Wall, cuddled red pandas and wowed Chinese audiences with Bizet’s “Carmen.”

For 16 days in May, 300 members of UGA’s Redcoat Marching Band made an extraordinary odyssey across China, entertaining stadium crowds in the tens of thousands and soaking up sights and culture. They struggled with a language that most could neither speak nor read, and tried, with some trepidation, foods they could not identify.

“It really humbled them,” says band director David Romines. “They really had no idea what to expect.”

Romines and the Redcoats made the trip as guests of the U.S.-China Cultural and Educational Foundation, which raised $1.2 million to cover the band’s transportation, housing and meals while in China. Each band member paid $1,600 for the roundtrip airfare between Atlanta and China.

Cloaked in red and topped with their distinctive shakos, the band members were treated warmly—“like rock stars,” according to some. Fans exploded into applause during the tour finale in Shanghai when the band played a series of Chinese folk songs and formed the map of China on the field.

“A deep roar rose as people saw their country on the field,” recalls Michelle Lawler, a freshman piccolo player from Alpharetta. “It was definitely one of the strongest connections I’ve ever felt with an audience.”

A few minutes and a few steps later, the Redcoats transformed themselves into a map of the United States and broke into “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

“I do,” in Chinese

If traveling halfway around the globe wasn’t enough, Ty Ridgway (BMus ’05) made the trip extra special for his girlfriend Heather Thayer (AB ’06). As Ty, a band crew member from Royston and December graduate, climbed atop the Great Wall, he dropped to one knee and presented a ring to Heather, a flag line member from Marietta who graduated in May. A cheer echoed across the historic wall as other Redcoats realized what was happening. An hour later, a “Go Dogs Sic ’em” cheer rang out as the band members reached the wall’s summit.

Media darlings

Recoats landed in cities to find themselves on the cover of the local newspaper and rushed to buy copies as keepsakes. The newsstand operators become instant capitalists, raising the price from two for $1 to $2 a copy for the eager Americans. In Chengdu, Kunming and Shanghai, local television stations broadcast the performances of the largest foreign musical act ever to tour China live and uninterrupted. China has small marching bands of 50 to 60 people but nothing on the scale of the Redcoats. “They were completely intrigued,” says Taylor Gray, a senior from Smyrna on the Redcoat drumline. “It was almost like they were studying what we did during rehearsal and shows.” Chinese leaders in music education plan to add marching band to middle and high school curricula this fall.

Looking at us

The very appearance of the young Americans was new to many Chinese. In more rural areas, it was apparent that some locals were seeing blond and red hair, black skin, and heights in excess of 6 feet for the first time. Some stared and pointed or crowded in for pictures. “My greatest memory was a little boy, 8 or 9 years old, who looked up at me and said, ‘Brother, can I take a picture,’ ” said Floyd Rinehart, a junior mellophone player from Lawrenceville. “I smiled, got down on one knee, and we posed for a picture taken on a cell phone by his father.”

Looking at them

The Chinese way of life was an eye-opener for many students who had never left the United States. They ate meals they couldn’t pronounce and sometimes couldn’t identify. The Sichuan “hot pot” gave new meaning to spicy cuisine. Diners sat around boiling broth filled with meats, vegetables and spices. By the end of the trip many had sought a local Pizza Hut, McDonald’s or KFC. They marveled at the high-rise way of life in the Chinese cities and the remarkable lack of space that comes with having 1.3 billion people in one country. “I came to appreciate the things I take for granted, like ice, clean water, knowing what I’m eating, nice bathrooms, understanding what people are saying, living in houses, not high-rises, and personal freedom,” said Jessi Fawley, a freshman clarinet player from Peachtree City.

Super shows

During their performances, the Redcoats played the theme to Superman and watched as thousands of Chinese raised their arms and waved them in time to the music—just as Bulldog fans do to start the fourth quarter of a football game. The Chinese audiences treated the band like rock stars, following them outside stadiums seeking autographs. “As we marched off the field at Kunming, the crowd stood and spelled Georgia with us as we chanted out of the stadium,” said Thomas Miller, freshman baritone player from Donalsonville. “It was amazing to see the same enthusiasm as a game day in Athens.”

Many miles, many planes

Band members crisscrossed the country for performances, taking off and landing in at least 10 different airplanes each. The band’s large instruments had to be shipped to Kunming a month before the tour. The logistics made band administrators appreciate the two-day, one-stop trips for away football games. “Going to Jacksonville will never again seem quite like the challenge it once did,” said associate band director Tom Keck.

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photos by Dot Paul (M '97)

Click on image to enlarge

Graduate assistant Cale Self climbs the Great Wall ahead of other band members. Some students tried to scale the steep incline too fast--and had to rest awhile at the top before heading back down. Others came home with T-shirts boasting "I climbed the Great Wall."

Redcoat graduate staff member Katherine Dodd (BSEd'04, MA'06) can hardly believe she's in China, holding an endangered red panda. Dodd and other Redcoats visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is committed to conserving the red and giant pandas.

The Nanjing newspaper reports that the "world famous one-hundred-year-old, gold medal winning, full-size musical ensemble--the Red Coat Marching Band of Georgia, U.S.A. ... gave a memorable performance."

Clarinet player Kimberly Nogi (left) and piccolo player Amanda Maxedon play tourist at the Great Wall.

The two-year-old Kunming Traffic Police Band joins the Redcoats for a musical exchange during the second stop on the tour.

Clarinet player Christina Tomassini lets a fan try on her shako before the Redcoats' performance in Chengdu. About 10,000 people attended the performance and many stayed afterward for a picture or autograph.

Band members stop alongside the river in Shanghai to take a picture of a woman carrying a small white kitten. From left to right: Ann Dunn, Katherine Waldhour and Jennifer Brown.

Kunming stadium is the site of the band's first formal concert. It was the first nighttime event ever held on the field, which does not have lights. Hosts for the show brought in portable lighting for the performance.

Shanghai? or Sanford Stadium? Fans get into the Krypton Wave during the Redcoats' performance at the 80,000 seat Shanghai Stadium.

Redcoats wait patiently for their luggage in Shanghai, after their flight from Xiiamen. The group covered more than 20,000 miles during the 16-day trip, most of it by air.

The Redcoat band’s two-week tour of China included a trip to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. About 50 pandas are housed at the base, including Jing Jing, who has been selected as one of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.