Enthralled toddler now an opera advocate

Yang Yang Ma Xuefeng Zhong Youyang Zhou Shengjie Hu Jun
Yu Kaiyi, now 28, a filing clerk at the Shanghai Peking Opera Theater, fell in love with the art at the age of 2 and now works to introduce it to a new generation of fans.
Yang Yang Ma Xuefeng Zhong Youyang Zhou Shengjie Hu Jun
Directed by Ma Xuefeng. Shot by Hu Jun and Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Emma Tang and Andy Boreham.

Characters with painted faces didn’t faze this 2-year-old toddler. As a male character did his qiba and tangma (adjusted his helmet and armor and moved as if galloping on a horse), and a female character fluttered her long sleeves to simulate mist and clouds, the child fell in love with acting.

Yu Kaiyi, now 28, said his ties with Peking Opera had been formed as if he and the art had good karma toward each other.

The international politics graduate is a filing clerk at the art archive of the Shanghai Peking Opera Theater on Tianyaoqiao Road in Shanghai’s Xuhui District. Over the past four years he has restored more than 14,000 historic photos — he released some on social media when performances were halted and opera houses closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, gaining the company a new generation of fans.

“The Shanghai Peking Opera Theater was founded in 1955, and I attached an amiable persona to it when voicing on social media on behalf of it,” Yu said. “I personified the theater online and said: ‘I am a 65-year-old theatrical troupe, but I am willing to learn from all of you.’ That was a good start, and the younger generation responded.”

Yu started his filing clerk job while serving as the theater’s photographer and one of its composers. But his focus on compiling the last two volumes of the biography of the theater’s first dean, renowned Peking Opera master Zhou Xinfang (1895-1975), made him aware that restoring old photos of the art and researching them was an urgent task that required special effort, as if he were “running fast on bare feet.”

To provide images for the biography, Yu restored about 4,800 old pictures with about 2,000 finally published in the books.

Digital equipment was adopted to scan old photos and negatives and get rid of any blemishes. Later, Yu also worked on restoring phonographic records.

“I feel like I am competing against time,” he confessed. 

“Paper becomes more fragile as time passes and old people with a knowledge of Peking Opera history who can shed light on the photos are growing older.”

Yu restored photos recording Peking Opera masters, including Gai Jiaotian (1888-1971), Ma Lianliang (1901-1966) and Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958). When he posted them online they were received enthusiastically because of their age.

“A foreign cosmetics company expressed interest in learning Chinese Peking Opera actresses’ make-up skills,” Yu recalled. “The actresses, when applying make-up for their acting, can sit in front of a mirror and paint layer after layer of make-up on their faces for two hours.” 

Yu drew some parallels: “I think my photo restoring work tests my patience like applying make-up tests an actress or practicing kung fu tests an actor in a martial arts role.”

To better promote Peking Opera today and attract young people, Yu and his colleagues have adopted new ways of introducing the art in its most traditional and precise form.

“We are confident about Peking Opera — the art’s touching characteristics have already been developed by generations of devoted artists,” he said. “The rest is how to introduce it in a novel way.”

On February 29, the troupe shared with its online fans treasured film footage of the first performance at Shanghai Tianchan Yifu Theater when it opened in 1994. Few Peking Opera fans had a chance to attend the original performance — the film reaped 200,000 clicks on the day.

On March 15, the World Consumer Rights Day, the troupe uploaded footage of a clown play where demon characters disguise themselves as protagonists, and a judge has to tell the real protagonists from the fakes.

Feedback on the novel promotion methods was encouraging.

“I owe Shanghai Peking Opera Theater a ticket,” wrote one fan. 

“Shanghai Peking Opera Theater, please reopen and show us your stunning performances,” wrote another.

Zhang Fan, current dean of the troupe, is optimistic about Peking Opera’s future among the younger generation. “When you stand behind an audience at a Peking Opera show, you will realize their hair color is darker when compared with what you would notice decades ago. The opera troupe is focusing on training more talent and creating more good scripts in order to pass on the cultural heritage.”

Yu praises the numerous historic anecdotes contained in the storylines of Peking Opera. He said virtues like loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness promoted in the opera had a particular appeal to him when he was a young boy.

With a father who was a Peking Opera actor in the troupe, Yu was told stories at a young age about how the actors and actresses there had traveled thousands of miles to act and promote Peking Opera throughout the country, and learned that an actor had to practice “millions” of times if he wanted to reduce the risk of a miss when tackling a prop on stage.

“When I was a child, Peking Opera had already fascinated me so much that I would play with my grandma, putting on a smaller-sized rankou (artificial whiskers) my father tailor-made for me and wrapped myself with a bed sheet as if I was wearing a Peking Opera outfit.”

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