PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST, MAY 9, 2005

Dinner Theatre

By PAUL MOONEY in Wuhan

I've never seen anything like it. Guitarists, banjo players, accordionists, erhu players, opera and rock singers, comedians, shoeshine and flower girls, and cigarette sellers crowd the restaurants, their instruments and voices straining to compete with one another. It's like sitting around eating while the members of the New York Philharmonic spend an entire evening tuning their
instruments.

As we sit down to eat, one guy does a small jiggle between the tables, singing an aria from a local opera. We then immediately hear the strains of a three-piece traditional ensemble playing a piece of classical Chinese music before suddenly switching to Mozart, and then back to local music. One of the musicians tells me he recently retired from the People's Liberation Army. His female colleague says she was recently xia ganged, a euphemism for being laid off. Like the other performers, they are here every night until 2am or 3am, earning their livings.

We had arrived at Jiqing Street just as the night was beginning. The restaurant tables and chairs had already spilled out onto the street under yellow sheets of plastic offering protection from the elements. There are about a dozen eateries here and the competition is fierce. It was early, so we decided to wander around before deciding where to eat, but the touts were out in force, jumping in front of us and using their bodies to try to direct our flow into their establishments. The food is good enough here, but this is obviously not what is attracting the crowds night after night. It is the some 300 licensed performers who work the street, roaming from table to table, restaurant to restaurant in search of diners to listen to their songs.

Many of the performers here take their work quite seriously, presenting promotional materials about themselves as a sort of clincher. A man who specialises in female roles in the regional Henan opera displays a picture of himself in a colorful female opera costume, complete with make-up. 'I'm the Mei Lanfang of Henan,' he boasts, referring to the legendary dan, or female, impersonator in Peking Opera.

Suddenly, the Caihong Meimei, aka the Rainbow Sisters, appear behind me. Like the other performers on Jiqing Street, they carry a list of the songs they perform. I look it over and choose a syrupy old Theresa Teng ballad. The four teenage girls, wearing identical pink jackets and bandanas, begin to sing, 'Ni wen wo ai ni you duoshao'.', or, 'You ask how much I love you'. The response is, 'Yueliang daibiao wode xin,' or 'My love is as big as the moon'.

These teenagers are the youngest performers on Jiqing Street, having played here for five years. They proudly pull out a laminated copy of a newspaper article about them. They say they have also been featured on CCTV, China's
national TV station.

Some of the performers are a bit too aggressive, but it's all in good fun. Three girls, nowhere as talented as the Rainbow Sisters, will not take no for an answer and begin singing, even before we've given them a nod. They stand behind me singing a song and the three tap me on the shoulder at intervals ' I have no idea why, but it seems to be part of the song.

We ask two 30-something women to come back later, but they stand there watching us eat, and when we can't take it anymore we finally relent. They sing a high-pitched, somewhat nasal, song as one plays the erhu.

At the table in front of us we see a tall thin man wearing sunglasses. He has the diners laughing loudly as he goes through a comic monologue, using his mobile phone as a pretend microphone. I can't understand what he is saying, but I also can't help cracking up when he puts a hand towel on his head and begins to walk in a slow-motion, exaggerated manner. An artist passes by offering to draw caricatures of the diners and one guest sits and poses for him.

The highlight of the evening is when Lasi makes his entrance. He looks somewhat like a camp Chinese Zorro, with a black cowboy hat and a flowing cape, and a few things Zorro never dared to wear: multi-colored flashing earrings and finger rings and bright red lipstick. On his cape he proudly displays the words 'Sida Tianwang Zhiyi', or 'One of the Four Heavenly Kings'. The other kings are Cucumber, Peacock and Laotongcheng, who has taken the name of one of Wuhan's oldest restaurants--no one seems to know why.

Lasi dances as he plays his Chinese stringed instrument, rings and earrings flashing different colors in the night, cape swinging behind him. His audience laps up his performance. Shortly afterward my friend points out the mustachioed Peacock sitting at another table, singing in a loud raspy voice.

Unfortunately, the other two kings have not appeared yet, and it is time for us to leave. I promise myself that I will be back again.

A dinner costs about 100 yuan for two to four people. The average performance costs 10 yuan per song. Three red roses go for 10 yuan and a portrait costs 30 yuan.