Life Opera House
Although he called it a gimmick, Director Chen planned to perfect it.
He found specialists to design the costumes, he gave emergency summons to Li Shan Zhu who was having a holiday—he was now locked up, using his blood, sweat, and tears to write a script. Once the script was issued, they were given to a few actors to rehearse in thirty days.
Ning Ning did not have much of a role, after the arrangements were done, Director Chen had not taken a few steps out of the door before Ning Ning caught up to him from behind. “Director Chen, you have not told me who decorated the theater. I won’t hide it from you, I’ve been renovating my house recently, I really like this style…”
Getting hounded by her, Director Chen had no choice, he could only give her an address.
It was really someone he knew well. Not only did Director Chen know the person well, Ning Ning too knew the person well.
She pressed the doorbell, a middle-aged woman wearing a black cheongsam answered the door. Her voice was vigorous and full of a man’s charm. “You are?”
“Cro…” The words Cross-dresser Li almost escaped her mouth. “Teacher Li hello, I am a friend of Director Chen, Zhao Yu Fen.”
“Oh, it’s you.” The world famous cross-dressing makeup artist let her in. He held his tea set with orchid fingers. “Old Chen has already greeted me…do you like red tea or green tea?”
“Green tea, thank you.”
Green-coloured longjing tea1 was served, Teacher Li sat down in front of Ning Ning. “I am not a professional designer, if you want to renovate your house, I might not be much help…”
“Teacher Li.” Ning Ning asked directly, “Have you been to Life Theater?”
After she finished speaking, she stared at his face intently.
If he had never been to Life Theater, he would have a puzzled expression upon hearing the name, but if he had…
The amiable business smile disappeared from Teacher Li’s face, he had his eyes fixed on Ning Ning.
“You’ve been there.” Ning Ning said with surety.
“No, my lover has been there.” Teacher Li got up and returned to his bedroom. When he came back, he was holding a folder full of information.
The folder was opened on the table. On the first page was a drawing. In the pitch black night, at the entrance of a very old-styled movie theater, there hung two long strings of white lanterns, the lanterns illuminated the words on the plaque: ‘Life Theater’.
“Since you mentioned that name, I guessed that you’re the same as my lover, you’ve entered that place.” Teacher Li suddenly thought of something and laughed in spite of himself. “No wonder Old Chen said that your acting skills have improved in leaps and bounds.”
Ning Ning flipped through the folder in front of her. Initially, she flipped it page by page. Her hand froze all of a sudden, she quickly flipped it back a few pages, to a specific page in the folder.
There were no words written on that page, there were a few photos pasted instead, two of which had words on them. One of them had a drawing, an ancient painting. The picture was similar to ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’2 painting. There was heavy traffic on the streets, pedestrians followed one another, the streets were littered with many shops, black tiles and white walls, plaques hanging above doors, the place looked bustling at a glance. Only after flipping through a few pages and coming back to it did she realise that there was a teahouse amidst the shops.
A sign hung above the entrance to the teahouse, written on it was…
“Life Opera House.” Ning Ning quietly read out, she looked up at Teacher Li. “This is?”
“This is an imitation painting of <<Along the River During the Qingming Festival>>.” Teacher Li said, “Although it’s fake, the artist was a person from the Ming Dynasty3 era, so it could still be considered an antique. Originally, I wanted to buy it, but the owner of this painting liked it a lot, they were unwilling to sell it, I was only allowed to take two photos.”
Ning Ning took another look at the photo, it looked…too alike.
Although the sign was different, the two strings of lanterns hanging by the door—especially with the masked person standing by the entrance—it looked like an ancient version of Life Theater no matter how she looked at it.
She looked at the two other photos. One of them was a photo of a novel cover that had turned yellow, the title seemed to be made out of a few words, but the first few were unclear, only the last two words were legible—Strange Tales.
The other photo was a paragraph from the novel itself, traditional Chinese4 was hard to read (for her), Ning Ning identified them with difficulty: “Long Sheng from Jiangxi5 was touring Kaifeng6 with a friend at night. They accidentally entered a teahouse, and those who were seated were all masked people. Upon seeing them, the masked people went into raptures, chasing them relentlessly while shouting ‘stowaway’…”
Upon reading that, Ning Ning’s mouth dried up. She asked Teacher Li, “Is what’s written on this…all true?”
“I don’t know.” Teacher Li shook his head. “A strange tales novel like this—that was written by an ancient person—usually has a mixture of truth and falsehoods. I could only say that if what was written was true, then Life Theater would have existed from at least the Ming Dynasty period. The name then was not ‘Theater’, it was called Life Opera House.”
Ning Ning stood there dumbfounded for a moment. She had once looked everywhere for information on Life Theater too, but she did not come up with much. How could she have known that this thing existed in the Ming Dynasty? It was even under a different name.
“What else do you know?” She asked frantically.
“I don’t know much.” Teacher Li patted the folder on the table. “Just collecting these took almost half of my lifetime.”
Ning Ning was taken aback. “Why?”
