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July 11, 2011

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Beijing treats - Crosstalk to rolling donkey

A night in old Beijing can mean dinner in an old hutong courtyard restaurant followed by a couple of hours of traditional crosstalk comedy, a famous form of northern China banter. Xu Wei applauds.

Despite Beijing's enormous development and the loss of great numbers of historic buildings and traditional neighborhoods, there are still delightful places to savor the real Beijing. You can enjoy traditional crosstalk comedy, wander the old hutongs (alleyways) and savor Beijing snacks like rolling donkey.

As host of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has become so new, so big and so modern that it's a relief to find oases of traditional northern China culture and lifestyle.

One of these oases is the Deyun Club, founded by famous crosstalk artist Guo Degang and offering both old-time comedic rapid-fire dialogue and the same kind of banter about today's hot topics, such as unaffordable housing, high-level officials and celebrity gossip.

It's generally performed by two actors, always in Beijing dialect.

And it's experiencing a revival these days, not on televison, but in theaters.

The club is located in the downtown Tianqiao area in Xuanwu District, a cradle of original folk culture and art. Ever since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), local Beijingers have congregated in the area to enjoy a variety of entertainment. The theater also presents Peking Opera and variety shows.

The theater itself was built in 1933 in the classic style of a teahouse. In front of the stage are dozens of big square tables and chairs.

Distinctive Beijing snacks, such as preserved fruit, melon seeds and Beijing cookies, are served, and waitresses wearing traditional qipao serve tea.

Every evening, there are crosstalk shows (20-100 yuan/US$3-15 per person) by Guo and his colleagues and students.

They run around three hours, and usually have eight acts or skits.

Tickets are quickly sold out and fans have to making booking a few days in advance.

These days it has become fashionable among many young people to enjoy hilarious and relaxing comedy after dinner. This northern China art form tends to be rougher than more "refined" humor in Shanghai and southern China. Some are slightly racy. Northerners often don't "get" or like southern comedy and southerners don't find the humor in northern jokes or consider them silly and crude.

Many northern jokes are classics, performed for decades. They're based on puns and the same pronunciation of different Chinese words, which cause amusing misunderstandings.

Like some Western jokes, this old favorite involves a married man making an appointment for a tryst with an attractive woman - in code.

He asks for Tsingdao beer if he wants the waiter to arrange a tryst, Laoshan beer if he decides to spend the night with his wife.

He happily orders Tsingdao for three consecutive nights. On the fourth night, his wife cuts in before he orders, saying, "If you dare drink Tsingdao beer tonight, I will buy all of your male colleagues and friends Laoshan beer."

At first I was disappointed that Guo himself did not appear on the night I visited. But I soon was delighted by the other comics and enveloped in a warm, light-hearted atmosphere. I found the show more flexible and exciting than stand-up comedian Zhou Libo's Shanghai dialect monologues.

Unlike Zhou's stylish and innovative shows in which he imitates and satirizes celebrities and world leaders, the shows at Deyun Club preserve the many flavors of traditional back-and-forth crosstalk, while adding lively new elements to appeal to a younger crowd.

Some routines are inspired by the news, gossip, buzzwords and what's trending on the Internet.

Popular online terms such as beicui (upset and tragic) and "everything flows away in haste like floating clouds" are frequently merged into the script.

Another popular crosstalk troupe in Beijing is Xiha (Hip-hop) Crosstalk, which has updated the traditional crosstalk-only format to cater to a younger generation born in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s. It has around 260,000 registered fans just in Beijing alone.

Apart from crosstalk, there are many other ways to enjoy Beijing's culture and charm.

It is said that Beijing's hutongs are a microcosm of daily life and culture.

In recent years, a rickshaw hutong tour has become popular with tourists as a way to experience the tranquillity and flavor of life in old Beijing.

Once there were vast tracts of hutongs and traditional courtyard dwellings behind walls, but almost all are gone, making way for modern Beijing, just as almost all of Shanghai's shikumen (stone-gated) buildings were razed.

You can find a lot of surprising restaurants tucked away in hutongs. Liqun Roast Duck is one of them, located in a siheyuan (traditional four-sided courtyard) residence east of Tian'anmen Square. It offers a warm and authentic experience.

Guests can see how ducks are roasted in the brick oven and then devour one - virtually everything but the bones are edible.

The crispy, fatty, aromatic duck meat is usually eaten with pancakes, spring onions and hoisin sauce or sweet bean sauce. Other parts of the duck - liver, eggs, tongue, feet - are also served. Bones are boiled and made into soup with Chinese watermelon and cabbage.

Owing to its family-like atmosphere, the restaurant has attracted many Chinese celebrities, foreign tourists and diplomats. The chef used to work for the famous restaurant Quan Ju De. To ensure that the taste is authentic and the quality high, only around 50 ducks are served every day. Reservations are required.

Many other Beijing dishes and tasty treats are available on Qianmen Street and at the Donghuamen Snack Night Market.

Beijing has more than 200 kinds of snacks, usually combining flavors of various nationalities, such as Han, Meng, Man, Hui as well as court snacks from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

For instance, the "rolling donkey" (lu da gun) is a kind of cake made with steamed glutinous millet or steamed sticky rice, filled with red beans and then drizzled with fried bean flour.

After it is cut into blocks, the cake is rolled in soybean flour - like a donkey rolling in the ground and raising dust.

Mung bean milk (dou zhi) is another famous snack, made with the fluid remaining in the process of making mung bean noodles. It tastes sour with a tinge of sweetness. It's commonly accompanied by a few Chinese-style pickles.


? The crosstalk performance schedule, theater address and ticketing information are available at Tickets are very popular and need to be booked in advance.

? Reservations are required at Liqun Roast Duck.

? Both Qianmen Street and Donghuamen Snack Night Market are pedestrian-only streets. Shops close at 10pm.

How to get there

By air:

China Eastern Airlines and Shanghai Airlines fly daily nonstop from Shanghai to Beijing. The flight is around two hours.

By train:

The Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway has started operation. Tickets for trains running at 300kph are 555 yuan for second-class and 1,750 yuan for top class. Tickets for 250kph trains are 410 yuan for second-class seats to 650 yuan for first-class.

There will be 63 pairs of trains running at 300kph every day, cutting travel time to around four hours and 50 minutes. Another 27 pairs of trains running at 250kph make the trip in around eight hours.


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