Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Beijing Hutong Bike Tour

{Hutongs (as explained by wikipedia)  In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences.  Many neighbourhoods are formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. }

The air was still thick with Beijing summer heat even though it was just after sundown.  We parked the rusty bike on the corner of the crowded Hutong alley, in view of the bread makers still selling at their counter window and a rowdy group of men playing Chinese chess.   Some friends had come to watch us perform, but they remained in the background – all of us so curious to see what would happen.

Sylvie and I steadied the small screen on the back of our bike, slowly set up our small puppet string, laid out our puppets one by one and snapped on the clip lights.

The draw of a small glowing screen in the middle of a dark alleyway has a strange magnetic power.  Within moments people had stopped, babies had shushed and a gaggle of old men got off their stools to interrogate us.  Those old men became our hosts, as new passerby’s would catch us in the middle of the performance; “Our foreign friends have come to give us a shadow puppet show” they said.

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The Business of Leather

I have left my creative summer in Beijing and begun the second half of my Fulbright year in Shijiazhuang.  Nothing could have brought me here other than shadow puppetry; the entry in the Lonely Planet guide book only recommends ONE scenic sight, despite it being Hebei province’s capitol city.

Stepping off the train, you can tell it’s not a city that warrants tourism.  Not a single cab driver angling for a steep fare or a requisite tourist map for 1 yuan.  Instead, you’re simply spit out of the exit into an overwhelmingly large public square and left to fend for yourself.

Wang Cuiluo meets me in front of the train’s KFC, in a cream chiffon summer dress and her husband in tow.  The last time I saw her was at their apartment in Xi’an a few months ago – when I first began to research the leather making side of shadow puppetry in China.

I step into their new Kia after throwing my things into the trunk.  Wang steps into the drivers seat and for the next 50 kilometers east of the city, her husband coaches her intermittently while telling me all about their leather making business.   Wang is just learning to drive – which makes for an interesting traverse over some particularly rain-hammered dirt roads.

Wang’s husband, Qin Minqiang, is a good natured salesman.  Within minutes, he’s told me to ask around when I get home to see if we might need leather hides for car coverings and shoes.  He assures me the prices are rock bottom.

We arrive 50 minutes and a few bumpy roads later, at a modest one-level tiled home just off a small row of street restaurants and fix-it shops called Nanmacun

Just inside their house’s mammoth front gate are piles of cowhide.

Further inside is the same story; rooms full, floors stacked and roofs laid with the stuff.  All of it, from what I can see and smell, is machine made.  I lay my things down, take a look around and follow them up the ladder, onto the roof.

For the first time in 6 months, I have a flash of home; cornfields as far as the eye can see.  The sun is setting low in the west and crickets are all around us.

The breeze up here is the kind of thing that makes you want to sit and talk and waste time.  In a few breaths, the entropy of Beijing seems to have seeped out of me.  I’m shaken out of my daydream by sharp laughter and the clang of metal.  Up here, a group of elder woman workers are stretching the soaked machine hides for a final stretch and dry.  They work patiently and with much chatter.

After they are done we descend.  It’s dark out already – so we hop into the car and head into the city for dinner.   One hearty belly full of sheep’s stomach, potato and handmade noodles later, we search for a hotel.  The first few they had in mind aren’t open or aren’t where they thought they’d be – and after a few minutes they sheepishly invite me to sleep at their house.  “It’s dirty and messy, we were afraid you wouldn’t want to sleep there.”  But of course I do; family homes over hotels any day.

We head to bed as soon as we arrive back. Wang Cuiluo, her daughter Xinxin and I, fall asleep quickly together on the big bed in the main room despite the tireless flies.

At 7 the next morning, we awake and hop in the car again for a breakfast of soft tofu soup and fried dough along the side of the road.  Wang’s husband tells me he’s taking me to see how leather is made today and doesn’t forget to remind me to see if the US needs any cheap leather hide from China.

