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As a multimedia reporter, I admit I am occasionally given to bouts of smugness. I may get no respect from the grizzled guardians of old journalism, I tell myself in these moments, but I am the vanguard, the future — the intrepid journalistic do-it-all wading into the torrent of 21st century technology to bring the world a new form of storytelling.
Or not, as it turns out.
This past Saturday was the last official day of China's Spring Festival vacation. To mark the occasion, I went to Ditan Park in the northeast corner of old Beijing to catch the last day of the Spring Festival Temple Fair. The Beijing temple fairs are a Qing Dynasty tradition, revived in recent years, and consist generally in hordes of locals descending on the city's old temple grounds to eat over-priced food, play carnival games and buy loads of useless schlock — like inflatable giraffes, which, for some mystifying reason, were a must-have this year. I went with the vague hope of catching a Beijing Opera performance, which my neighbor told me was available this year. Instead, after 20 minutes jostling my way through the crowds, hands held boxer-like in front of my face to protect myself from the giraffes, I ran into the man pictured above, whose name (according the placard in the picture) is Chen Qihuan and whom I now humbly respect as a professional forebear.
Chen is among the last performers of something called layangpian (拉洋片，or "pulled movies"), one of the "Eight Great Curiosities of Tianqiao" — a genre of traditional entertainment I'd never heard of before but which apparently was quite popular a hundred years ago. The centerpiece of layangpian is a large box with peepholes cut into the front, through which the audience watches a series of slide-mounted paintings manipulated by an invisible pulley system in back. The entire thing is operated by one person, who stands on a stool to the side of the box using one hand to manipulate the pulleys and the other hand to play the cymbals, all while narrating the story in a delightfully crude mixture of song and poetry. In other words, a turn-of-the-century audio slideshow.
My Mandarin wasn't good enough to catch the particulars of the story — something evergreen about the Boxer Rebellion and the effort to cleanse China of foreign devils — but his pitch to the crowd was clear enough: "It can't compare to a modern movie. It's not that entertaining. But it's a hell of a lot cheaper."
I'm thinking seriously of lobbying the GlobalPost editorial board to make that our new slogan. All in favor, please register your support in the comments section below.