The Chinese Theatres of Shanghai:  A Universal Art on the Other Side of the Globe (1925)

This article published in the Herald and later in the American journal Living Age provides a welter of details on the theater industry in Shanghai which supported the performance of Chinese regional operas. I confess not to be an expert in this area of urban entertainment but the article is full of rich details on this more traditional side of entertainment culture in Old Shanghai.

The Chinese Theatres of Shanghai:  A Universal Art on the Other Side of the Globe

Source:  Living Age 325:  208-12 (April 25, 1925) From the North China Herald, February 28

Between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand dollars enters the tills of Chinese theatres in Shanghai every day.  When it is considered that this is somewhere between five and ten million dollars a year, the importance of the Chinese style of entertainment as an industry in the city may be realized.  If the admission fees received during a year by all the theatres in all the cities of China could be counted, the total would doubtless run into the scores of millions.  The Chinese theatre plays an important part in the commercial life of the city, as, besides spending the evening there as a pastime, Chinese business men use it as a means of establishing closer acquaintance with customers.  The theatre in Shanghai has probably undergone more development than in any other city, where many of the so-called native showhouses are so dissimilar from those of Peking, or of the other less Westernized cities, that a person from another part of the country would be inclined to call many of the Chinese showplaces in Shanghai foreign.

All of them, however, have not changed to the same degree, or even followed the same line.  In Shanghai there are three distinct classes or groups of playhouses.  One of these is devoted to maintaining the traditions of the old theatre, a thing which, in general, it does very well, according to the experienced Chinese playgoers. These present the so-called Peking plays, which use historical themes, and place the chief emphasis on singing. Another group takes up more modern stories, selecting plots that deal with the present day.  Singing is included by these, but they also emphasize droll situation and repartee.  Another type scarcely has a counterpart on the foreign stage.  In it stories from the old Peking plays are acted, but magic effects, like skeletons appearing as apparitions, and victims escaping from chests, are partly depended upon for the effect.

The early history of Shanghai theatres is about the same as those in Peking, which is now generally considered the dramatic centre of the country.  The management of the Shanghai houses a few generations ago, as those elsewhere at the time, was divided.  There was the department managing the stage and the entertaining, and another looking after the business.  A theatrical undertaking was usually embarked upon by several men in the profession who handled it as a joint enterprise.  First they secured a suitable house.  Then a standard was decided on; that is to say, it was agreed as to about what grade of show should be undertaken—a decision which determined approximately what number of actors was required.  This number of persons was invited to join in the production. Nearly all plots contained fighting, and characters for this comprised the big item.

After the stage management had secured its personnel, an election was held and the most wealthy, the best-known or the most influential among them was selected as manager of the stage.  This manager was usually one of the group of original organizers, but not always so. Very little rehearsing was needed until announcement of the first performance was made and the play presented. The length of time it remained on, as in modern plays, depended on the support of the public.  In other words, on how it ‘took.’  Some of them closed at the end of a week or so, while others ran indefinitely.  

At the beginning of business the actors secured by the original organizers were given an installment of salary.  After that the enterprise was cooperative.  When business was good, salaries were paid regularly; when it was not so prosperous, dividends were less frequent.  When it was decided the enterprise was no longer worth while a break-up came, and the personnel reissued themselves in another performance, or joined with others not in the original cast.

In more recent years the initiative has passed from those operating in front of the footlights to those who run the business department.  The latter now decide the type of performance and secure the cast. Whether or not this rise of a new system is considered a good thing for the profession, it is apparently the best plan financially.

The management of the Chinese theatre maintains the old practice of giving well-known customers credit, and it is possible for a person to go every night for two or three months and pay the total admission charges at the next settling-up festival.  If a man is not favorably known to the management, cash admission is required.  When an usher begins to realize that some of his old customers have not recently been in their seats as usual, he sends them a programme or two, the idea being to get them into their old habit.

With old customs tempered in recent years by foreign business-methods, new schemes of theatre management have come into existence.  The case of the Sin Wu Tai Theatre is one.  At this house, as in those in the past, there is the group handling the stage and another taking care of business.  A new feature is that each actor who earns a hundred dollars or more a month is a shareholder, and when there is a declaration of profits each receives a share according to his salary.  If there is not profit to be divided, he receives his salary anyway. Although no other theatre in Shanghai has the same participating-plan, there are several with their own individual methods.  A point in favor of the Sin Wu Tai plan is that it tends to bind the staff together, many remaining season after season.

