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Written by Mary Higgins
Chinese people don’t react the way that you’d expect them to at many “foreign” events like plays or concerts (14 year old psychotic girls screaming for asexual non-threating wholesome Supergirls, not withstanding). Your average Chinese crowd will applaud in the wrong places or make sure that they are sitting solidly on their hands. When “Rent” was in town, I was thoroughly entertained by the audience applauding the musicians as they tuned their instruments (not a polite little clap to demonstrate their excitment that the show will soon begin but a participatory applause that the show HAD begun) and then sit in stunned silence as Karen Mok spread her legs and sang about AIDS. However, one place where Chinese people really “get it” is xiangsheng. Whether or not you like xiangsheng is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that Chinese audiences really get into the show. They are clapping and yelling out during performances. It is a really interactive experience (albeit in a terribly lame kind of way). So, what’s the deal? For those that you have never seen a xiangsheng performance, it can be thought of as a quick witted Abbot-and-Costello-esque standup routine that generally has your straight man and a naive dimwitted fool struggling with some sort procedural issue or getting taken advantage of. When you read that last sentence again (go ahead…take your time), doesn’t it sound like EVERY FUCKING DAY IN CHINA!?

That’s exactly it. That’s why people like it so much. As the great poet Homer once said: It’s funny because it’s true. It’s art imitating life. People are laughing at the bittersweet irony which is their miserable existence. Wherever you go, on any given day, at any random time, you are probably that naive dimwitted fool struggling to figure out why you have to pre-pay your monthly electricity so that it cuts out on you in the middle of the night and the lady on the other end of the phone is the straight man telling you that you better conserve the last Joules of energy that you have since their office is closed for the next two days. You end up standing there looking like an idiot on life’s xiangsheng stage trying to figure how any of this sound and fury makes any sense.

There’s nothing funny about xiangsheng. Instead, xiangsheng should be thought of as a very literal view into life in China. Next time you turn on the television and you see two men doing their cross-talk, shed a tear for the audience and the honest tragedy that is being retold to them.
Our valuable Editor Mary Higgins has been with us since Tuesday, 24 November 2009.

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