All Wuzhen’s a stage

An an­nual fes­ti­val with a scenic back­drop hooks China’s young peo­ple on the­ater, Do­minic Mor­gan re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE -

Ay­oung woman is sprawled against a wooden door­way in Wuzhen’s West Scenic Area, sur­rounded by beat-up old suit­cases.

Look­ing art­fully di­sheveled in a tilted wide-brimmed hat, she stares mo­tion­lessly at the ground as a crowd of teenagers rushes to her, cam­eras at the ready.

Is she a per­former or just an or­di­nary fes­ti­val­goer who has failed to find a ho­tel room? No one is sure, but ev­ery­one ex­cit­edly snaps pho­tos any­way.

Scenes like this arecom­mon at the Wuzhen The­ater Fes­ti­val, a be­wil­der­ing Mad Hat­ter’s tea party of an event set in a tiny wa­ter town in Zhe­jiang prov­ince that has be­come a word-of-mouth phe­nom­e­non in China.

Wuzhen’s com­bi­na­tion of beau­ti­ful scenery, in­ter­na­tional line­ups and pop-up street per­for­mances im­me­di­ately strikes a chord with an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of young Chi­nese ur­ban­ites, trans­form­ing the town al­most overnight into one of China’s cul­tural cen­ters.

Nearly 500,000 peo­ple streamed into theWest Scenic Area last month for the fourth an­nual fes­ti­val. Com­pared to most West­ern the­ater events, this au­di­ence is as­ton­ish­ingly young.

More than at­ten­dees are ac­cord­ing to 60 per­cent of un­der age 35, the fes­ti­val’s or­ga­niz­ers, Cul­ture Wuzhen Co. Most come from the first­tier ci­ties of Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Guangzhou and Shen­zhen.

Such is the fes­ti­val’s ap­peal to young Chi­nese that Qiu Ling, vice-gen­eral man­ager of Cul­ture Wuzhen Co, claims the com­pany has cut back sig­nif­i­cantly on ad­ver­tis­ing dur­ing the last two years as on­line buzz and word-of­mouth has done the job.

So what is be­hindWuzhen’s ex­tra­or­di­nary draw­ing power?

Back­ing from such fa­mous stars as di­rec­tor Stan Lai and ac­tor Huang Lei cer­tainly gives Wuzhen cred­i­bil­ity, as do high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional pro­duc­tions like The Tiger Lil­lies Per­form Ham­let on the lineup each year.

How­ever, only around one in 10 of the peo­ple who come to Wuzhen for the fes­ti­val ac­tu­ally buy a ticket for a show.

The ma­jor­ity of the young crowd says that they had not come to see any pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar.

It’s re­ally about the at­mos­phere the fes­ti­val gen­er­ates.

Wuzhen has in­vested huge amounts of money and ef­fort in cre­at­ing this feel.

Chen Xianghong, di­rec­tor of Cul­ture Wuzhen Co and chair­man of the fes­ti­val’s or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, also mas­ter­minded the 1 bil­lion yuan ($147 mil­lion) devel­op­ment of the West Scenic Area dur­ing his term as head of the Wuzhen govern­ment.

In many ways, the area and the fes­ti­val are two parts of the same vi­sion.

The West Scenic Area is of­ten de­scribed as a beau­ti­fully re­stored slice of an­cien­tChina. But Chen’s chal­lenge was to re-cre­ate the town’s past in a way that ap­pealed to the coun­try’s mod­ern youth. In a re­cent in­ter­view, he called it “putting new wine into an old bot­tle”.

The in­te­ri­ors of ev­ery build­ing in the West Scenic Area were fit­ted with mod­ern ameni­ties and free in­ter­net. Mean­while, ev­ery­thing out­side the build­ings was trans­formed into a pic­ture-per­fect vi­sion of an an­cient wa­ter town.

Mod­ern build­ings in the area were torn down, and Wuzhen re­built the rest us­ing tra­di­tional materials sal­vaged from the wreck­age of Shang­hai’s de­mol­ished old neigh­bor­hoods.

A new fil­tra­tion and pu­rifi­ca­tion sys­tem keeps the area’s canals a per­fect shade of jade­green, and mod­ern boats were banned. Even garbage is now trans­ported on tra­di­tion­al­style wooden gon­do­las.

Fi­nally, the West Scenic Area was iso­lated from the more ram­shackle town out­side by high white­washed walls, en­abling Wuzhen to charge a 100-yuan en­trance fee, but also height­en­ing the sense vis­i­tors have in­side the area that they have some­how en­tered a par­al­lel re­al­ity.

The fes­ti­val’s slo­gan plas­tered all over the West Scenic Area’s en­trance­way — “be­yond the real, al­lWuzhen’s a stage”— is al­most lit­eral.

The fes­ti­val fits seam­lessly into this set­ting, its 156 daily street per­for­mances like small plays within a larger play.

“The fes­ti­val is not a tra­di­tional thing. It is away of cul­ti­vat­ing sen­ti­ment,” says Qiu.

For 10 days in Oc­to­ber, all Wuzhen re­ally is a stage.

Con­tact the writer at do­minic_m@ chi­



A pa­rade of street per­for­mances draws the at­ten­tion of a young vis­i­tor dur­ing the Wuzhen The­ater Fes­ti­val in Oc­to­ber.

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