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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Penang: Chinese Opera in a Parking Lot

Once a week I go to the nearest mall, where I get money, sometimes see a movie, use the free wifi at Starbucks, and generally bask in air-conditioned comfort. When I leave, it's usually after ten, and I rarely feel like walking. So I take a trishaw. It's a dollar cheaper than a taxi, and I figure these guys are the ones that really need the money. Some of them know me now, so we have nice chats on the way to 75 Travelers Lodge.

One night I heard this, well, this wailing sound as we started down Love Lane. "What is that?" I asked. "Chinese opera!" And sure enough, a portable stage had been erected in a parking lot, and a woman in a bright costume and elaborate hairdo was wailing away.

When I went into the guest house and asked about it, Mr. Lo told me, "Yes, yes, Chinese Opera. There is a festival." I accepted this calmly as I have learned that there is a festival of some sort every week. All vacant spots on the calendar are immediately snatched up by some town or organization, and a festival is born. Also, there are apparently one or two Chinese holidays every month.

I walked back to Love Lane, and watched the last half hour or so. A tiny old Chinese woman told me there would be two more performances. I promised myself I'd return. And I did. I am now the proud survivor of more than three straight hours of Chinese opera. Go to one, and you will understand.

The second night, I found a spot on a nearby wall. A tiny old Chinese woman, scooted over to make sure I had a good view. It turned out to be the same tiny old Chinese woman. She was disappointed I hadn't come the night before. Through the whole performance she tried to tell me the story. "He very bad man." "She wife. He tell leave." "Father come. Bad man, now have trouble." At one point I actually thought I understood what was going on!

I didn't understand a word, of course. They did have one of those lit displays that shows the lyrics, but it was all in Chinese characters. It was set up for the benefit of anyone who wasn't Hokkien, not for people who knew no Chinese. I looked at it occasionally, recognized a few numbers, and a couple of the Japanese/Chinese characters that I know.

The crowd was interesting, because of the seating as much as anything. One man had rented a trishaw, had it parked in front, and watched in comfort. There were some plastic stools and chairs. Others came on motorcycles, and sat on those.

There was a picnic table off to the left of the stage, with some odd-looking people hanging around. A woman dressed in funny full balloon trousers and a white tank top went off to a shop and came back with a candy bar. Only when I recognized the makeup on one of the men did I realize these were the performers, lounging around 'backstage'. The lady with the full trousers showed up in the last five acts, fully made up and decked out.

The costumes were obviously a bit tawdry, but entertaining to watch. The sleeves were very long, and a common stylized gesture involved gathering them up so the hands could be used. They were also waved and draped for dramatic effect. Several fights seemed to be using them as weapons, as the performers flailed each other with their sleeves. "Take, that, you villain!" "No, no, not your sleeves! Anything but that!"

The tiny Chinese woman and I had a lot of fun when I told her I wanted sleeves like that. Well, I said, "I want" then made all the sleeve gestures. Every once in a while after that, we'd start with the sleeve gestures and giggle.

The audience was across the drive from the stage, and during the performance cars, motorcycles, and foot traffic would pass between them. I thought that must be disconcerting, until I saw the balloon pants woman blithely walking by. Obviously, no one cares.

This stage didn't have side curtains. I think that is typical of Chinese opera. I was sitting to one side, so I could see performers getting ready, passing time by practicing tricks with their fans, and all the other backstage happenings. I noticed that one of the performers had to open the curtains between acts. This happened a lot, as there were twenty acts, I think. I bailed at 18 because I was falling asleep. I could see other performers spelling the sound guy, and watch the panic when a microphone didn't work.

Finally, at almost midnight, I gave up and trotted on back. I'd been there since a little after eight. Three hours of Chinese opera.

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