Two-star turns

Updated: 2011-01-23 08:46

By Wu Zhangjie (China Daily)

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Two-star turns 

Clockwise from top row: Zhou Yao (left), five months pregnant, is determined to keep performing for as long as she can with her husband, Wen Xibo (right). Actor Wang Xiaofei's comical makeup keeps the laughs coming. Xiao Bao keeps the crowd on the edge of their seats with his dazzling fire-eating skill. Leng Qiang and his wife enjoy the chance to relax for a moment in their warm dormitory. Kneeling in front of the guardian god, Xiao Bao seeks blessings from the "senior disciple". The tatty makeup room with its cracked mirror cannot dampen the performers' enthusiasm for their age-old craft. In a fiercely competitive market, the People's Cinema is struggling for survival. Photos by Wu Zhangjie /Liaoshen Evening News

This is a traditional art form in Northeast China - but like all traditional entertainment, it's working hard to compete with modern distractions. Wu Zhangjie of the Liaoshen Evening News captured these vignettes of the Er Ren Zhuan.

Every evening before Xiao Bao prepares to get made-up and costumed for the stage, he lights three sticks of incense for the guardian god of his craft, the "senior disciple" that blesses the performance and the performers.

Er Ren Zhuan, known for its humor and stunts, is a form of folk song-and-dance act that was popularized in Northeast China. It is a two-person show made up of a couple - a man and a woman who would normally pair up on stage and off.

Xiao Bao (Little Treasure), a young man in his early 20s, and his fiancee Xiao Xiao (Dimples), are both performers at the People's Cinema, one of the earliest Er Ren Zhuan venues in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province.

Wang Xiaofei, 43, the lead actor of the troupe, says it's a tradition for the performers to worship no other gods but the "senior disciple", and only men are allowed before him, except on special openings and fete days.

Er Ren Zhuan features stand-up comedy, singing, dancing and special skills like fire-eating, for example.

Each show at the People's Cinema has five couples performing by turn, with the most inexperienced opening the evening and the best and usually most senior couple reserved for the final act.

Xiao Bao and Xiao Xiao, who have been with the troupe only one month, will go first. Wang Xiaofei and his wife will wrap up with a grand finale.

The young couple work hard at their craft. Xiao Bao says he still needs to master many techniques, including the fire-eating act. He's burned his mouth and tongue before, but he will have to continue practicing until he is perfect.

It's not any easier for the other pairs. Zhou Yao, five months pregnant, still performs regularly with her husband, Wen Xibo. They cannot afford to stop, and risk slipping down the popularity ratings.

The competition is also fierce out in the market as more venues open up.

"We have the cheapest tickets in the city and one of the best shows, but the facilities are out of date because we don't have enough money. Now, we attract only the older generations," says Wu, the ticket seller at People's Cinema. In his eyes, there was resignation and sadness.


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