I hadn’t planned on coming to Hubei Province. It’s stuck in an odd place – floating somewhere in the middle of the mainland. Instead, after Yunnan, I had planned to return northward to Chengdu and finish up some more museum work. However, as my accessibility to the Chengdu Shadow Puppet Museum changed, I had a free week before I had to be back in Beijing.
I got out my list of known contacts and a provincial map of China. I highlighted the provinces I still wanted to get to – and wouldn’t you know it? Hubei is perfectly on the road home from Yunnan to Beijing…if I go by ground.
From Tengchong, it’s a 12-hour bus ride to Kunming and then a thirty-hour train to Wuhan. From there, another short train ride to the small town of Xiaogan and then a one hour car ride to the even smaller town of Yunmeng. When I do finally arrive, all I want to do is take a terribly wasteful American shower and have a day-long nap, but instead I’m driven straight to meet Master Qin at his Tea House.
We arrive at the tiled, three-story building stuck in the middle of similar buildings along an old walking street just five minutes drive from the hotel I checked in at. On the outside is a very plain looking sign overhead and a small chalkboard to the right that announces the day’s show. Inside, a 30 ft by 30 ft room is packed with about 75 elders and smoke from about 75 active cigarettes. Half of them are watching a shadow puppet show and half of them are playing cards or chatting with their friends.
You can sense the comfort inside even before you step through the door. This is a crowd that comes everyday, for hours. They sit, they catch up – it’s its own community within the four walls of this shadow puppet teahouse.
Master Qin has run this teahouse for about 30 years. He began it after his performances in the countryside were being played to fewer and fewer people. He performs everyday (yes, Sundays too) from 11:30-2:30 in the afternoon. For short stories, it can take a few weeks of daily shows to finish. For long stories, it can take over three months. The tickets are only 1.5 Yuan (about 22 cents).
The place itself is nothing to speak of: a rough cement floor, simple benches with shelves on the back for teacups, not a thing on the walls and a host of ceiling fans that hang in wait for the summer months. They only serve tea and hot water. The stage is just a few feet off the floor and accessible by a small doorway on the stage right side. The backstage resembles a cluttered shoebox. The 10’x6’ space is barely enough room to fit all the musicians, instruments, and puppets. Every available nook is stuffed with something.
What a reward at the end of a long road, my Emerald City. I am delirious with exhaustion and excitement. This is the kind of place I had hoped existed but hadn’t imagined yet. If not the endgame for how traditional shadow puppetry might transition to the city, then it’s certainly a transitory point. Daily, active performance at the center of a community experience. Yes, the clientele is mostly over 60 years of age, but there’s something to this. I can feel it.
I return to the teahouse for the next four days to sit and watch from 11-3pm. At first, the crowd is wary of me and my young-American-female-ness. But after they see my face for a few afternoons, those stares are exchanges for smiles and curiosity. I’m handed pumpkin seeds to snack on and offered a beer. Someone asks if I want to play cards with them.
At the end of each day, I am invited upstairs to the family’s living quarters and we share a late lunch. Master Qin, his gruff-voiced wife and son sit around a rickety card table on pink plastic stools, eating intensely. They are quiet, or they seem so after the clang and buzz of the downstairs teahouse. Sometimes we look at old photo albums, sometimes I watch the master cut puppets and sometimes I just talk with them. I make sure to repeatedly tell the master just how amazing his teahouse is. He seems so quietly pleased about this – I wonder if he knows just how amazing it is himself. And it really is amazing.
The learning here is endless for me. Even when I tire of sitting on the hard benches, my curiosity carries me. Usually, I’m privileged to see a short traditional show lasting over 1 hour. Here, I can come and watch for 3 hours, everyday.
The shows aren’t what we westerners are used to sitting through. Instead of 15-minute attention span enablers, these shows resemble the old 10-hour all-night shows of shadow history past. The action is slow to progress and often repetitive. You tune in to pass the time, to hear a story and to belong to one.
Re-reading my hand written notes from the week, I’m struck by my observations. There’s the expected: a drawing of the audience’s hat assortment, notes about how the puppeteer communicates with the musician for the improvised scenes and quick guesstimations on how they can make a living off 1.5 yuan tickets. More unexpectedly, though, my notebooks are filled with impressions of atmosphere, community and the bonding power of a shared experience centered around live performance. “The room is full of curved spines, toothless laughter and the warmth of friendship.” “The rain outside today makes the inside even cozier – we are all like flies to the light – transfixed.” “I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon; drinking tea and watching my favorite shadow theatre soap show with my best friends.”
It stayed this way through the week. While the outside grew colder and grayer with the oncoming season, the inside would seem cozier and brighter.
On the last day, I am taken to a fancy lunch at the end of the day. One of the business men who runs the ‘new’ teahouse in which Master Qin gives shorter performances, asked me ‘haven’t you seen enough?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘not even close.’
Thanks for reading~