Taipei collective stages Peking Opera to keep tradition alive

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The 30-square-meter room, situated on the first floor of a residential building in Taipei, looks like an old teahouse that has its curtains drawn and doors closed.

The clients in the room are old, some of them in their 90s. And, their chosen form of entertainment is centuries older. The tunes played on string instruments and drums and the slow singing, mixed with calls of "Bravo" and ripples of applause, are carefully managed to not disturb the neighbors.

Xiangyan, which means "feast of sound" in Chinese, is the only Peking Opera fan club that opens every day in Taipei.

It has long been a tradition since the heyday of Peking Opera that fans not only watch actors play in theaters but also perform themselves, sometimes in full costume and stage makeup but just as often in plain clothes. Fan clubs, or piaofang in Chinese, are where they rehearse, perform and socialize.

"During the 1950s and '60s, we had about 200 fan clubs in Taipei. Peking Opera was a respectable form of entertainment for people with taste," says Lee Yi-ching, a loyal fan and renowned amateur actor of Peking Opera in Taipei.

The 93-year-old former serviceman specializes in a type of character in Peking Opera that few play now, nandan-or men who play female roles.

"I started to learn Peking Opera at the age of 11, and since then Peking Opera has been my lifelong calling,"Lee says.

Having left the Chinese mainland for Taiwan in 1949, Lee carried on the hobby and even performed with a local Peking Opera troupe for several years in his early 30s.

"It is because of Peking Opera that I'm still so healthy at this age," he says.

Lee is not the oldest member of Xiangyan.

"The oldest member is 104 years old. The majority of our members are over 80," says Hsu Chun-chiu, the host of the club. "When the fan club was first founded in 2004, there were around 120 members, but there are only around 60 now as more elderly members have passed away."

As far as Hsu knows, the number of Peking Opera fan clubs in Taipei that regularly meet once a week is now less than 20.

At its peak, Xiangyan welcomed 66 members on a busy afternoon, and 36 of them performed, Hsu recalls."Now we regard it as a busy day when a dozen people show up.

"Fewer and fewer young people understand Peking Opera. It is too complicated and takes a long time for them to learn, let alone become fans," says Hsu, who is in her late sixties.

Another reason is that cultural institutions in Taiwan devote fewer resources to promoting Peking Opera compared with traditional operas sung in the Minnan dialect, Lee says.

Tense cross-Straits relations have also affected this club.

"I do not go to Xiangyan as often as I did three years ago. It is not because I am too old to sing, but because the club does not always have good jinghu (two-stringed fiddle) musicians. A good band, led by the jinghu player, really improves amateur performances," Lee says."When cross-Strait ties were warmer, many jinghu masters from the Chinese mainland would come to our club. These days, fewer of them visit, which is very sad."

Having paid several visits to Peking Opera fan clubs on the Chinese mainland, Hsu says she envies her counterparts across the Straits and the government funding they receive to rent venues and pay for bands.

Despite the humble conditions and the cost, Xiangyan still has its loyal followers.

"This is where we meet our peers and carry on our love for Peking Opera," Hsu says.

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