Shanghai gets a new stage

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

Updated: 2016-03-30

Xu Jun, a former Chinese folk opera star, has come up with a unique way to pay tribute to the place where he was born - he has created three plays themed on the metropolis. Chen Nan reports.

Shanghai is a metropolitan city and as a result its theaters are never short of international productions. But in the eyes of director Xu Jun, there are not enough stories about the city and its people.

That's why after taking on the job as the manager of Shanghai Hengyuanxiang Drama Development Company four years ago, Xu created three Shanghai-themed works to fill the void.

And now, after successful premieres in Shanghai, the director is bringing his productions to Beijing for the first time in June.

"It's my way of saying I love you to Shanghai, where I was born and grew up," says Xu, 54, a former Huju Opera actor, who became a director in 2005.

Xu, who was a well-known actor in the traditional Chinese folk opera performed in the Shanghai dialect, was in Beijing along with his actors to introduce the three works on March 24.

One of the works, The Eternal Snow Beauty, is a play performed in the local Shanghai dialect. It is the story of Yin Hsueh-yen, a famous singer-dancer from the Shanghai's nightclub and dance hall, Paramount.

In the late 1940s, before the fall of the Kuomintang and their flight to Taiwan, she used to be surrounded by a throng of admirers, including high-ranking officials and rich businessmen.

Adapted from Taiwan-based writer Pai Hsien-yung's short story from his book, Taipei People, a collection of stories he wrote in the 1960s, the play reflects the glamorous days of old Shanghai and the decadence of the city.

It took Xu six years to produce the play and in April 2013, the play premiered in Shanghai for 14 sold out shows.

Hong Kong costume designer William Chang Suk-ping - who is known for his collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai in the award-winning movie, In the Mood for Love (2000), starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung - produced seven qipao (cheongsam) for the leading role, Yin Hsueh-yen.

As for the writer, Pai, he never expected the story would be adapted into a play.

In the writer's eyes, the work mirrored Shanghai to the extent that in 1999, when the writer was asked to recall his wartime experiences in Shanghai as a Hong Kong TV station was shooting a documentary about him, he was heard muttering: "Yin Hsueh-yen never gets old and Shanghai is forever young."

Recalling that incident, Xu says: "When I heard how the writer had described the city I was touched. It's true that Shanghai, like Yin Hsueh-yen, is mysterious, exquisite and enchanting."

As for Xu's plays, while The Eternal Snow Beauty takes a look at Shanghai from a woman's perspective, A Merchant of Shanghai portrays a group of Shanghai men, who are loyal, tough and humble.

Set in the 1940s Shanghai, the play is based on the life of Shanghai merchant Shen Laizhou, who started out with a small shop in 1927 and then went on to open the first factory to produce woolen goods in 1935. Today, the brand is a leader in textiles and wool products in China.

"Though the events on which the play is based took place decades ago, the lessons they offer still apply to contemporary society, especially young entrepreneurs," says Xu.

Besides plays, the director also produced a bilingual musical called Jews in Shanghai, which tells the story of Jewish refugees who came to Shanghai during World War II and the bond that developed between Jews and the people of Shanghai.

Featuring both Chinese and Israeli artists, the musical premiered in September in Shanghai and received critical acclaim.

Xu spent three years collecting information for the script. He then went to Israel to seek actors and he chose Sivan Kissinger to be the lead actress. He also picked four other Israelis to perform in the musical.

Sivan Kissinger's great grandfather was a famous lawyer in Germany but he was fired from his position in a lawyers' organization in his town because he was a Jew.

So, in 1938, he gathered most of his family, including Sivan Kissinger's grandmother, Oda Kissinger, and left the country on the last legal vessel to leave Germany before the war began.

Speaking of the parallels between the role and her family's history, the 26-year-old actress, who was born in Israel and pursued her acting studies in New York, says: "My character Rena, who escaped from Europe, is around the age as my grandmother would have been when she left Germany. I didn't know my grandmother's story until I started researching my character.

"It feels like I'm closing a circuit, by telling the story of my family and the Jewish people who survived the Holocaust."

According to Xu, there are more than 20 theaters around People's Square in Huangpu district of Shanghai, and they staged more than 2,000 performances in 2015.

He says that by 2020, the number of theaters in the area will double, which will make the place a drama zone in the city.

But, he asks, what about the Shanghai flavor?

He wonders how many of the plays will be remembered by the audiences and how many of them will still be staged 10 or 20 years later.

"I hope the works, which tell stories about the city and the people in particular, will be the ones which bring out emotion and memories," says Xu.

Contact the writer at

Shanghai gets a new stage

 Shanghai gets a new stage

Three Shanghaithemed plays, including The Eternal Snow Beauty (top) and Jews in Shanghai (above), will be staged in Beijing in June. Photos Provided To China Daily

(China Daily 03/30/2016 page18)

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