Last month’s grand opening of Webster University’s Confucius Institute transformed the Old Post Office downtown into a sensory celebration of Chinese culture, to the delight of more than 250 guests!

    The 125-year-old building, a National Historic Landmark, is home to Webster’s downtown campus and now houses the Institute, a cooperative project between Webster University, Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Chinese Ministry of Education. Webster is one of only four private American universities to be chosen to host a Confucius Institute, a global network that spans 66 countries. “It’s an initiative started by the Chinese Ministry of Education to promote the understanding of Chinese language and culture around the world,” says Debbie Pierce, director of the Institute at Webster. Program offerings will include modern standard Chinese language courses, Chinese culture classes on topics such as business, history, religion, calligraphy and Tai chi, and travel opportunities.

    A traditional lion dance helped usher in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, treating guests to an ancient Chinese ritual that plays an important role in temple consecrations and other official and religious celebrations. Dignitaries among the crowd included Webster University president Neil George, Beijing Language and Culture University vice president Zhao Min, People’s Republic of China consul general Huang Ping and St. Louis congressmen William ‘Lacy’ Clay and Russ Carnahan. Musician Tabitha Mui performed on a modern-day guzheng, a stringed instrument dating back to the Qin dynasty. And throughout the evening, guests were encouraged to participate in demonstrations such as Tai Chi, calligraphy and a tea ceremony.

    Ancient Chinese furniture and artifacts also were on display, including a Ming Dynasty kimono and furniture used in the 1904 World’s Fair. “The furniture is about 200 to 250 years old, and was featured in the China pavilion of the Fair,” Pierce explains. “It was later owned by the Vietnamese president, but the pieces were auctioned off following the fall of Saigon. They eventually made their way here, and were donated to the university.”

    No party is a hit without good food, and no detail was overlooked when planning the menu for the massive guest list. Under the direction of LaCHEF Catering’s Sherrill Gonterman, chefs manned a ‘performance station’ where guests created their own stir-fry dishes. “We set up a wok and rice bowl area with Chinese carryout containers instead of plates,” Gonterman explains. “People filled up their containers with ingredients like chicken, shrimp, peas, bean sprouts, and cashew and their choice of sauce, and handed it over to the chef, who sautéed each dish individually. It was a fun concept and it definitely filled the space with aroma to set the mood.” Pot stickers, spring rolls and curried wonton chips rounded out the menu, with fortune cookies and tea served for dessert.

    A black, red and silver theme captured the evening’s ‘simple elegance,’ according to Nancy Higgins, the university’s special events coordinator. Elegant, Asian-inspired flowers provided another special touch. The bouquets were created by Blooms and were presented in Chinese carryout boxes. Higgins says one of the challenges was to correctly interpret specific Chinese customs. “For instance, the furniture had to be in straight lines, arranged in a certain order, the way the Chinese do it,” she explains. Higgins admits it was also a bit nerve-wracking, considering who was on the guest list. “I felt a little pressure because some of our guests were actually from China. But I was under the direction of people from the Institute, so I knew I was being guided well,” she says. “They’re still talking about the party on campus, that’s always a good sign.”