Monday, February 18, 2013


It was a Chinese opera, the sign said, and it would perform on Sunday, I went to the small building in the middle of the block marked Singing Club. The outer door was open but the inner screen door was locked.

A woman came out and told me it was at the neighboring Family Association instead. She led me there, up the staircase, and into a large room with folding chairs set up near a red-curtained stage. Musicians tuned their instruments, seated on chairs at the corner of the stage and at the other end was a raised corner platform with drums and gongs.

The front rows of chairs were ribboned off and that was where the woman took me, “No, no, no,” I said and moved toward the back, where a number of people were already seated. I took an aisle seat and looked at the faces around me. They were all Chinese, most of them over sixty, and they were dressed like people in a Beijing hutong, in warm, serviceable, and well-worn clothing. Only a very few women wore embroidered jackets in bright colors. Most of the men wore caps.

They all seemed to know each other and the room was filled with greetings and beckoning hands, palms down, fingers waving like floating seaweed. The front rows began to fill, with younger women who had taken pains with their hair and their clothing and men with good haircuts, whose outerwear was worn with dash. One man, tall and commanding, swept down the aisle in a well-cut trench coat. Another stood at the front, smiling and chatting in his Italianate sunglasses. Quite a few of these latecomers carried large, elaborate bouquets of flowers which were put together at a table near the stage door.

A woman asked me if anyone was sitting in the empty chairs beside me and took her seat nearby. “Do you have a ticket?” she asked, “I don’t. I live in Chinatown and saw the sign. This happens once every year.”

I told her I had done the same as she and that I lived in Chinatown too. The curtains opened before we could talk any more and a large gong commanded our silence.

A man and woman exchanged badinage on the stage and the woman near me leaned over, “They’re speaking Cantonese. Can you understand?”

What I watched wasn’t what I expected to see. It was more like a variety show than a sustained opera; there was a man in Liberace-style clothing who was obviously making jokes, followed by a man and woman singing a long operatic scene. They and the following singers held books that they referred to frequently; there were none of the flourishes of sleeves and the well-placed footwork that characterized the operas I’d watched in Penang. This was like the singers I’d listened to for hours in Beihai Park, the old people seated in pavilions by the lake, sending out their voices for anyone who cared to hear.

The old man sitting across the aisle from me sang under his breath and kept time with the index finger of his right hand as two women took the stage. They were clearly the stars of the afternoon. The drums and gongs greeted them wildly as they approached the microphones and their voices were commanding. The older of the two was given a bouquet midway through her performance; the woman who had led me inside presented it to her after a break in the performance. The singer accepted it, cradled it in her arms, carefully put it at her feet, and continued to sing.

At one point my hostess walked down the aisle and whispered as she passed me, “Do you like it?” I nodded and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.  

And I sat and listened, overwhelmed with a strong sense of gratitude, that I live in this place, that I am allowed to come into a community and enjoy their music, that I am permitted to be among the old ladies and gentlemen of Chinatown. (Next year I’ll bring flowers.)

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