A bowler, shoulder-length hair dyed blond, an ankle-length wool overcoat whose one half is cut ten inches shorter than the other. Imagine seeing through thick smoke a stylish singer in the 1930s Shanghai, the Paris of the East. Imagine her singing at a smoky hall with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, yelling, shouting, smoking, drinking, flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting.
Now through the smoke, past two black iron stoves burning coal and boiling water, past loud drinkers at the rickety tables and booths, over a floor littered with black watermelon seed shells, sunflower seed shells, peanut shells, cigarette ends and liquor bottle caps, come closer, and stand in front of the stage, right by a plastic Christmas tree. You now see this stylish singer is actually in her fifties, her wrinkled face thick with cheap make-up, her hair dry and awry, her hands short-fingered, chubby and dark. She has the typical peasant look in northwest China.
She is indeed a peasant. A Tibetan peasant with an amazing voice. A voice singing a beautiful Hua’er, a kind of folk song sung in Qinghai dialects, popular in northwest China, particularly among Chinese muslims. The literal translation of hua’er is “flower.” The interpretation of the term Hua’er is romantic: The song is enjoyable like a beautiful flower and the singer is a lass as beautiful as a flower. Hua’er is the name for both the song and the singer. An alternative name for Hua’er is Shaonian, or lad. Obviously this kind of folk songs are mostly (though not exclusively) love songs between lasses and lads. But on the stage here, the song is sung by a weathered peasant woman, not a youthful or beautiful lass. A beautiful song spoiled by an electric piano accompaniment, low-quality mic and speakers way too blaring.
And this place is not a top-notch music hall in the 1930s Shanghai, but a hau’er tea house called Red Butterfly at the southern edge of Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province in northwest China. A low-end entertainment venue not allowed downtown. A Tibetan friend of mine, Suo Nan Ji, once owned it. She recently sold it to a friend of hers and is now a staff singer here. Hua’er tea houses are low-end entertainment places which peasants, workers and small business men frequent to drink eight-treasure tea and strong barley liquor, to gossip, to enjoy Hua’er, and to find a lover. Their customers are mostly men and hua’er singers women. They popped up in northwest China in the 1980s, when the economic reforms hit the whole country. Before that, Hua’er was only heard in the mountains and in the fields. They are considered “wild songs” and forbidden at home, because singing love songs at home is considered a crime of incest. For the same reason, men usually don’t go to Hua’er tea houses with their family. If a man comes with a woman, this woman is probably his mistress, not his wife or wife-to-be.
I turn to Suo Nan Ji, “she has a very good voice, too. Who is she?” I have followed Suo Nan Ji for days and have met all her fellow singers except this one on the stage. I find her style quite hilarious. A northwestern Tibetan peasant in the 1930s Shanghai fashion.
“She is from a village near mine. She does have a good voice, but she has a bad name in the Hua’er community.”
“What’s the story?”
“You will see.”
I turn back to the fifty-something peasant in the 1930s Shanghai fashion. She is standing on the stage against a flat photo of northwest landscape with two women in traditional Chinese outfits Photoshopped to either side of the photo, their arms pointing awkwardly to the center, a blue sky overwritten by big and bold Chinese characters that say “Welcome to Red Butterfly.” An ugly stage. But the singer’s voice is good and high and could be so much more beautiful without the “help” of modern equipment. I wish I could turn off the electric piano and unplug the mic.
I fell in love with Hua’er sixteen years ago when I first heard Suo Nan Ji sing it in Lhasa, Tibet, also at a smoky tea house with men wearing Fedoras, Ben Hogans and Kufis, cheering, smoking, drinking, shouting and flirting, sometimes dancing and sometimes fighting. At that time, they didn’t have the cheap electric piano accompaniment. Suo Nan Ji sang not only with a beautiful voice, but with emotions from the bottom of her heart. Her voice, well trained at a provincial conservatory in the 1980s, but still with a primitive quality typical for a Tibetan, touched me deeply. I could hear her tragedy even though I didn’t understand a single word she sang. She indeed has led a dramatic and tragic life. That is a different story. Right now, I try to feel the voice of this new singer on the ugly stage as I curse the cheap modern equipment. A girl in love, a sad separation, a yearning, and alas, her disappointment. I don’t understand the lyrics in Qinghai dialects, but I can guess what she sings, and can feel the emotions in her voice. It is the primitive quality of the voice and the emotions of the Hua’er singer that attract me tremendously. I guess this singer also has a sad story, a rough life. Suo Nan Ji has told me many times that each Hua’er singer is a tragedy. Their lives are weaved by tears.
A woman, a fellow singer, goes up to the stage. She picks a red nylon scarf from a rack next to the plastic Christmas tree, hangs it to the singer’s free arm, then hands a note to her free hand. This is the way a singer is tipped. The tip is not from the woman, but from a man who admires her voice, or her flirts. The woman is a messenger. Another woman walks to the stage. More tips. Tips are the singers’ major income source.
“She makes good money today,” I comment.
