Only five people were in the audience in the 220-seat hall in Beijing's Guangdelou Theatre a week before the May Day holiday. The two columns propping up the stage stood solemnly, as if in silent support of the lonely performers.
Storyteller Wang Xiangwei was born to a family of xihe dagu performers, a folk art genre of storytelling accompanied by drumming that originated in North China's Hebei Province. The drummer accompanying her on the stage was her father, Wang Jinsheng.
Wang Jinsheng used to run a hat factory but it went bankrupt. But, in one month after father and daughter started performing at Guangdelou, they lost another 700 yuan (US$85). The audiences were simply not big enough.
Yet they were happy to have gained a footing at such a famous theatre. "From here, we hope to promote our art to the entire country," Wang Jinsheng said confidently.
As one of the birthplaces of folk music in China, Beijing has evolved from an ancient capital into a modern metropolis in which Guangdelou is the only theatre specially reserved for folk arts such as ballad singing, storytelling, comic dialogue and clapper talk. Peking Opera and other folk operas, on the other hand, are not in the theatre's traditional repertoire.
Struggle for Survival
Guangdelou Theatre is tucked deep in the Dashila pedestrian mall of Qianmen to the south of Tian'anmen Square. Surrounded by hundreds of shops that all have a long history and rich stories, the theatre finds it hard to attract passers-by.
One major obstacle is transportation. Tourist agencies complain that no parking lot is conveniently close to the pedestrian mall, which is formed by a labyrinth of hutong alleys.
Last summer, the theatre managed to attract people to three Peking Opera aria nights yet the managers still could barely make ends meet from these successful performance.
"It's a struggle for survival," said Zhao Taisheng, the theatre's deputy manager.
Before the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) forced Guangdelou and many other theatres to stop all performances, the theatre offered shows every afternoon except Monday and three nights a week. The theatre has only four permanent performers, all retired members of art troupes.
Occasionally, some professional artists perform there to help the theatre, even though they can only get one-tenth the payment they would get in some other theatres. But the sporadic nature of such shows makes it difficult to nurture loyal audiences.
People who come here to spend a leisurely afternoon or evening are mostly in their 60s or older. In the best times, some 50 people are scattered in the theatre in small groups. At the worst, only a few people are there to applaud at the end of the show.
Entering the theatre's gate, photos on the right-hand wall tell stories of its former glories. Famous performers such as 81-year-old Guan Xuezeng, Luo Yusheng (1914-2002), Ma Sanli (1914-2003) and 74-year-old Yuan Kuocheng, all had memorable moments there.
Guangdelou was established in 1796 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Theatres in the ancient capital at that time were first known as chayuan or "tea garden." People only needed to pay for tea when they came to watch performances.
The earliest tea gardens in old Beijing all had long benches around rectangular tables. People had to turn around to watch the stage while enjoying snacks such as fried sunflower seeds with their tea.
In some tea gardens, men and women were strictly segregated.
The old Guangdelou stage was square and faced the west. It was here that Peking Opera masters such as Cheng Changgeng (1811-80) and Mei Qiaoling (1842-82) (grandfather of Mei Lanfang) and famous troupes such as Xiliancheng and Shuangqingshe made their Beijing debuts and fascinated audiences for a long time.
Their dazzling careers helped establish the reputations of Guangdelou and many other theatres in Beijing. People went there more to hail the famous masters than to kill time sipping tea.
Yet a fire in 1900 put an end to Guangdelou Theatre's flourishing century.
After a lot of renovation, the theatre reopened in 1914, three years after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Although the audiences were no longer so big, the theatre was still popular among many celebrities.
In 1947, another fire completely destroyed the theatre, leaving no trace of its original structure. After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the theatre went by the new name of Qianmen Small Theatre and specialized in folk art performances.
Before the 1960s, people could spend merely 2 fen (0.2 US cents at today's exchange rate) and enjoy a wonderful show lasting 10 minutes, which often had the highlights of important masters.
In those golden years, the old Beijing Railway Station was right at Qianmen. Travellers, especially salespeople and purchasing agents, often rushed to the theatre for a few moments' entertainment before boarding the train.
As China develops quickly, folk arts and many other traditional genres are losing their fascination for many people. During the most difficult times, Guangdelou had to keep on going by showing videotapes, holding public dance parties and even setting up billiard tables.
In 2000, the Beijing municipal government allocated over 6 million yuan (US$725,000) to renovate the theatre as part of a campaign to invigorate southern Beijing by supporting traditional cultural businesses.
A horizontal sign was hung up with the theatre's old name, and the new theatre was enlarged to 800 square meters. The roof was made of a light steel structure rather than the old wood and brick. A small museum on the history of Chinese folk art performances now displays precious photos and other materials.
On June 26, 2001, Guangdelou Theatre reopened with a grand show that included many famous folk performers. It was a common view that the revived old theatre would contribute to the growth of southern Beijing, which experts said was the cultural origin of the ancient capital.
Deputy Manager Zhao Taisheng said he believes that traditional artists should not blame audiences for turning to new genres.
"We didn't have many new shows for a long time. In the case of xiangsheng (comic crosstalk) alone, there are just a few famous but old names nationwide. Without fresh faces and ideas coming up, it's no wonder that audiences get bored.
"This market will be revitalized only through the efforts from all four angles: the performers, Guangdelou, the government and the audience," said Zhao.
In fact, there has been a successful example of such a revival. The Tianqiaole teahouse at Tianqiao Market, which is also quite close to Qianmen, experienced a hard time at first.
Then the teahouse got in touch with tourist agencies in Japan. The package of each Japanese tourist includes a show at Tianqiaole. The teahouse is now able to put on over 500 shows every year, featuring acrobatics, magic, Peking Opera and bangzi shows (storytelling accompanied by bamboo clappers).
The management of Guangdelou is also busy thinking about ways to improve things. Last July, they invited many experts to hold a seminar. As a result, the theatre now puts on a special show gathering the cream of many folk genres. With explanations by experts, the performers demonstrate their skills and the highlights of their repertoire.
"We must gain the understanding of more young people to nurture a steady stream of audience members," said Zhao.
Another perhaps more direct means to this end is the setting-up of the piaoyou association. China has a long tradition of faithful amateur performers who are proud to be called piaoyou - literally "ticket friends."
Six years ago, Kunqu Opera actor Zhang Weidong set up a piaoyou association of bajiaogu, which is a name for all types of folk arts originating in Beijing. Zhang aspires to save the ancient folk arts.
Every day of the week, the association has various activities at the homes of its members. It has attracted college students and has successfully put several piaoyou amateurs onto the stage.
"It is really difficult for Guangdelou to hold on," said Zhang. "Without famous professionals, it holds little glamour for fans. On the other hand, many of our members are not well-off and are unwilling to pay when our own members perform at the theatre.
"However, I do admire people who persist in keeping folk arts alive at Guangdelou. In that golden location, running any other business would have made them wealthy long ago."
Zhao, the theatre's deputy manager, said: "Guangdelou is specially reserved for folk arts. We hope those piaoyou will soon gather around us."
(China Daily May 16, 2003)