I have come to this little corner of Hebei province to see the larger shadow puppet leather making industry.   From all of the makers and artists I’ve talked to, 95% of them source their leather from elsewhere.  Most of it comes from right here; Shijiazhuang area and, to a lesser extent, from Sichuan.  In my ignorance, I have been busy theorizing why these areas might be producing the most shadow puppet leather, while the most active shadow puppet areas remain in Shaanxi, Tangshan and Gansu.   It’s nothing complicated, in fact, it’s just business.  Shijiazhuang was dubbed the leather-making hub a while back and has remained so to this day.  The hides come from all over the country to be processed here in any number of ways: leather for cars, shoe leather, and of course – leather for shadow puppetry.

The first stops on our trip today are leather-finishing factories owned and operated by Qin’s relatives.  These places are surprisingly clean, warm and easy-going.  I wouldn’t have felt squeamish pulling out some porous snack and digging in right there.

Here the workers add a top coat to the leather hides; a flexible heat-set paint.

The heating machine sets the paint.  The rollers take the leather through within a minute or so.

We leave after a tour, a cup of Welcome Tea and drive further into factory land.  As the road leads on, we pass leather factory after leather factory.  Cows, cowhides out to dry and large, daunting warehouses that look ominously closed to the public.  Qin warns me before we arrive at his chosen destination, “don’t bring that big camera in with you.  They’ll think you’re a journalist and won’t want you taking pictures.”  The worry is water pollution.

Within a minute, I can smell why.  As we open the car doors, my nostrils are hit with a noxious mix of flesh and sulfur.  Good thing I have a tough stomach.

With no one to stop us, we walk through warehouse after warehouse of 20 ft high barrels churning fresh hides in (what can only be translated as) sulfuric acid to break down the hair and fat lining.  (I’m sure there are more chemicals in the process, but I wasn’t given any more details.)  New hides lay on carts waiting for their acid bath and pink hairless hides lay in lifeless piles of inch-high muck.  Men in rubber aprons and gloves move the hides with large looking steel-claws.  While much of my mind was preoccupied with not slipping in the muck and keeping the fear off my face, I do remember being struck by just how thick cowhide is.  A regular cowhide, without fur, measures about ½ and inch thick.

While still puzzling about this, we came upon the cutting room.  Ah.  The freshly turned hides are then split up to 3 times horizontally; essentially making 3 hides out of one.

We wander around long enough for them to let me snap a few photos with my small point-and-shoot camera.

A warehouse with hide ‘washing’ barrels.  

Turned hides are piled and readied for the cutting warehouse

The newly cut hides are taken away to the next step of the process

A pile of freshly turned cowhide

Cutting warehouse

As we left, the heaviness sank in.  The comparison between the hand-making
leather process I learned in Tangshan
and the leather industry here is heartbreaking; not just for us but for our homes, our world.  But we’ve created this demand, haven’t we?  And you can hardly blame Shijiazhuang for stepping up to meet it.  Both Wang and Qin told me about the area’s poverty before they had a leather industry and their current pride in success is palpable.

I had hoped to see Wang and Qin fulfilling the large handmade leather orders, but they work in cycles.  This cycle is machine-made leather for machine-made puppets in Shaanxi.  For machine-made shadow puppet hide, they source raw hide made similarly to the ones pictured directly above and process them themselves at their home with another bath of sulfuric acid and a short stretching and drying process.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to catch them on my way back around to see how they make those beautiful handmade donkey hides.

The trip has solidified my desire to source and create my own hide when I return to the states.  And if this proves to be too much for me, I will make every effort to purchase only handmade cowhide from known sources.  I think it’s the little things that make the big difference.

Thanks for reading~

Shadow Play Video Links

My anticipated lack of internet connectivity in the coming weeks has me putting all my blog-ducks in a row.  Check out my updated my Itinerary and Links pages.

After talking with those who attended my shadow puppetry talk at the China Culture Center in Beijing, I realized I haven’t linked you all to the performances themselves.  Gasp!  Sometimes my zeal for detail leaves me blind to the bigger picture.  And while video is a poor, poor substitute for the real-live show – it’s far better than nothing.

Check my links page for additional online video links and a place to purchase a great documentary by my friends Frank and Antoinet from CHIME about the traditional troupe in Huanxian, Gansu.

