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August 7, 2009

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Xiangsheng gets an update

FOR many young Shanghainese like Eric Zhang, xiangsheng, or crosstalk, is a traditional northern Chinese comedy form that only belongs to the old generation. But the Xiangsheng Club, which performs a show every Friday and Saturday on Nanjing Road W. since June, has changed his view.

The performers are young people like Zhang. Audiences are young adults too, more than 80 percent local Shanghainese.

Zhang, a 24-year-old IT consultant, had never been to a live crosstalk show. His experience comes from the standard repertoire of CCTV's annual Spring Festival Gala Show ?? xiangsheng has been a must in the gala since he was little.

Like many young people, Zhang considers traditional Chinese stage forms like xiangsheng and Peking Opera a favorite of older people like his grandparents, who didn't have the advantage of TV or Internet in their day. For him, it's "out of date and not trendy at all."

"It's also very northern Chinese style, I don't think I can fully understand the jokes and enjoy the performance. After all, there is a lot of talk about the large differences between southern and northern Chinese culture and art," Zhang says.

He never thought of inviting friends to go out to a show like this because he might have been laughed at. Zhang considers his young friends who like such stage forms "old school and unfashionable." The usual invitation is "let's go clubbing" or "let's get to a karaoke place."

Zhang was dragged by some colleagues to a small theater on Nanjing Road W. for a live performance of crosstalk by the Xiangsheng Club. Before entering, he expected to fall asleep during the performance and "might recommend it to my grandparents if it is good."

As expected, the 200-seat theater is less than half filled, but Zhang is surprised to see that the audience were all about his age, and even more stunned to see the performers, also in their 20s.

"I didn't understand some parts of the show, but I have to say it changed my view of these traditional stage forms, especially when I can't help but laughing with the rest of the audience," says Zhang.

The theater, like many old, small theaters in Shanghai, hosts traditional arts such as pingshu (a form of storytelling) or Kunqu Opera during the day for an audience with average age of over 60.

Young performers

"Considering their age, they can't do evening shows because old people need to sleep early," says Deng Tao, organizer of the Xiangsheng Club.

The Hunan Province native has been living and working in Shanghai for more than 10 years.

Fans since childhood, Deng and his friends all love xiangsheng. They get together listening to and practicing xiangsheng like a club. Most of the members are born after 1980.

They believe there is a market for xiangsheng in Shanghai since everyone understands Mandarin.

Xiangsheng is probably the most famous form of traditional Chinese comedy outside China. In Chinese, xiang means resemble and sheng means sound and it started with a single comedian imitating the daily lives of people in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Today it commonly involves two fast-talking performers, but it can also feature three or four comics ?? all speaking Mandarin.

Like many traditional Chinese stage forms, xiangsheng has classic content dating back hundreds of years. It used to be one of the most popular shows on TV, but people started getting tired of the traditional contents in the late 1990s, especially after many famous masters died or retired.

One of the most famous of today's performers is Guo Degang, 36, who started a xiangsheng live performance club De Yun She in Beijing in the 1990s. Modernizing the traditional content, Guo has attracted many young people to xiangsheng across the country.

Inspired by Guo, Deng believes the model can be copied in Shanghai. "It's actually sad that in such a big city young people can't find much to do after work," says Deng.

"Movies are expensive. Stage dramas are rather diversified. You can't get the tickets for those good ones and you don't want to watch the leftovers. And only very few people can afford to go clubbing every night. As a modern city, there's got to be something else for its citizens," he adds.

The club started in northern Shanghai's Zhabei District three years ago by holding free crosstalk performances in the neighborhood. Gradually, they built up to an audience of about 100 and decided to put it on a real stage.

"Since the beginning, most audiences were young Shanghainese, so I never considered the market a problem. Shanghai is a big city, there's got to be some people who like xiangsheng. And the average age of our performers is 25, about the same as our audience, so we know what they like and how to amuse them through the traditional art form," says Deng.

The standard repertoire of Xiangsheng Club is 40-percent traditional content, 30-percent modernized traditional content and 30-percent original content created by the performers.

They have added more acting in the performances, as well as tackling hot topics such as popular stars, the Internet and games.

The oldest performer is 29 and the youngest 19, many of whom consider it a serious part-time job while others are contracted actors for Deng's company.

In addition to weekend shows on Nanjing Road W., the club also hosts mini shows during weekdays on Huayuan Road in Hongkou District. The mini show venue is where actors rehearse, there is only enough for about 10 spectators.

"Gradually, we will add more varieties of traditional Chinese stage forms and develop a group of loyal fans who get attracted to such kind of modernized and trendy live performances of traditional art," says Deng.

Weekend show

Date: Friday-Saturday, 7:30pm

Tickets: 35 yuan

Address: Bldg 1, 860 Nanjing Rd W.

Mini show

Date: Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30pm

Tickets: 18 yuan

Venue: Rm 361, District T, 128 Huayuan Rd

Tel: 400-6673-933


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