An Afternoon With Mr. Lee at the Sichuan Opera
On the day we were scheduled to leave Chengdu and the delicious Sichuan meals, we decided to head to the Renmin Park (Peoples’ Park) and hang out in one of the tea houses there. On the way, we had some delicious meat sticks and knew that it was setting the tone for a great day. When we got to the tea house, we ran into Gabriel and Til, our French and German friends from the night before, and sat down with them to drink tea and watch the world go by.
We ordered some tea with the help of a local who turned out to be the famous Mr. Lee, from several travel books. He is a quiet, unassuming man who would be easy to overlook in a crowd. But speaking with him, it quickly becomes apparent that he is certainly someone who distinguishes himself from all others. He shared his modest but compelling goals to pay off his parents’ house and visit Eastern Europe.
He spoke with us for a couple of minutes in nearly flawless English, giving us advice and answering travel questions while we sipped our tea. Then he began telling us about the Sichuan Opera that was going to be taking place that afternoon. It sounded like an interesting and educational way to spend an afternoon, so we decided to join him in going. We quickly finished our tea, got our bags from the hostel, and caught a cab to the Opera House.
The building was located on a back street by the train station and looked no different from any other building. However, up a set of steps and through a pair of doors, a theater emerged. Mr. Lee guided us to the back office where we were allowed to stow our heavy bags for the duration of the show. Then he led us backstage to see the actors preparing to go on.
He explained to us that this is the last traditional opera house in Sichuan and that this would probably be the final generation which put on shows in the style. The audience reflected this reality — we were the youngest of the roughly 150 people in the audience. Apparently the younger generation of Chinese prefer TV, movies, and computers to watching the plays.
We went to our reserved seats in the front row and enjoyed the tea provided us. Soon the show began. Mr. Lee gave us translations of each show that was being performed.
The first was about a Chinese warrior who was sent by his King to go across a mountain pass, but a beautiful maiden stood in the way. The warrior and the maiden fought, then apparently fell in love. It was slightly confusing, but very well performed.
The second story — my favorite — began with a widow praising the virtues of her son-in-law who was a fair judge. Then the judge came to visit her and told her of his bad day in court, having to put a corrupt official to death. It was a difficult thing for him to do because the man was his childhood friend, her son. She went through the understandable denial and grief, but the judge explained his case and offered his life if it would relieve her woes. In the end, she agreed that her son was responsible for the deeds and that the judge
had made the correct decision.
The third story — Brian’s and Mr. Lee’s favorite — told of a man who came to call on a former girlfriend. Her mother had asked that he come to take her back because she did not like the new man her daughter was dating. He obliged and came to visit, but the daughter was aloof and dismissive of his efforts at reconciliation. He had to leave in a rush, but accidentally dropped some important papers — ones that would lead to his death if found. The former lover found the papers and blackmailed him to get them back. In the end, she didn’t keep her part of the bargain and said that the only way he could get his papers back was to kill her. So he obliged.
The final play was a comedy with a detailed, twisting plot which does not relate well unless the visual story unfolds before you. After the show was over, we paid our gracious host; it was money well spent. Then we walked to the train station, where Mr. Lee helped Gabriel buy a train ticket and took him back to the hostel by taxi.
Meeting Mr. Lee was one of the highlights of my trip, and was very fortuitous on our part. One gets the feeling that he is a very private person who holds brief auditions for his potential customers. This is reinforced by the fact that he freely gives his card, but asks that his contact information not be divulged to those he hasn’t met. I am glad that we met him and that he chose to take us on one of his tours.