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As rubes get rich, comedians laugh it up

IN China's urban whirlwind, farmers get rich overnight and find themselves with new homes, cars - and ideas. There can be a hilarious clash of civilizations, urban and rural. A farce company makes the most of it. Xu Wei reports.

In China's astonishing headlong urbanization process, as farmers move to cities, or find themselves engulfed by urban sprawl, there's plenty of fodder for comedy.

For instance, near Shanghai some elderly peasants unaccustomed to high-rise apartments and unfamiliar Arabic numerals, label the floors on their elevators with pictures of roosters, ducks, fish, pigs, cows and other farm animals.

The rube in the city is a stock made-for-laughs story around the world, and China has millions of variations on it. After all, it has around 800 million people living on the land and many move to cities as migrant workers. The flip side is the rapid urbanization of rural and semi-rural areas where the city comes to the farmers.

At the Shanghai World Expo, China celebrates the urbanization process that has improved the lives of millions of farmers. Through September 1, the rapid economic development that has made one town rich will be showcased in the Suzhou Case Hall of the Urban Best Practices Area.

At the same time, Sunday through Tuesday - just so we don't get carried away with how wonderful it all is - the Shanghai People's Farce Company will put on hilarious daily shows in the Expo Park about the clash of China's urban and rural civilizations. It's the human comedy of hurtling development, titled "Spring Forever" ("Yongyuan Shi Chuntian"). It's parody, caricature, physical comedy, a bit of song and dance in Shanghai dialect.

The true case study is Yonglian Village in Jiangsu Province. In 1970 it had only 200 families. Today, it's considered one of the richest villages in China, sometimes called the No. 1 Iron Village for the iron and steel factories nearby.

Last year the town (now it's bigger so it's classified as a town) made more than 28 billion yuan (US$4.12 billion) in revenue from sales of its industrial products.

Earlier this year, veteran farce performers paid several visits to the town to collect material and get a feel for just how jarring the transition is and just what life is like in one of the millions of "urban villages" around China.

Labeling elevator floor numbers with pig and duck pictures is just one example of coping with dislocation and changed relationships among neighbors.

"Yonglian Town's integrated 'city and countryside' development matches the Expo's 'Better City, Better Life' theme," says Yu Li, an official with the Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination. "Many interesting human stories unfold in the course of rapid social and economic transformation."

Although urban life is more convenient and well-organized than rural living, many peasants still want to grow all kids of vegetables and keep chickens in modern residential areas.

"A lot of funny stories like that will make city folks laugh and cheer them up when they see how the farmers come to terms with change and how smart they are," says Wang Rugang, a famous Shanghai farce artist and director of the Shanghai People's Farce Company.

Farce used to be famous and very popular in Shanghai where it goes back around 100 years. It was based on everyday life, news events and ordinary people in familiar situations - the country nanny in the big city is one example. But today the grassroots art form is dying out.

"Shanghai farce is a comprehensive performing art combining monologues, dialogues, improvisation, audience interaction, mime, traditional opera, folk entertainment and lots of other elements," Wang says.

There's a lot of slapstick, heavy-handed humor, perfect comedic timing, body language and spot-on facial expressions.

But it's hard to find versatile young artists these days who want to stick it out in hopes of succeeding in a stage art that's fading. Most audience members are elderly or of late middle age.

But this tale of the rich village - and the stock rube character - could help build a revival in the Yangtze River Delta area, or so farce lovers hope.

"For a long time it was only targeted at Shanghai audiences and the characters used to be petty bourgeois, but it's time for us to make some changes," said the director. "We have taken a first step by playing farmers."

It's a challenge to innovate and appeal to people outside Shanghai, especially as grassroots farce is performed in Shanghai dialect.

Since Shanghai dialect is also dying out, the situation is quite serious.

Wang says he hopes to cooperate with various enterprises and organizations to present a variety of tailor-made farces just for them.

"It's hard to find multitalented performers who can interact with the audience in talk, mime, teasing and singing," says Gong Renlong, deputy director of the Shanghai Qinyi Farce Troupe.

In all of Shanghai there are believed to be only around 80 performers. Gong says many graduates of performing arts schools prefer to go into TV and film because acting is more straightforward, it doesn't involve years of training - and the rewards, when they come, can be big.

"Lack of good scriptwriters is another reason for the crisis in the genre," Gong adds. "It is very difficult to write a comedy that actually makes people laugh out loud. So many farces are stereotyped today; that's because just a handful of people are writing them.

To attract young people, veterans are trying to incorporate more creative elements in performance and stage settings.

One example is "Triple Promotions," a regular satiric costume drama performed Fridays and Saturdays (7:30pm) at Huangpu Theater.

It capitalizes on the popularity of ancient days costume drama, filled with familiar tales and stock characters that are made for laughs.

Set in ancient China, it's the story of how a smart and upright scholar fights a powerful and notorious official. The hilarious dialogue and story line are very easy to understand.

Kevin Fan, a big fan of Shanghai-born stand-up comedian Zhou Libo, says that Zhou's new-style farce offers some new ideas that can be incorporated.

"In each performance, Zhou delivers his commentary on many aspects of city life and news with wit and knowledge," Fan says. He says traditional farce focuses too much on pedestrian aspects of life.

He and other fans of farce, including some scholars, say it needs to be more topical and provocative - like the Expo farce about the rich farmers - a play that reveals what's really going on.

Farce "Yongyuan Shi Chuantian"

Date: August 29-31, 8pm

Venue: UBPA Square (Zone E)


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