Emerging from the shadows, addicts shed their old identities on stage

A drug rehab center in Shanghai is using drama, other arts and sports to give addicts new hope and more confidence of a return to normal lives.

Taking a deep breath, a 40-year-old drug addict surnamed Hu stepped onto a stage at the Gaojing Drug Rehabilitation Center to act in the debut performance of the facility’s drama club.

The patients performed a play entitled “Chaguan,” or “Teahouse,” adapted from a masterpiece written by renowned novelist and playwright Lao She.

The drama club is part of the rehab facility’s arts therapy program. It was initiated by Yin Jun, 33, a center officer who said he believes that drama can help recovering addicts rebuild their confidence. The group, nicknamed “Uncle Yin's Drama Club,” is the first of its kind in a Shanghai drug rehabilitation center. 

“Chaguan” takes place in a typical Beijing teahouse and mirrors the changes in China between 1898 and 1948, running from the late Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) to the end of the Republic of China. To give it a more local flavor, Yin said it was adapted to a Shanghai setting and is played in Shanghai dialect.

Its first act highlights the weakened state of China in 1898, with an impoverished populace, foreign aggression on the rise, and opium flooding into the market. For those in drug rehabilitation, the lesson that drugs are harmful isn’t lost.

Hu admitted he was nervous at the beginning but managed to conquer his stage fright as the play progressed.

"When I was informed that our Shanghainese version of 'Chaguan' would be performed in the debut, I was really excited but still worried about my acting ability,” he said. "But I have learned some performing skills, and our drama coach Yin Jun has given us encouragement, so that I feel more confident."

Yin, who worked at an advertising agency before joining the center, told Shanghai Daily that drama can be “a good tool to enrich the spiritual life and cultural world” of addicts.

The idea has merit, but it can be hard to convince drug takers to open their minds and participate in the arts.

Yin recounted the example of a patient in his 50s who was a recidivist drug taker. At first, he refused to take part in any performance.

"He was asked to perform an episode from the famous Peking opera 'Shajiabang,' which is about Chinese war against Japanese invaders, at the center’s Spring Festival celebration this year," Yin said.

Yin constantly kept at him, and the man finally agreed to take part. It opened a whole new world for him, Yin said.

"Drug addicts all have a dark side and tend to hide their true feelings,” he said. “What we are trying to do is pull them from the darkness and provide them a setting to show their real selves.”

Performing requires concentration that focuses their minds outside of their own lives.

"One of the performers who has the part of a bad guy used to be considered lazy,” Yin said. “But in this play, he has the most lines. He recited the line tirelessly and ran through them with some of his roommates.”

Yin said he saw the man change from a nervous participant to a relatively accomplished actor.

The club can be a bridge between the drug rehabilitation center and the society.

"After these people are released back to society, they will encounter many problems,” he said. “It can take long time to adapt.”

Besides stage dramas, the rehab center is planning to do some video of humorous mini-plays related to the theme of kicking the habit.

Sports also plays a big role in rehabilitation.

According to Wang Xuemei, an executive of the center, 60 drug addicts have been selected for a sports rehabilitation program that includes activities such as tai chi, basketball, dragon and lion dance and aerobics.

Among those in the program is 32-year-old Lin, a former baseball player, who is now the driving force behind the Chinese dragon and lion-dancing team.

"I was a professional athlete for eight or nine years," Lin told Shanghai Daily. "However, after an injury, I was washed up and my career came to an end."

He lost hope, fell into depression and began taking drugs.

Lin said he had only seen dragon dancing on television and knew nothing about it until he joined the group.

"Once I watched the efforts and spirit of team members, I wanted to be among them,” he said. “It has helped me out of the darkness. I'm much stronger now, just like I was years ago."

Art therapy is also used in some local residential communities as part of the city's community drug rehabilitation program.

At the Daning neighborhood in Jing'an District, former addicts displayed craftworks like Chinese traditional ink paintings, paper cuts and cloth-paste painting to foreign academics who arrived in Shanghai for the 2019 Alcohol and Drugs History Society conference.

Among them is Xie, 49, a former nurse who got hooked on heroin.

She told Shanghai Daily that she underwent a long cycle of rehab and recidivism.

"Every time I left the drug rehabilitation center, I had a sense of inferiority and isolation,” she said. “I felt I was different from others, which made me go back to drugs again."

Her mother’s death was a catalyst to her quitting drugs. Now she is living with her elder sister and receiving community drug rehabilitation.

"The people here all have similar experiences as me, so I can be myself when facing them. We are like a family," said Xie.

One of the foreign academics attending the Alcohol and Drugs History Society conference was Professor Nancy D Campbell, head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. She praised the rehab programs in Shanghai.

"These centers offer what we call 'alternative reinforcers' — activities that occupy people’s minds and bodies while they are benefiting from treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine," she said. "Both should be delivered simultaneously in order to reduce the harms that drugs and alcohol can cause."

Emerging from the shadows, addicts shed their old identities on stage
Ti Gong

Hu and his fellow drama club members are performing a Shanghainese version of “Teahouse” for their more than 100 audience, including the others receiving drug rehabilitation at the city's Gaojing Drug Rehabilitation Center and some volunteers coming to provide them psychological counseling on the Open Day.

Emerging from the shadows, addicts shed their old identities on stage
Ti Gong

Hu and his fellow drama club members are performing a Shanghainese version of “Teahouse,” adapted from a masterpiece written by renowned novelist and playwright Lao She.

Emerging from the shadows, addicts shed their old identities on stage
Ti Gong

Lin and the other dragon and lion dance team members are giving a dance on the playground at the Gaojing Drug Rehabilitation Center.

Emerging from the shadows, addicts shed their old identities on stage
Ti Gong

Lin and the other dragon and lion dance team members are giving a dance on the playground at the Gaojing Drug Rehabilitation Center.

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