Tangshan Video Performance:

Shaanxi Live Performance: – focus on musicians.

Bazhong Live Performance:


The Huaxian Traditional Troupe performing at Yutian in Xi’an, April 2011

A Shadow In the Right Direction

A few weeks ago, I had the rare pleasure of seeing a collaboration between two of the companies I’ve been working with here.  I had just come back to Beijing from my trip to Europe and Liu Laoshi from the Summer Palace troupe mentioned he was doing a performance near Xisi on Saturday.  “Do you know Han Chi?” he asked.

“Of course, wait – why?”

“‘Cause I’m puppeteering for them”.

I had no idea they knew each other, but then again, why not?  It’s like any society of enthusiasts, the smaller the group – the tighter the network.

I showed up early to the theatre and met Han Chi in the alleyway.  She led my friend and I backstage into the green room area.  It was great to see both Han Chi and her brother and Liu Laoshi all in the same place.  They were obviously readying themselves for the show, so I headed onstage to check out the set up.

A gorgeous and sturdy three panelled shadow screen welded out of aluminum was taking court upstage.  Behind it, an impressive collection of some of the most beautifully designed modern shadow puppets I’ve seen to date.  Many of these puppets I’d seen in the design phase – what a joy to see them waiting in the wings for their moment onstage.

Liu Laoshi prepares 

As we took our seats, more friends joined us and the audience started to buzz with people of all ages.  Picture taking and filming during the performance was not allowed, so I happily sat back and became a pure spectator.  Soon the lights dimmed and the performance began.

Pre-show Stage Look

Antagonist Puppet Close up

The production was a mix of live actors, shadow puppetry and dance.  Hanfeizi is certainly pushing the limits of shadow puppetry integration – some new conventions work and some don’t – but the show was entirely enjoyable.  It’s clear they’re carving out a new genre for shadow puppetry to explore here in China.

The puppets are a spot on blend of older Northeastern style and a modern aesthetic – all hand cut out of handmade leather hides.  Gorgeous, on and off screen.

I was most happy to see explorations mixing live actors with shadow puppets simultaneously, using shadow representatives of live actors and creative transitions between live actor and shadow scenes.  As I begin to see the divide between traditional and modern shadow puppetry more clearly, I am more and more assured that there needs to be more work integrating them together if shadow puppetry is to remain a relevant art form into this millennium.

This show was certainly a step in that direction.

Congratulations to Hanfeizi and Liu Laoshi and the entire team.  (Thanks to Sylvie for the use of her pictures!)

Additional performances on August 21st in Beijing: Check it out! 10:30am and 7:30pm.  No reservations needed – You can get tickets at the door; 80元, 100元, 120元.

At Theatre Dizhi Buli Tang in Central Beijing: Map Below (Just SW of the Xisi Subway stop on Line 4)

Southwest Exit from Subway Stop.  Walk west on Yangrou Hutong (literally, Mutton Hutong) about 200 ft. Theatre is on the south side of the street.

Thanks for reading!~

Shadows in the Beijing Night

In a recent blog I posted about the prism effect; the amazing things that happen when you open yourself back up again, relinquish those tight walls of your tunnel vision and allow things in.  Beijing has continued to encourage and inspire me and so…

So, I’ve decided to make a small shadow puppet show.   (There I go again…)  Well, I’ve had the idea for awhile but it’s finally come out to play.

The purpose is three-fold.

First, I would like to give something back.  The Fulbright program is about cultural exchange, but for the most part the flow is coming my way.  Much of the generosity is from my shadow puppet colleagues, but a surprising chunk is simply from the larger Chinese community.  I can’t tell you how many countless times I’ve been helped, happy’d or welcomed by a neighbor, the random store keeper, garbage man or pedestrian on the street.  This may not seem like a big deal to those of you reading from home, but to a lone researcher living in the most populous country in the world – this can make or break the day, which ends up being the week, month and year.

Secondly, I cannot seem to keep my ideas at bay.  They’ve been stockpiling since March with no outlet.  My Evernote log is full of ‘this is an interesting concept’  or ‘I wonder if this would work in China’ entries.  This stockpile of ideas coupled with rusty performance muscles has propelled me into action.  I’d like to return home in better shape than when I left.

