Society

Bad landlords, good theatre

Drama festival focuses on high property prices

Actors in Fight the Landlord

Landlords have long been villains in Chinese popular culture, perhaps personified by Huang Shiren, the heartless homeowner in the Communist Party’s 1950 propaganda hit, The White-Haired Girl.

Huang forces a peasant girl called Xi’er to be his concubine, thereby becoming one of the most hated figures in post-1949 literature.

Xi’er then runs away to the forest (where her hair turns completely white) before marrying her Red Army sweetheart and living happily ever after.

In the present day, landlord status earns a lot less reproach. That has led some to say the unthinkable: that Xi’er might have been better advised to marry Huang, rather than escape his clutches.

Two years ago a student at Central China Normal University in Hankou shocked onlookers doing just that, says the EastSouthNorthWest blog.

“If Huang Shiren were alive today, he would definitely be somebody with excellent family conditions,” the student declared. “He may also have had handsome looks combined with elegance and refined taste. If he has money as well, why not marry him?”

Property ownership has also been a topic for discussion at a festival in the Chinese capital this month, where Fight the Landlord, a play written by actress-dramatist Sun Yue and directed by Gavin Quinn of Ireland-based Pan Pan Theatre, played this week in the 20-day Beijing Fringe Festival.

It took a more nuanced look at property ownership. The ambivalence is mostly rooted in the following problem: while there is no longer any opprobrium attached to wanting to be a landlord, not everyone can afford to be one.

In the play, the three actresses (dressed somewhat unexpectedly as pandas) while away their time with a card game called “Fight the Landlord”, gossiping and joking as they slap their cards onto the table.

But their overwhelming complaint is one of exhaustion with modern life. “Tired working all day long, tired taking the subway where you can’t sit, tired eating because you have to shop and cook, and even tired sleeping, because when you sleep you dream, and dreams can be exhausting,” one character complains.

Especially when that dream involves owning an apartment. The capital city has a house price to household income ratio that is five times the international average, reckons the Global Times – indicating that many ordinary folk can’t afford to buy. The message is that the struggle to own a home, or to become a landlord, is wearing them out.

While all this sounds rather grim, Sun’s dialogue is wryly funny and fast-paced. There are also plenty of send-ups of hackneyed government directives to the public (to which the audience responds with old-fashioned shouts of appreciation – “Hao!” – and bursts of applause).

Fight the Landlord isn’t the only play at the festival to dwell on the housing challenge. There was also a premiere for Housing and Dreaming, directed by Chen Li and written by Qin Zijian, with tells of the mass exodus of apartment-less people from a city in one day.

In the play, the ancient god of the land, tudi ye, or land grandfather (a temple to whom is found in many Chinese villages) is preparing to marry. Just as he’s about to tie the knot, a local property developer announces the god’s temple, and home, is to be torn down to build new apartments. About to be made homeless – and therefore unable to marry – the land god curses the developer: everyone in the city must leave with him immediately, on pain of death. A mass exodus follows.

The play draws on ancient Chinese beliefs and shows the rage felt when traditions are destroyed, and the helplessness of those who fight back. By leaving the city, the land god can revenge himself on the developer who crushes his temple, but he still cannot save his home.

In all, 58 plays are showing at the festival, which despite its “fringe” name is sponsored by several government departments including the Culture Ministry and the Communist Youth League, making for an unusually rich time in theatre in Beijing. The festival ends on Sunday, but some plays, including Fight the Landlord, will move to Chengdu in October for the First International Theatre Festival starting October 18.

Offerings range from locally-written work to international classics such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which is still an audience favourite.

“Theatre encourages people to think at a high level. … It needs the power of breakthroughs and the courage of revolutions”, avant-garde director Meng Jinghui, the festival’s artistic director, wrote in an introduction .“The stage is a space where anything can happen,” Meng warned.


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