Last night an ex-colleague took me to a well-known restaurant called Da Zhai Men, which was inspired by a television drama series of the same name set in the Tang Dynasty. The two aren't related, but on the walls are a few pictures of specific scenes from the show.
It has several locations in the city and we went to the one near my old office, on Huixin Xijie Beili. It looks like a grand-looking place with the traditional tiled roofs as the entrance facade.
Inside looks like a traditional Chinese tea house, with many small square tables as well as a few round ones, which were mostly filled with tourists here for the dinner show.
We got a reserved table right by the stage which looked a bit worn, with the red carpet showing signs of wear and tear. The show started at 7:10pm and as we got there about half an hour early, we ordered dinner which on the whole was fine, nothing particularly outstanding and not expensive either considering there's free entertainment.
A hostess dressed in a pink ballgown introduced the show, starting with a solo Peking Opera performance by a woman. She was dressed up in the make up and costume, using a mic to project her voice. Many kids gathered in front of the stage to see what was happening and as soon as the singer opened her mouth the children immediately put their hands over their ears and cringed which was hilarious to watch.
My ex-colleague complained he found the Peking Opera boring mostly because he couldn't understand what she was saying and that the high pitch was hard to listen to for long periods of time.
The next act featured a woman who lay on her back on a special bench where she balanced a giant ceramic pot with her feet, rolling it around and spinning it. She raised the stakes when several male staff hauled an 84kg giant pot and she managed to balance that on her feet and roll it around. My friend was so worried, as one misstep and the pot would fall on her head.
That wasn't all -- they then called an adult man from the audience to climb into the pot which they then put on the woman's feet and she spun it around twice. Nuts.
The crazy stunt made me realize how uninspiring Chinese acrobatic shows were; instead of trying to innovate on the presentation or even the whole concept, instead they think let's do it higher, bigger, longer... as one Chinese performer who had a brief stint with Cirque du Soleil explained, Chinese acrobatic shows make the audience fear for them instead of Cirque which is more about entertaining the viewers.
This was also true for the climax show, which featured a trio of young men practicing Shaolin kungfu. They looked angry and held aggressive-looking poses as they went through their routine. One broke a wooden pole with his arm, and the highlight had one drive a nail through a piece of glass to pop a balloon on the other side. The first time he attempted it, the balloon was so scared that it popped on its own. The second time he did it, creating a hole in the glass. It's a crazy stunt you shouldn't repeat at home.
However, not all were stressful to watch -- there was a "changing faces" performer who was excellent. Another friend thought she saw lots of strings around his waist to manipulate the masks, something I could not see, mostly because I was mesmerized by the spectacle that was very energetic.
Another was a young long-haired magician who wasn't very good at hiding things so we could see the playing cards in between his fingers as he tried to make it look like they magically appeared from his hands. However I don't know how he put the ones in his mouth which he pulled out. The best trick? Taking a plastic bottle and somehow putting a cell phone into it. He got it out by using scissors. That trick was a copy of Criss Angel that I had seen on TV.
The most entertaining one was a man who pretended to be a cook in a restaurant and spinning plates. It was definitely harder than it looked as he gave a few members of the audience a chance to try it themselves. The climax was him spinning plates on a special table and juggling at the same time. The kids kept pointing and shouting to him anxiously which ones needed more spinning again so there was no chance the plates would fall to the ground.
It's sad that most of these performers are ones that failed to meet the standards of national acrobatic troupes or even have the chance to join international troupes. They don't have much education as they started on this career path when they were young, so this is all they know in order to make a living.
However, in a way they are lucky there are restaurants like these that gives them a place to perform and get paid for it; however, it's time to revamp the Chinese dinner show and try to present something more updated and innovative to keep those customers coming in.