And most importantly, I hope to use this performance to inform some of the larger questions I’ve been developing while on the road in China.  Researching a dying art form, it’s easy to become occupied with the negative; what did go wrong, what is going wrong, what can’t we fix?  I find myself ranting to my friends ‘if they’d only try this’.  Instead of imploring others to do something, I thought I’d try something myself.

For my first go, I’m hoping to simply gauge the general Chinese public as a modern audience.  Who are they?  What do they want to watch and for how long?  Can they be challenged, how far will their curiosity take them?  Are they active or passive?  Do they care?

Other than the convenient fact that I’m here right now, Beijing does feel like the right place to start.  The broken down fabric of the countryside community is due to the massive migration to urban centers.  This fracture of rural community is, in my opinion, the last blow to traditional countryside shadow puppetry performance as we know it – not the introduction of digital entertainment.  As China’s capitol, Beijing’s population is bulging at close to 20 million people.  That’s right.  Twenty MILLION.  There’s got to be an audience in there somewhere…

Countryside performances are traditionally performed outside in the local community, for free to everyone but the host, watchable from all angles and interactive to the Nth.  The shadow puppetry I’ve seen in Beijing is presented in western format: a proscenium stage with seating on one side, curtains and a ticketing system.  These shows are aimed towards middle class families with children who have planned to come to this show in advance.  For most audience members, they live too far away to walk.

I want to present another option; I find my audience.  I find them with my bike, for free and at night on the streets of Beijing.  When I walk around this city after dinner, to catch some cool air for the first time in the day, I see performance and audience everywhere: karaoke groups, dancing groups, musicians, even old men playing board games becomes a spectator sport.  The Chinese are social and curious and, hopefully, kind enough to give a foreign puppeteer a bit of their time.

Perhaps in this new fabric of urban society there is a way to create the same level of relevance and interactivity in a performance.

But what am I going to perform, you ask?  I’m not sure.  It’s going to be simple and wordless.  Perhaps scored with sound bytes I’ve taken from my travels and a few songs, perhaps not.  Perhaps the puppets will resemble the puppets I’ve been looking at for 5 months, perhaps not.  Perhaps I’ll have a friend help, perhaps not.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and now have about a week to put it together.  I’ve promised myself not to make it too precious or labor intensive, something fun and something I like.

It makes sense to do it on my bike – the bike that is my savior and my lifeline in the overwhelming sprawl that is Beijing.  I want it small, easily carried and easily stored so I can pick it up again if and when I am so inspired.

Before my latest trip to Tangshan (in early August), I spent a good week trying to source a maker for my screen and other supplies.  At home, I could have made the entire thing with materials I had on hand in less than an hour.  But I am not at home.  It has been an adventure and a half to say the least; how do I translate miter cut or nylock nut let alone explain what the heck I’m doing.  I developed a group of supporters along the way who helped me regardless of monetary gain.  Most memorable is Wang and her husband, who I initially went to for copper wire, but ended up being my sort of ‘guide’ on the big hardware street at Xinjiekou and the window maker who ended up making my frame went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I could fit the frame onto my bike rack.

Wang contemplates my drafting – which ended up being worth nothing.  I couldn’t find the word for ‘scaled drawing’ on my Pleco app.   I wonder what the Chinese translation for isometric is?

Wang’s husband leads me down the street to the window frame maker he knows.  

The frame is ready – we make sure the holes are placed correctly.  Is it a window, or a shadow screen?

Why do you want it cut that short?  I’m trying to secure a shadow puppet screen to the back of my…nevermind.  I buy shelf brackets that are cut down to make plates under the bike rack – the bolts fit perfectly!

This first step has, surprisingly, reminded me why I love live performance and why I do what I do.  It’s also reminded me that perhaps self-sufficiency and independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be even in the building process.  When you ask for help your invite change, surprise and learning into the experience. It’s all a part of it.  We all become apart of it.  The process is usually just as rewarding as the thing itself and even though the performance only lives for a moment, it stays with you forever.

Thanks for reading~

A frame, waiting for it’s screen.