New drama depicts women in old city lanes
Shanghai’s turbulent history provides the setting for the Shanghai Oriental Art Center’s first original drama production, “Garden of the Jins,” which will premiere in the city late next month.
The play revolves around the lives of two Shanghai women — mistress and servant — and their lifelong association, set against the backdrop of historical events in the city.
The plot begins in 1958 and stretches 52 years. The two women, Jin Wanying and Lu Shuijuan, are of similar age but of different personalities. Their relationship starts off as mistress and servant, and they become more like companions as the family fortunes wane. They end up supporting each other as the world around them changes at a furious pace.
“The two leading characters give full play to the spirit of Shanghai ladies, who are known for their elegance and tenacity,” said Li Jianping, director of the four-act play.
“When reduced to life in a bunker, they still preserve a certain quality of life by drinking coffee — a symbol of capitalism — from enamel cups in a sunrise,” he explained. “It’s an image you can picture only in Shanghai ladies. This is the unique memory of some Shanghainese from that specific era.”
Hong Jinghui, the scriptwriter, is a teacher at the Shanghai Theater Academy. Born in the late 1970s, Hong said the script covers all of her childhood memories. She grew up in a typical Shanghai neighborhood of small lanes on Nanjing Road W. It has since been demolished to make way for a shopping mall.
“My major characters are not based on any archetypal personae, but on the faces and stories of my old neighbors and friends,” said Hong.
“Women-themed dramas, especially those with long time span, are not frequently seen in China,” she explained. “In my memories, Shanghai ladies, especially those from big families, were elegant, independent and exquisite. As a child, I was deeply impressed by those beautiful and elegant Shanghai aunties living next door. This work is a playback of old residents’ memories as well as a tribute to the city’s history.”
The play will be performed in Mandarin, but not in very “standard” Mandarin. According to director Li, it will be interspersed with some Shanghai dialect and local slang.
“The play is in Mandarin for considerations of audience-friendliness, but it will be ‘localized Mandarin,’” said Li. “I bet audiences will immediately realize it when they hear the characters talk and how they address one another.”
The play will be staged at Shanghai Oriental Art Center from September 20 to 22 before going on the road to other cities around the Chinese mainland.
The casting features a few Huju Opera performers, including Sun Xuchun, who plays the role of a 70-year-old Hong Kong businessman. In the story, he returns to his childhood residence in Shanghai and even sings a piece from Huju Opera in the performance.
“This will be my drama debut,” said 59-year-old Sun, a popular figure in Huju Opera, which uses Shanghai dialect. “I will have the very rare experience of performing in Mandarin. This play provides me with an opportunity to introduce Huju and very original Shanghai culture to audiences.”
Sun added: “Huju Opera is a Shanghai specialty, but remains a niche art form, especially given the new structure of Shanghai residents. I hope dramas with Shanghai themes will help popularize the city’s history and culture.”
When drama was introduced into China at the end of the 19th century as a performing art telling stories in dialogue or pantomime, it first appeared in Shanghai. Local students attracted to the genre played a pivotal role in its early development.
After watching realistic Western plays like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” they were intrigued by the ability of drama to showcase contemporary society and problems. They began to create their own characters and stories. Amateur drama troupes sprang up across the city.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing became the cultural center of the country and the new incubator of Chinese drama. The government merge drama troupes and established a centralized management system.
The development of drama encountered setbacks in the 1970s, but regained its vitality when Western dramas began to appear again in the 1980s. Shanghai’s drama artists began experimenting with the art form. Subjects of staged plays no longer were limited to social problems, but also explored human nature.
In this century, Chinese drama has witnessed rapid changes and the appearance of a number of private drama companies.
In Shanghai, watching plays in small theaters has become a popular entertainment choice among the younger generation. Suspense plays and light comedies have their markets.
Facing the challenge of so many public entertainment choices, drama artists have quickly realized that originality and distinguishing characteristics are key factors in turning scripts into popular productions.
The creation of “Garden of the Jins” is Shanghai Oriental Center’s effort to address public demand for original works.
“As one of the city’s leading art venues, we not only import performances, but also try to reach out to the domestic industry to produce original works,” said Lei Wen, general manager of Shanghai Oriental Art Center Management Co.
According to Lei, “Garden of the Jins” will serve as the first chapter in the center’s “Lane Series” productions. Lane refers to longtang, or back alleyways, of Shanghai residential neighborhoods.
“This is our contribution in promoting the city and its culture,” she said.
“There are so many stories hidden in Shanghai’s longtang.”