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Opera lover protects art form in Qingpu
17/1/2005 10:37

Shanghai Daily News

Chen Yongdao is a hero in the town of Baihe, the oldest town in Qingpu District, for saving the Huju Opera from dying out.
Baihe Town, whose existence dates back to the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC), originated from wetlands that were home to white cranes, or "Baihe" as the birds are known in Chinese.
After thousands of years, the town has become urbanized. Growing with the population are some unique art forms.
Huju Opera was one of them, although its prosperity lasted no more than 50 years.
The opera, sung in Shanghai dialect and accompanied by traditional Chinese stringed musical instruments, including the lute, flute and erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument, was introduced to the town in the 1960s.
A group of city artists who moved to the town to experience various life styles brought the Huju opera with them.
The opera was very popular among Baihe people, because its music, stories and lyrics were closely related to local life.
"Wherever I am, Huju's rhythms make my imagination fly back to the small creeks and the delicate bridges in my hometown," said Sheng Qing, a Qingpu native.
Thanks to the popularity of the art form, the town was named the hometown of Huju Opera in 1996, even though the opera didn't originate there.
Many residents, from children to seniors, are able to hum a variety of Huju tunes.
"I started to love the Huju Opera when I was in primary school," said the 50 year-old Chen, director of the town's culture office.
"At that time, I always went to the city's downtown to watch the performances starring famous artists."
However, the popular opera fell out of favor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Dramas with strong political implications soon dominated people's leisure time.
But Chen never forgot his love for Huju. Three years after the Cultural Revolution ended, Chen managed to organize a Huju Opera troupe with 38 people who shared the same dream of reviving the precious art form.
Under Chen's leadership, the troupe travelled all over the city to put on performances. Their efforts paid off and Huju soon became popular again.
Apart from local communities, the troupe also visited Jiading District and Kunshan, Jiangsu Province.
It collected 19,000 yuan (US$2,290) in the first three months by selling tickets for 0.2 yuan to 0.25 yuan each.
"People welcomed our performances because Huju was so different from those political dramas that it suddenly enlightened their monotonous lives," said Chen.
Unfortunately, the opera's booming era in the town only lasted a transitory five years. In 1984, group members began to worry as their incomes could not cover costs.
"The number of fans began to decrease because more and more youngsters disliked the opera," said Chen.
The troupe had to laid off 10 experienced performers and only kept young actors to control costs.
After working together for nine years, the troupe disbanded in 1993. Most of its members changed their careers to something away from the stage.
But, Chen, dedicated to promoting the town's cultural and art affairs, did not drop the troupe's original dream and kept spreading the Huju opera.
He never stopped contacting the troupe's former members and often called them up to practice for fun.
"I often invite my old acquaintances to restaurants and we held pleasant talks to enhance our friendships," said Chen.
Chen's efforts were not in vain. Under his encouragement, many of the amateurs collected their instruments and began to perform around the city once again.
In 1995, several Huju Opera troupes formed in local villages. Gradually, the opera began to take roots in local household as it has became a custom at Baihe weddings or funerals.
At first, actors and actresses performed the opera for free. But as people's incomes grew, performers began to charge admission to their shows.
There are eight to 10 troupes with a total of 100 to 120 actors and actresses in the town.
Over the past few years, the town has paid subsidies worth about 150,000 yuan annually, which accounts for 0.5 to 1 percent of its revenues, to help spread the art form.
The district also takes every possible opportunity and spare no effort to promote the local troupes.