The one drawback to this, which probably has influenced other houses against taking up the same scheme, is that each actor, when he becomes a shareholder, obtains a voice in the management.  This leads to disobedience and minor insurrection, and the audience frequently sees some unexpected improvisation resulting from a lack of firm control, or through a substitute at some unannounced and unexpected time having to take the part of a principal.  The other Shanghai theatres almost entirely employ on the salary basis only.  This leads to more frequent changes in staff, but to offset this there is the benefit of a frequent recasting of acts.

Some theatres expend much money in building up and maintaining a reputation for high-quality talent.  They bring actors from elsewhere, chiefly Peking, and are always on the lookout for features which they think will be well received.  Almost all the large Shanghai theatres employ only men.  The Shiang Wu Tai, and one or two smaller houses, have only women.  The Kung Wu Tai has both in its plays.  It is estimated that there are ten thousand actors, both men and women, in Shanghai. A considerable number of these, like members of the profession in other countries, are unemployed.

Of those who are working, the salary varies greatly, ranging up to three thousand dollars (Mexican). About the lowest-paid person taking an acting part gets eighteen dollars a month.  The high figures, one to three thousand dollars a month for whole-year contracts, go to persons who put on the more pretentious performances and who themselves are obliged to pay small troupes.  Only one person working the year round in Shanghai receives three thousand dollars, but his net salary is only about two thousand dollars, as from this he pays several assistants.  Some, like Mei Lan-fang, come on short contracts and get higher figures.  Mei, a female impersonator, who is the most famous of all Chinese actors, for instance, receives twenty thousand dollars or more a month.  Out of this he pays his troupe.

Ordinary actors, or those who may be said to be without exceptional repute, taking leading roles, receive between six hundred and one thousand dollars a month.  Actors are considered to be of classes, according to what parts they customarily take.  Of these the Tsing I, who job is to take the parts of ordinary women, Hua Tan, are considered the most important and receive the highest pay.  The Wu Seng, who bear the parts of heroes, were formerly thought to be the most important, and given the highest pay. Now, however, they rank third or fourth in the scale of box-office favorites.  The Weng Wu Lao Seng, who take the parts of gentlemen,--that is to say, old scholars and elderly heroes,--now receive a pay above that of the hero characters.  The Hung Sen, members of which class take the hero parts in the style of play having settings in the Han Dynasty, receive three hundred dollars or more.  A person called a Siao Seng, taking the part of a youth, receives from one hundred to two thousand dollars a month; but if he is working opposite a leading Tsing I, he gets more.

Salaries as high as one thousand dollars a month ago to musicians.  This sum has been paid to renowned players of the Chinese violin. A more usual salary for this is from twenty to fifty dollars.  Ordinarily the beater of the small drum gets twenty dollars, although there have been two or three of these in recent years in Shanghai drawing from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars.  The highest pay on record for a striker of a gong is forty dollars.  Hairdressers receive only from four to twenty dollars a month, the latter figure going to those who can arrange any of a large number of designs, whether the person whose coiffure he is making is playing a man’s or a woman’s parts.  Stage-setters are nothing but coolies, with a pay of five or ten dollars a month. Scenery and settings are taken care of by a class of artists who receive from forty to two hundred dollars.  Each theatre employs a staff of these, and all stage-decorating, including carpentry, painting, and designing screens, is ordered through the head artists, who get a commission. 

The stars on the Chinese stage, like some elsewhere, do not mind having it known that they have contracts for large amounts.  In several cases, according to those in the profession, contracts have been drawn properly witnessed calling for unusual amounts.  At the same time there was a secret agreement between the artist and his employer that the amount would be paid at a discount.  Frequently the management asks a highly paid artist, on the completion of a season, to continue for a week or two without pay.

