Friday, October 24, 2008

In the Blink of an Eye

Tonight a friend took me out to dinner at a Sichuan restaurant called Shuguoyanyi, on the second floor of a building in Dongzhimen.

It looks very fancy, with lots of drapery, individual booths and irridescent tablecloths.

The menu is extensive, featuring mostly spicy foods, with pictures showing lots of red chillis. But we had a few dishes that didn't make our throats burn, like black fungus salad, finely diced vegetable in a broth, a kind of Chinese steak, prawns cooked in rock salt, and fish balls with vegetables. For dessert we had rice dumplings with black sesame paste.

While the food was pretty good, we really came for the entertainment. It started at 7pm with a mature woman in a short dress and platform heels singing English and Chinese songs, and alternating with a trio of dancers in various costumes.

But the highlight was half an hour later with a face-changing performer or bian mian.

A man dressed in a Chinese opera costume with a thick layer of masks over his eyes strutted out to some music. He made a series of gestures and poses before turning his head away and then revealing a new mask.

But that wasn't all. He soon started changing the masks at a blink of an eye, each one different from the other.

Then he came down from the stage and asked audience members to shake his hand and then his mask would change again.

How did he do that?

He went back on stage with a few more mask changes, at one point revealing half his face, but then the next moment another mask covered it again.

In over five minutes it was all over, and he had changed less than 20 times.

My friend explained to me later that good face-changing performers change up to 40 times. This one, he said, is not bad, but not the best. He added that the artist probably made the rounds to several other restaurants to earn his keep.

And this is not an art form anyone can learn.

According to Wikipedia, Canto-pop star Andy Lau paid some 3 million yuan to learn it, but hasn't quite mastered it. My friend said only people in Sichuan learn this artform and it's only passed down to male heirs. But recently a handful of women are allowed to learn this form of entertainment that's part of Sichuan Opera.

The show reminds me of the 1996 movie King of Masks, where an elderly face-changing performer adopts a boy to pass down his art form, only to discover it's a girl. It's a wonderful story directed by Wu Tianming.

Apparently face-changing began in the Qing Dynasty during the Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1795).

It first involved adding different colours to the face with powder, others with paint on their hands.

By the 1920s, performers began using full masks made of oiled paper or dried pig bladder. Today they use silk.

I still can't figure out how he changed those masks.... even when his hands weren't near his face!

Just like magic.

1 comment:

ks said...

this change face is one of the wonders of chinese acrobatic/operatic show. it takes years of trainiung from the authentic 'sifus'. too bad due to some traditional beliefs they only take handful of disciples after very strict selections.