“…No why, I just want to be prepared.” Teacher Li said blandly, “In case one day my lover got trapped inside and couldn’t come out, I would at least know where to look for her.”
Just as Ning Ning was about to ask whom his lover was, a cold snort rang out behind her. “Dad, you are looking at this crap again.”
Ning Ning turned back, it was another familiar face.
Li Bo Yue, her manager. He was but a young man as of now. Taking his age into account, he should have just entered show business. As a newbie, he should have needed to fight and toil for a very long period of time, but he had good luck, for some reason he got in the good graces of Movie Empress Ning Yu Ren, she immediately brought him to her side as her manager.
“Haven’t you had enough?” He said to Teacher Li with an impatient look, “That woman obviously made it up to con you. It’s one thing to believe in it for a year or two, why do you still believe it?”
“She wouldn’t lie to me.” Teacher Li glared at him.
Li Bo Yue rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
He walked towards his room, closing the door with a bang. Teacher Li who was behind him sighed, he told Ning Ning in an embarrassed manner, “My son is a little obstinate.”
“…That’s right, I’ll be working for my friend tomorrow.” Li Bo Yue’s voice rang out behind the door, “I don’t want to work for that woman anymore, seeing her makes me upset.”
That was strange. Li Bo Yue was a smooth and slick fellow, he was on good terms with everyone, he could deal with stars of any weird personality. Who was it that made him feel unbearable? …Wait a minute.
“I heard that your son is currently working for Ning Yu Ren.” Ning Ning probed Teacher Li, “What’s the matter? Is Ning Yu Ren not treating him well?”
“How could that be?” Teacher Li laughed. “Even if it was just for my sake, she would not make things difficult for him.”
Ning Ning felt that it was strange. Teacher Li looked like he knew Mama very well, but she had never heard Mama mention anything to do with him. Moreover, from what Li Bo Yue had said…these two…
Ning Ning could not sit still in that moment. “Umm…your lover…could it be…”
“Little girl,” Teacher Li smiled, placing a finger on his lips, “you’re stepping on some lines here.”
Seeing that he didn’t want to delve deeply on it, Ning Ning did not pursue the matter, because she was afraid of the answer herself… Seeing him dressed in a long cheongsam, if the “lover” he was talking about was really referring to Ning Yu Ren, then Ning Ning wouldn’t feel like she had a father, she would feel like she had another mother!
“Alright, it’s getting late, I should get to work at the set.” Teacher Li pushed the folder towards Ning Ning. “Take this.”
Ning Ning was astonished. “Can I?”
“It’s fine, I have more.” Teacher Li smiled. “I’ll give this one to you, treat it as a gift.”
Seeing that Ning Ning accepted it with delight, he added on another sentence, “Propriety suggests reciprocity, you should give me something too.”
“…What do you want?” Ning Ning asked.
“Answer me first.” Teacher Li stared at her. “Have you been to Life Theater?”
An extreme amount of thoughts flashed in Ning Ning’s mind, she shook her head. “I’ve never been… Someone I’m close to has been, when they came back, their health has been getting worse.”
She was talking about Ning Yu Ren. If nothing went wrong, in these few years, Ning Yu Ren’s health would start to deteriorate. Now that she thought about it, a scenario like this could only be created by the theater…
“So that’s what it was.” Teacher Li believed her, because the person he wanted to rescue was also Ning Yu Ren. Ning Yu Ren’s situation at that time was just like what Ning Ning had described. This answer made him feel relieved and disappointed, he sighed. “I wanted to say, if you’ve been there, could you give me the address?”
A delighted Ning Ning: I cannot tell you even if I know the address.
If it could be divulged, Mama would have told him long ago, she wouldn’t need to be the one to do it.
“Actually, my lover has already told me the address, but there was nothing there. No theater, no masked people. When I brought others over, they could not see anything either.” Teacher Li said dejectedly, “Either only she could see it, or she was lying to me…”
You could not see it because you were not on the verge of despair…
“Old man, haven’t you had enough?” Li Bo Yue’s voice rang out again, sounding even more impatient. “Not only you, I have been to that place five hundred times already. There’s nothing, only a stall selling popsicles. I told you that she’s deceiving you, you wouldn’t believe me…”
Amidst Li Bo Yue’s rattle, Ning Ning left the house with Teacher Li. Ning Ning said with the folder in her arms. “I’ll take a good look and see if I can find any leads when I get back.”
“Go ahead. Remember to inform me if you find any lead.” Teacher Li exchanged phone numbers with her.
He watched Ning Ning leave, looking down and making a call.
It rang a few times before it connected.
“Hello, Old Pei.” Teacher Li put the phone up to his ear. “Give me another copy of the information. The copy I have? I gave it away. A little one came, she’s like us, a family member is trapped in there, she’s looking up on the matters of the theater…”
In the taxi, Ning Ning could not wait as she flipped through the folder in her hands.