It was the custom for generations for the management to supply food to all stage hands as well as those connected with the business department.  As the story is told by members of the profession in Shanghai, food became so poor that no first-class artist could stand it.  Dishes were cold and poorly cooked, and generally showed an economy on the part of the management which was distasteful.  Food began to be ordered from restaurants, the person asking for it paying.  A culmination of the argument over food ended in the management’s throwing up the job of catering, and making an allowance to each person of fifteen hundred cash a month for rice.  This allowance remained for many years, until the deflated value—about seventy-five cents—made it too small to be of much use.  The Sin Wu Tai management is said to be the only one which yet regularly adds fifteen hundred cash to the monthly pay, although four theatres in the city pay two dollars a month.

Shanghai theatres are usually of two or three stories.  The stalls are divided into so-called halls, as the official first-class, the special first-class, the second class, and so on.  The official hall consists of eight or ten rows of seats downstairs nearest to the stage.  After it or in the balconies are the others, according to their names.  The first row of the dress circle, which is in the first balcony, is known in Chinese as containing the flower seats.  In the section behind are the moon seats.  Other parts of the house are simply designated. Besides seats in the regular rows, there are boxes.

The seating in a Chinese theatre is not controlled exclusively through a central box-office. The ushers have a good deal to say, and it is advantageous for a person attending a performance to book through the ushers themselves.  The importance of the ushers is indicated by the desirability of the seat sections they control.  Persons who known only secondary ushers are likely to find themselves seated in a rear row even though they reserve early. 

The admission charge changes at different times of the year.  In the summer, for instance, the price drops, as the theatre loses some of its attractiveness at this season.  With the coming of cold weather the scale is advanced, and when an actor like Mei Lan-fang is billed a higher charge is made.  Admission at the various theatres ranges from fifty cents to one dollar for seats in the official, the flower, and the moon sections.  Rear seats in the first-balcony sections cost from forty to eighty cents.  Those in the second balcony bring from fifteen to thirty cents.  The cheapest seat at a first-class performance is ten cents, which, like all the others, is in so-called big money—that is, calculated as fractions of the silver dollar.  Most of the houses run matinees for which a reduced admittance is in order.

It is the custom to pay about ten percent of admission costs to the usher handling that section, for hot towels and a tip.  For this, one’s coat and hat are taken care of, and errands, like purchasing cigarettes, are run.

Before a theatergoer has been in his seat long he has placed before him two dishes, one containing almonds and watermelon seeds, and another fruit.  An extra amount of from forty cents to one dollar is expected for this service.  The usual charge for a pot of tea is ten cents.

Following, the two or three days of ‘tao chuan,’ the troupe takes a week or two of holiday and returns for a rehearsal of the new play which is to be ready for the Chinese New Year holidays.  Closing for this period is advertised in what the Westerner would consider a most subtle manner.  The play, Six Feudal Lords Selecting a Leader, is given.  This play is called Lu Kuo Fung Hsiang.  ‘Fung’ means both selecting and sealing up.  ‘Hsiang’ means leader.  It also sounds like ‘trunk,’ so by billing this play it is made known to the public that the wardrobe trunks are being sealed until the first day of the new year.

A Shanghai innovation and addition to theatrical amusement is the music attached to amusement places like the Great World and the New World.  In these the entertainment is more like vaudeville.  Ordinarily no extra charge is required for admission to these halls after the general inside entrance has been paid.   Ten or twenty cents admits one to the building.  The management makes its money largely from the concessions, and operates the halls as attraction features.  An exception to the no-admission-fee rule is the Tao She Theatre in the Great World, where finished plays are put on an admission up to seventy cents is charged.

A custom among players in certain types of houses, which once a year means a ‘stunt’ for them, is a practice called ‘tao chuan’ or reversing parts.  For two or three days before annual closing for rehearsal actors take parts as nearly as possible opposite to those they ordinarily depict. Those who have through the year been villains become heroes, and heroes take parts showing them in opposite lights. Those who have not sung for months take leading vocal parts, and old men become children.  This is a time of revelry among the players themselves, and the audience joins in the spirit of the change, always getting pleasure from the burly figure playing the woman, and wondering if, after all, the hero should unfailingly be of the customary type.  

These what the Chinese term ‘reversals’ are practiced only by troupes at theatres handling the so-called Peking plays.  The others have become too modern for the fun, which is a survival of an old custom.