Suo Nan Ji grins. I feel a scorn in the curl of her lips. She is not making much these days, at least not when I am with her. She is probably too well-educated, too proud, and too independent for the customers here. They are fascinated by her fame as a singer in the 1990s, her roles（always supporting and villainous roles）in several local TV plays and her beauty that has been devoured by cruel time and the tragic dramas in her life. But these are exactly the walls that keep many men from flirting with her then tipping her. I have a feeling that my being with her may have made these walls even thicker. She keeps telling people that I am a photographer and writer trained in the USA and often traveling abroad. She likes boasting about my education and showing off our friendship, “We’ve known each other for almost 20 years! She was a little girl then. She is like my little sister.” She says this almost every day, to different people. I have become a tool for her to win respect. Our friendship is the evidence that she is no typical flirtatious Hua’er singer, but a respectable human being with dignity. She says to me one night that my staying with her has given her “face” and made her feel more honorable and respectable than her peers. I don’t mind being her tool to gain respect, as she is a genuine and pure soul with great talents, a kind heart, beautiful inside and out. She has my respect and deserves more. But she has been struggling to make a living at Hua’er tea houses, dealing with men she despises. She does have fans who sincerely appreciate her songs. They often tip her ten yuan (less than two US dollars), sometimes twenty, even fifty. But this is not much. You have to flirt with men, drink with them, make them drunk to have good tips. She says she hates flirting with drunkards. And once a man tips a singer a lot – hundreds of yuan, even a thousand or more, he expects her to go out with him at night. “You know what that means,” She says.
I wonder if the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion hates it, too. She just finishes her singing and hands the mic to the next singer. (They sing by turns and when they don’t sing, they wait on the customers.) She steps off the stage, walks down the aisle between two lines of rickety booths, gives her hands to each tipper as a thank-you. She is all smiles. Now she sits down at a booth behind ours. I turn around to compliment her, “you have a good voice.” She smiles, but quickly turns to a man demanding a drink with her. It is a peasant in his sixties or seventies, already drunk. She pours the 42-degree barley liquor into four tiny porcelain cups sitting at a plate on a messy table full of tea cups, black watermelon seeds, snacks, liquor bottles and cigarettes. She holds out her right hand to play a finger guessing game with the man. The one who loses the game will have to drink a cup of barley liquor. This is a very common drinking game in north China. Here in Qinghai, people love it as much as they love drinking. I refuse to understand it even though Suo Nan Ji and her friends have explained it to me several times. As long as I can’t play it, I don’t need to drink their hard liquor. I like this privilege as an outsider.
The singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion obviously loses the game and keeps losing it because she is soon tipsy, then drunk, and drunk enough to sit with her legs wide apart and rest her head on the man’s shoulder, then his laps and flirt with him shamelessly. I want to photograph her, but feel too embarrassed and intimidated.
I turn back and find Suo Nan Ji gone. I look around. She is standing beside a window looking out. She looks quiet and lonely in this boisterous tea house, with men and women singing, dancing, drinking and flirting. What a waste of her talent, I think as I look at her back, when a man in his thirties approaches me, dancing with a fan in each hand. He is very drunk. He invites me to dance with him. I snap a few photos of him but pretend I don’t understand him. He tries to hold my arm to drag me away from the booth. I panic and call out to Suo Nan Ji while holding my camera bag tight. Suo Nan Ji rushes over, pushes the man away and scolds him, “You drunkard! Get lost! She doesn’t dance with you.” The man dances away, waving two fans with his hands, his eyes still fixed upon me. Suo Nan Ji sits down next to me, “don’t be afraid. They are not bad people, just drunkards. How I hate drunkards! But many of them are afraid of me, they won’t hurt you.”
No sooner does Suo Nan Ji finish her words than a woman in her fifties and a man in his sixties, both drunk, make another scene. The woman wants to dance and tries to drag the man out of the booth. The man pulls her to his arms to kiss her, with his young granddaughter sleeping at the chair right behind him. I recognize them. They come to the tea house almost every day. I point my camera at them. The man immediately lets go of the woman, comes near me and points to the stage, “let’s dance.” I hide behind Suo Nan Ji, who scolds him for being too drunk and orders him not to bother me. “I am just joking with her,” he says and returns to the woman, who is smiling at me. She looks as friendly as she is drunk. I smile back, then turn to Suo Nan Ji, “who is she?”
“Just a customer. I don’t care. It is almost five, off work soon.” She sounds tired and is eager to go home.
Me, too. While I am fascinated by the happenings in this poorly-ventilated, foul-smelling, smoky, and raucous tea house, I can’t wait to leave it every afternoon. It will take days to clear myself of the smells here.
The customers are now filing out. Suo Nan Ji has started cleaning the tables and the singer in the 1930s Shanghai fashion is sweeping the floor. She seems sober now, still wearing her bowler and the unusually cut overcoat. I decide to photograph her the next day.
Unfortunately she doesn’t return to Red Butterfly before I leave Xining. I may never see her again.