Chinese Vaudeville Struggles to Come Back

Four decades after the Communists banned Tianqiao's night life, Beijing officials are trying to restore teahouse entertainments

WISTFULLY, acrobat Cao Huade recalls his youth when he electrified huge crowds on the streets of old Tianqiao with his aerial twists, spins, and turns on a wooden frame, under the stage name Fei-Fei-Fei (Fly-Fly-Fly).

During those yesteryears before the Communist takeover in 1949, Tianqiao district was the cradle of vaudeville, burlesque, and the seamier side of the Chinese capital. Teahouses, restaurants, and nightclubs clustered near the site of the former Tianqiao Bridge (Bridge of Heaven) once used by Chinese emperors revered as ``Sons of Heaven.''

Beijing's first Peking Opera theater, the high culture of imperial China, stood amid Tianqiao's red-light district where gangsters, call girls, and secret clans thrived. Magicians, acrobats, mimics, comics, wrestlers, and balladeers vied for acclaim and donations from onlookers sipping tea and munching snacks.

``I was one of seven brothers, all acrobats, and we were always traveling around and performing,'' recalls Mr. Cao, who learned acrobatics from his father. ``I first came to Beijing with my father when I was 13 years old. We just joined the people on the street and started performing,'' he says. ``It was like an open market for performers.''

Now, four decades after the Communists condemned Tianqiao's street and night life as bourgeois and turned the once-lively district into a staid residential neighborhood, traditional Chinese vaudeville struggles for a comeback.

Tucked away down a narrow back alley, the Tianqiao Paradise Teahouse, closed to performances and used for Communist Party meetings for 40 years, once again rings with the falsetto of Peking Opera singers, the clanging music of the orchestra, the staccato repartee of comics, the shouts of acrobats and martial artists, and the crooning of folk singers.

In the capital of Communist China, where ideology is consumed by profitmaking, city officials recognized old Beijing's nostalgic appeal to elderly residents, Chinese returning from overseas, and foreign tourists. They reopened the teahouse two years ago.

``The tea culture comes from old Beijing,'' explains He Qiwang, general manager of the Tianqiao teahouse. ``Three years ago, the municipal government said we must try to recover the traditional culture of Beijing, and in 1992, the government said to restore this old Beijing teahouse.''

``Most importantly, we need to revive Chinese culture to attract tourists to come here,'' he adds.

But like the street performers of old, the teahouse sometimes makes money, but often doesn't. A $350,000 renovation of the 60-year-old building was supervised by the Beijing Foreign Cultural Exchange Association and underwritten by a subsidiary of a state-owned investment conglomerate established to attract foreign investment.

Five years of research went into the project as the organizers interviewed longtime residents, combed archives, and pored over museum photographs of street scenes. Information on preparing 80 kinds of snacks special to Tianqiao was collected, including sesame-seed cakes, jianquan (fried-dough rings), and jellied bean curd, served today with a range of teas from all over China.

Care was also taken to be politically correct. Fearing accusations that they were reviving past excesses, officials sanitized Tianqiao's old ribaldry and chose less-racy entertainment. Their caution appeased Beijing ideologues but dampened audience appeal.

``The Tianqiao Teahouse went over many, many times what kind of performances we wanted to present,'' Mr. He says. ``There was a lot of discussion about the performances.''

Today, the teahouse's two troupes of 50 performers each play to an average 60-percent full house in the 200-seat teahouse, although often only 10 percent of the seats are full, officials admit, mostly with foreign tour groups.

The teahouse's most famous foreign visitor was the late American President Richard Nixon, who attended a performance in April 1993. His visit came more than 20 years after his unsuccessful first attempt to visit the well-known Tianqiao teahouse during his historic trip to China in 1972.

The program has been less popular with Chinese. After years of official frowning on teahouse entertainment, older Beijingers nostalgic for the past are hesitant to come. And many young Chinese ignore traditional culture for Western influences and Hong Kong fashions that have flooded the country since China reopened its economy to foreigners 16 years ago.

``Not every day is full.,'' Mr. He says. ``We have a lot of hopes to improve the programs to draw larger audiences. We are determined to make the teahouse a success and will never think of closing.''

TO enliven the shows, organizers have tried to attract acts from other provinces and even bring back old performers or members of their families. Trapeze artist Cao was one of the old Tianqiao performers tracked down by researchers.

After being banned from performing on Tianqiao streets, Cao joined China's national acrobatic team in the 1950s but was ordered to remove the dragon heads, symbols of imperial China, from his wooden acrobatic frame. He traveled extensively, often with two of his brothers, and performed in the Soviet Union, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria as well as for Chinese troops fighting in Korea.

Later Cao was invited to the southern Chinese province of Anhui to start an acrobatic troupe that he managed until the team was forced to fold at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

Branded a right-wing reactionary, Cao had his pay cut by more than half and was forced to work in the countryside. But surreptitiously in the 1970s, he started training one of his sons in acrobatics. ``We were not allowed to do it during the day, so we had to practice at night,'' he says with a smile. In the late 1970s, Cao again began to perform in public, and 10 years later had his back pay reimbursed by the government.

Six of his 10 children have performed as acrobats, including his son Cao Anlai, who has taken over his father's act and appears regularly at the teahouse. ``In 1992, my father heard that Tianqiao had reopened and told me, `Son, this is our best place. We are from this place and should go back,' '' says the younger Cao, who performs under the name Xiao Fei-Fei-Fei (Young Fly-Fly-Fly).

One of the elder Cao's grandsons also performs martial arts at the teahouse, although Cao, who participates only occasionally now, admits the skills of old Tianqiao are fading.

``Many of the Tianqiao performers are a lost generation,'' Cao Anlai says, explaining that he lacks his father's proficiency and endurance. ``My generation has absorbed the excellence of the old and is helping develop it again. But I can never achieve the skills of my father.''

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