Hanjia Hutong: birthplace of opera puts on the red light (2)

10:12, March 08, 2010      

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When Yuan Shihkai (leader of the Northern Warlords and first president of the Republic of China) was in power, the councilors enjoyed high salaries and often regarded Hanjia as the place to go for entertainment. During the Japanese occupation, they took it over as their amusement hub. The whorehouses also enjoyed another old name, Qing Yin Xiao Ban ("little chanters"); one might guess that the women offered not just their bodies, but also a song or two to their guests.

Wisely, restaurants and teahouses also started doing business in the lanes. A 60-year-old woman who lives at No. 21 explained that her home once was a tea bar specializing in fried food. From the outside, it looks like a two-story building, but the interior resembles a standard siheyuan. The original construction was of wood and didn't hold up; everything had to be repaired in stone five years ago. "What has changed is the inside, but the outside wall is still the original," the woman said.

Another old-fashioned two-story house at No. 27 is home to a 50-year-old woman named Zhao, who hesitantly admitted the place was once a whorehouse. "The original wooden house has been razed for reconstruction," she too noted, "but the old layout was preserved."

Not all residents appreciate the attention to Hanjia's lascivious past. "Don't listen to whatever they told you," said a 50-year-old called Han. "There was never any group of brothels here!"


This hutong is also considered the birthplace of Beijing opera. In 1790, an opera troupe called San Qing Ban, led by the famous player Gao Langting, came all the way from Hangzhou to Beijing to celebrate the 80th birthday of the emperor Qian Long, an event now documented as "Hui Ban Jin Jing" (the troupe comes to Beijing). This visit played a vital role in the final formation of Beijing opera. Hanjia Hutong happens to be where they stayed, as 200 years before drama critic Li Yu built his own house there, making the area a magnet for opera performers.

Prior to this event, all opera performers in the city came from throughout the country; there was no characteristic Beijing opera as we know it today. But the emperor took a liking to the elaborate lyrics and gentle songs of the visitors, and so the troupes settled in Beijing for long-term development. For better or for worse, the new style of performance they created became the cornerstone of modern Beijing opera.

Source: Global Times/Agencies

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