Being a big fan of the performing arts, I had hoped that at least somewhere in China, there would be the possibility of seeing some Chinese opera. I didn’t really care what style of opera we saw—Sichuan, Peking, it didn’t matter. In Chengdu, I checked the entertainment listings for information, and found that there are daily shows put on for tourists, but the price was US$30 per person. It seemed awfully high for China, but I really wanted to see a show, so I was prepared to pay it.
Then we met Tray Lee. Self-billed as a cultural tour guide, he hangs around Renmin Park, chatting up foreigners and handing out business cards. (He’s also listed in Frommer’s China guide.) One of the tours he offers is to go see Sichuan opera, at a “local’s theater.” Including the price of the show, transport, snacks, and his services as an interpreter, it cost $5 less than the tourist show. His English was excellent, and he promised us our money back if we saw any other white people at the show. With that guarantee, we agreed to hire him for Saturday.
We arrived one hour before curtain, in order to watch the actors get into costume and makeup. The actors and their families were just sitting around and chatting with each other—it seemed to be a pretty tight-knit little troupe. It reminded me of the community and college theater groups I used to be involved in. There were no playbills, just a blackboard listing today’s performances. There were four plays on schedule, but each one is short, about thirty minutes. It being a local theater, everyone put on their own makeup, even though it’s much more elaborate than typical stage makeup. There were also costumes to get into, beards to attach, and wigs to put on. The dressing room was small and we were taking up valuable empty space, so we went to go take our front-row seats. The theater eventually filled to about 80% capacity, but except for the actors’ families and us, I didn’t see any young people. There weren’t even any middle-aged people. I commented on this to Tray, and he said that Chinese youth have no interest in traditional performing arts. I asked him what they were interested in. “Shopping.”
Tray himself is forty years old, which is young for an opera fan, but he said that he remembers these stories from when he was a kid. His mother or grandmother would sing them to him. During the Cultural Revolution, productions of all but a few approved revolutionary plays were banned outright. For older people, watching these shows is nostalgic, but anyone born after a certain year (who didn’t have an opera-fan older relative) didn’t grow up with these stories.
We ate and drank throughout the show, and people whispered to each other and occasionally entered and exited the theater. Once in a while, a lady came around and refilled our teacups with hot water. It was a really relaxed atmosphere. The shows are highly visual, but without a guide or prior knowledge, we wouldn’t have had any idea what was happening.
The first piece was set in the Three Kingdoms era of China, and focused on two of the three kings. One king wanted to insult the other one, so he sent him a woman’s dress and makeup. The king who received the “gift” was really mad, so he made the messenger drink lots of wine, who then drunkenly spilled out the entire plan.
So instead he decided to wear the dress when he went to visit the other king, and pretend like he was fine with it. When he got there, he thanked the other king profusely, saying he really liked the dress. Then something interesting happened. Some of the audience members went up to the stage and handed some money to the actors.
Forget flowers after the show- in China you give cash, DURING the show. 10 yuan seemed to be the norm, and the actors would stop what they were doing to accept the money and tuck it into their pockets, while the audience clapped politely. Then they’d go back to performing. Anyway, King #2 told King #1 “if you want me to be a woman, I’ll be a woman.” Then he proposed marriage. King #1, who originally sent the dress, got angry, and realized that his plan had totally backfired. Crossdressing is universally hilarious, isn’t it?
Next was a story of unrequited love. A man is in love with his boss’s daughter, who has gone to work in the city as an embroiderer. However, she’s come back home to visit her father, maybe because he was sick? But she must go back to the city and back to her job. The man is from a poor family and doesn’t think he has a chance with this girl, but he tries anyway, telling her how he will help take care of her father while she’s in the city, and how much he likes her father, blah blah blah. Then she gives him a pair of embroidered shoes.
Apparently, in traditional China, it was a REALLY big deal if a woman gave a man a pair of shoes. That meant she definitely liked him. Heartened by this, the man suggests that they go do something together—go have a cup of tea? I forgot. Anyway, the end.
The third play was another love story, but with a better ending. A fox fairy (I know, bear with me here) has been getting up to no good. A man has been sent to kill her. When he sees her, though, he falls in love with her. They fight, but she’s as good a fighter as he is, and nothing is accomplished.
At some point, I guess, he changes his mind and asks her to marry him. She rebukes him over and over, but really she’s just playing hard to get. He eventually wins her over and carries her offstage.
The last play was quite sad. It was about the family of a man who’s gone off to the city for several months. The women and children all stayed in the countryside. As soon as he left, his concubine kicked the wife and grandmother out of the house. The two women, outside in the cold, cried and bemoaned their situation. The actress who played the grandma was so good, she almost made me cry.
There were no big names (not that I know any big names in Chinese opera anyway,) and the theater was certainly not much to look at, but the actors were superb. This has really got to be one of the great bargains of the performing arts world—to see a show of this quality, with an interpreter, would cost much more in most countries. And, true to Tray’s promise, we didn’t see any other white people.