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A peddler's chant, a city's past

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Old Beijing jiao mai, the hawking cries of street vendors, is dying out as the peddlers in the hutong have vanished. But fortunately, the Old Beijing Peddlers' Chanting Troupe is here to the rescue.

If you go back 50 or 60 years in Beijing, before the arrival of supermarkets and department stores, peddlers wandering from hutong to hutong were the primary source of goods for Beijingers.

The chants of peddlers used to be an essential part of daily life in Beijing. A day started in the early morning with the loud and abrupt hawk of dao shui (delivering drinking water) and ended with the long and melodious drawl of ye hu (urinal pots).

The peddlers' resonant and musical chanting permeated through the courtyards, a both informative and entertaining fixture. Now the art of chanting faces an uncertain destiny.

The Old Beijing Peddlers Chanting Troupe hopes to reawaken the old memory.

Meng Ya'nan, a 34-year-old Beijinger, leads the troupe. With an educational background in traditional operas, Meng began learning the art seven years ago from Zhang Zhenyuan, an elder master in jiao mai, who has since passed away. Meng has devoted all his efforts to this mission with almost no financial payback, since each troupe member is paid only a few hundred yuan for a show, or, many times, nothing at all.

Founded in 2004 by Meng, with approximately 70 members, all Beijingers, the troupe aims to carry forward the heritage. The members gather and practice regularly. The troupe receives invitations to perform at all sorts of venues, from theatres to teahouses, university halls to annual company parties. They're also popular at Spring Festival temple fairs.

Most of the members are senior citizens, who cherish and wish to preserve their childhood memories of chanting. Zhang Qinghai, 63, is one of them. "The chanting has been gone since the 1960s," Zhang said.

There are also a dozen of young people, from all professions, willing to lend a hand in preserving this heritage. The rest are a few kids from elementary schools, who are "talented and fast learners," according to Meng.

"Handing down the skills to the younger generation is the most important," said Meng. Meng currently tutors five young apprentices, aged 6 to 20.

Listed among the Beijing's intangible cultural heritages, this art isn't safe from extinction yet. The troupe faces problems, including insufficient funding, limited recognition and a lack of previous experience to draw from.

But Meng has some creative ideas on how to rejuvenate the art. Meng tried to put the short hawkings into artistic combinations in a more appreciable length. Based on all kinds of peddlers' chanting, they also put together a few shows, with dialogues and stage props such as carts, shoulder poles and wooden clappers, just like the peddlers used to carry. All costumes and props were made by the members, manually, little by little.

Separated from the original purpose of selling things, this antiquated art form can barely survive with its few enthusiasts. So Meng has been thinking about introducing the art into supermarkets; he's currently speaking with a few. Perhaps one day a troupe member will cry out the modern supermarket staples: "yogurt," "doughnuts," "toilet paper."

The sonorous chanting, the echoing cadences - those old voices of the hutong have been long gone. But if you close your eyes and listen carefully to Meng and his troupe, the vintage scenes of old Beijing brighten into a vivid reality.

Source: Ecns.cn
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