Ancient novel about strange tales, a tabloid from the republic era, an ancient legend passed down in the country…
Life Theater, Life Movie Theater, mask, masked people…
“Turns out there are so many people like me. Having gone in, not being able to leave.” Ning Ning thought, “There are also a lot of people like Teacher Li, thinking of ways to get people out of it. When they failed, they recorded the incident down so that others in the future could look at it and think of ways to rescue people.”
Ning Ning felt immensely miserable. Her vision was fixed on one of the pages, it was another strange tale. It was a story that happened in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty7 years. A villager named Zhao Da was rushing for time at night, he walked past Life Opera House. The doorman at the entrance of the opera house was an alcoholic. Upon seeing that Zhao Da was carrying a bag of wine, he held him up and wouldn’t let him go.
Zhao Da raged. “There is no free wine in the world, what are you going to give me in exchange?”
Doorman, “I have nothing to exchange with, how about I let you in to watch a play?”
Zhao Da looked at the pitch black opera house, he laughed coldly. “It’s already late in the night, all the actors have gone home to sleep, what play would I be watching?”
The doorman laughed mischievously. “You can watch a play at any time, you’ll see after you come in.”
Zhao Da was intoxicated from drinking, he also thought about the fact that there was only half a tael8 of inferior wine left in the bag, it was not a waste to give it to the other. Thus, he undid the wine bag and tossed it at him. “Alright, let this master go in and have a look.”
He walked into the opera house with swagger, halfway through, he looked back, turning sober in an instant.
He saw that the doorman opened the wine bag but did not drink from it. He put it under his nose instead, sniffing it repeatedly. It made the doorman look like someone who could not eat food from the mortal realm, he could only sniff the aroma of the wine, sniff the aroma of offerings, sniff the smoke of the joss sticks people lit, the strange scene made Zhao Da’s legs lose a bit of strength.
At this time, the interior of the opera house lit up.
Lights illuminated masks upon masks, groups of masked people sang and played instruments. Within the gradually opening curtains, a woman’s singing voice rang out, “Under the Mawei Slope he searched in the mud, but failed to find any trace where she shed her blood….”9
Zhao Da, he transmigrated as Yang Guifei.10
He died soon after and returned. Furthermore, he started to like wearing women’s clothes, soaking in hot springs and eating lychee, he very quickly could not stand the poverty of his family. He brought a jar of wine and went looking for the doorman.
This happened on a number of occasions. The doorman let Zhao Da enter the opera house without a ticket numerous times.
Finally, one day when Zhao Da entered, what welcomed him in the opera house were not the familiar masked people, the pleasant sounds of flutes and pipas.11
It was but a cold voice from behind the curtains, “You snuck in.”
Upon finishing the story, Ning Ning closed the folder and went into a daze. She closed her eyes and sighed. “So that’s what happened on the matter of sneaking in.”
Zhao Da who was happy to be Yang Guifei, along with a certain doorman, worked together to enact a story that could be described as a comedy and a tragedy, explaining the origins of the punishment of ‘sneaking in’ to Ning Ning, along with…
1Longjing tea sometimes called by its literal translated name Dragon Well tea, is a variety of pan-roasted green tea from the area of Longjing Village in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. It is produced mostly by hand and renowned for its high quality, earning it the China Famous Tea title. Wiki Article
2Along the River During the Qingming Festival, also known by its Chinese name as the Qingming Shanghe Tu is a painting by the Song dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). Wiki Article
3The Ming dynasty officially the Great Ming, was the ruling dynasty of China from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Wiki Article
4Traditional Chinese characters are Chinese characters, of any character set, that were created before 1946, later creations being designated simplified Chinese characters. Wiki Article
5Jiangxi is a landlocked province in the east of the People’s Republic of China. Its capital and largest city is Nanchang. Wiki article
6Kaifeng is a prefecture-level city in east-central Henan province, China. It is one of the Eight Ancient Capitals of China, having been the capital seven times in history, and is best known for being the Chinese capital in the Northern Song dynasty. Wiki article
7The Qing dynasty, officially the Great Qing, was the last imperial dynasty of China. It was established in 1636, and ruled Inner China from 1644 to 1912. It was preceded by the Ming dynasty and succeeded by the Republic of China. The multiethnic Qing empire lasted for almost three centuries and formed the territorial base for modern China. It was the fourth largest empire in world history in terms of territorial size. Wiki article
8Tael here refers to the Chinese tael, since 1959 standardized to 50 gram and a part of the Chinese system of weights and currency. Wiki article
9Chang Hen Ge (“Song of Everlasting Regret”) is a literary masterpiece from the Tang dynasty by the famous Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772-846). It retells the love story between Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and his favorite concubine Yang Guifei (719-756). Wiki article
10Yang Yuhuan ( 719 — 15 July 756), often known as Yang Guifei (with Guifei being the highest rank for imperial consorts during her time), and known briefly by the Taoist nun name Taizhen was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during his later years. She is known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Wiki article
11The pipa is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments. Sometimes called the “Chinese lute“, the instrument has a pear-shaped wooden body with a varying number of frets ranging from 12 to 31. Wiki article