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China / People

Laughter from beginning to end

By Xu Jingxi (China Daily) Updated: 2012-09-20 08:15

Cross-talk star and innovator Huang Junying is still going strong at 76. He tells Xu Jingxi in Guangzhou the secrets of his success.

The auditorium was filled with fans of Huang Junying, from kindergarten kids to pensioners, on the 60th anniversary of the start of his career.

Incredibly energetic, the 76-year-old man took the lead role in seven out of 10 performances throughout the two-hour anniversary party.

He tickled the audience with his portrayal of a man with poor acting skills hired to play a child, wearing a red bellyband and cutting a caper.

He amazed the audience with his sonorous voice when singing a Cantonese Opera (Yueju Opera) aria that reverberated through the hall.

Ripples of applause and laughter went through the audience when Huang staged the short sketch and Cantonese Opera singing. But the versatile performer received the most extravagant cheers when he appeared in a gown to perform xiangsheng or cross-talk comedy.

Laughter from beginning to end
Huang Junying is still active on stage, performing xiangsheng in Cantonese. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

Originating in North China in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), xiangsheng is essentially a humorous dialogue between two people, typically performed in northern dialects or Mandarin with northern accents.

Huang broke the language barrier and introduced the art form to Guangdong by presenting it in Cantonese more than 100 years after its birth.

In 1958, Huang, a rising Cantonese Opera actor, was selected to join a group of folk artists from all over the country to visit soldiers in Guangdong's neighboring Fujian province.

The group was divided into three teams and one more xiangsheng pair was needed. Huang volunteered and was an immediate hit.

"I gained a sense of achievement seeing the smiling faces of the audience. I wanted to bring joy to people in Guangdong and was confident that xiangsheng would also be popular here if spoken in the local dialect," the Guangdong native recalls.

"You need to acquire four basic skills - speaking, imitating, teasing and singing - and after racking your brains, to come up with punch lines," says Huang.

"It's challenging but intriguing at the same time. I was excited to take on the challenge."

He started translating xiangsheng works from Mandarin into Cantonese but then went on to create original Cantonese xiangsheng works.

He was encouraged by Ma Ji (1934-2006), a xiangsheng master based in Beijing.

In 1972, Ma went to Hainan province to give performances and draw inspiration for his xiangsheng creations. Huang rushed there and stayed for about a month.

"Ma gave me the thumbs up for my adaptations of his work but he also told me that I needed to do more than just translate northern xiangsheng works. He says that only by writing about things around me and people in the south could I make xiangsheng survive there," Huang recalls.

Back from Hainan, Huang worked in a restaurant for three months and interviewed the most famous dim sum cook in Guangzhou at that time. He then created the first original Cantonese xiangsheng, Master Zhang, which is based on the cook's story and Huang's experience as a waiter.

"I learned from Ma that successful xiangsheng creation comes from a close look at real life," says Huang.

When Hong Kong pop swept over Guangdong and challenged Cantonese Opera in the early 1980s, Huang was surprised to discover that young people in discos still loved his performances.

He thus established Guangzhou Xiangsheng Art Troupe in 1983, spreading the art to other countries and regions including Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, the US and Canada.

Huang says xiangsheng has suffered a hard time in the past seven years because of the rapid growth of the Internet.

"Young people would rather watch my xiangsheng online than buy a ticket to enjoy it at the theater," says Huang.

However, he is still confident that xiangsheng won't die, describing it as the diamond in the crown of Chinese folk arts.

"Xiangsheng doesn't need props or acoustics. Just two performers are enough. So it can travel to any corner of the country to bring joy to people there," Huang explains.

Huang once went down on a winch into a mine several hundred meters below the ground to perform for two miners.

"Besides, xiangsheng performers can do a lot of improvisation. For example, we can learn local dialects after our arrival and apply it immediately in the show that night. The audience loves such improvisation," Huang adds.

It takes two to stage a typical xiangsheng. Huang was lucky to find his perfect match - Yang Da - soon after he returned from Fujian in 1958.

Yang was Huang's colleague at Guangdong Music and Folk Art Troupe. They seem to be poles apart in terms of appearance and temperament.

Huang is about 1.6 meters tall, while Yang is about 15 centimeters bigger.

Huang has a short temper while Yang is mild. Huang speaks quickly, Yang slowly.

On stage, the contrast between the facetious face and the serious face becomes an effective catalyst for laughter.

The perfect match lasted 42 years and only ended when Yang retired in 2000.

"I was 65 years old then and thought it was time to take a rest. But Huang won't leave the stage," says Yang. "He is really devoted to his art."

Huang has partnered with He Baowen, his student, since then, and the new pair gradually won over the public's recognition.

The old artist puts on at least one show a month in Guangdong.

In his spare time, he chats with his fans in three instant messaging groups, and frequently logs onto his micro blog account with his smart phone.

Huang Xiaobin, a 45-year-old fan, took his son to both the old artist's anniversary party 10 years ago and the one this August. Now his son is also a big fan.

"To me, Huang Junying is a synonym for happiness. I grew up with his delightful performances and I hope my son can have the company of his performances too," Huang Xiaobin says.

Although Huang Junying is still energetic enough to drive a car and can read newspapers without glasses, he is bothered by diabetes and had a serious heart attack five years ago.

"I have witnessed the birth of Cantonese xiangsheng and its development all the way so far. I will pass away without regret if someone can replace me to be the pillar," says Huang.

"I want my amusing performances played at my funeral. I hope that the mourning hall will be filled with laughter instead of tears. Because I love seeing people laugh."

Contact the writer at xujingxi@chinadaily.com.cn.

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