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Tough Act to Follow

Whatever else you can say about them, the acts performed by the Lao Tianqiao Folk Arts Troupe are not for the fainthearted.


Needles penetrate arms (although we're promised no blood will be shed); heavy weights are lifted up by the ears and dances are performed on broken glass.


Not impressed? How about watching someone pull a car -- with the hair of their head or perhaps you'd like to see someone breaking a chopstick with a single sheet of paper, or swallowing -- and then vomiting a stainless steel ball.


Members of the troupe will even let you have a go, if you're brave enough!


"All of these are real, as opposed to being tricks or illusion," promised Fan Dehai, 45, head of the troupe.


The kungfu master explained that many members of the troupe can date performing relatives back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).


The troupe, which now has three branch groups, is much more prosperous than before as the government realizes the significance of protecting old folk art, Fan said.


One group now stages evening shows in the New Millennium Hotel (6357-4897) at Guang'anmen on the southern Second Ring Road. Another performs outdoors at Lido Park (6432-1659) east of the northern Fourth Ring Road to the east of Lido Holiday Inn Hotel.


The third group tours worldwide. Fan said the group is to tour Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand this year.


The folk art stunts performed by Tianqiao gained fame in the old days of the Ming and Qing. Historical records reveal that Tianqiao was a famous place for folk artists to display their stunning skills outdoors, not far from Qianmen. The audience used to flock to appreciate various stunts.


The folk artists were poor people themselves. Scratching to make a living, they practiced hard and invented their own ways to draw the attention of the audience. Often they performed in a square, surrounded by the audience standing close to them. At the end of the show, they approached viewers with a bowl or pan in hand, inviting them to drop in any pennies they wished to give as a reward.


"For decades after 1949 such folk arts by Tianqiao masters came to a stop, because many officials believed that they were dangerous and inhuman to practice and perform," Fan said. Since 1979 such arts revived and were again permitted.


"There is little danger to the performers, although it looks dangerous to viewers," assured Fan. Their secrets remain just that: "The skills are orally taught, from father to son, master to disciple."


It's no secret, Fan said, that performers have to practice each act every day for hours. And they have to eat meat to summon breath and strength.


"When I learned kungfu while still young, my day was filled with nothing but hard practicing - apart from sleep and eating," said Fan. "I had to eat at least a half kilo of meat every day, otherwise I could not be strong enough to do martial arts."


There are some 30 performers in the troupe, aged from five to 70. Between them they have 200 programmes.


These include comedy acts, Chinese traditional magic, crosstalk, Shuanghuang and vocal mimicry.


"Without any language barrier, you can enjoy old Tianqiao folk art up close," Fan said. "You are also welcome to come on stage to test and participate."



(CNTA.com May 27, 2004)


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