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Behind the scenes at a musical in Sin City

Teresa Teng’s spirit guides a young man past personal tragedy and towards self-discovery and love

Sometime Danwei contributor Nick Frisch covers music and culture in and around Hong Kong and Greater China. He wrote in with the story behind his Op-Ed published in the Wall Street Journal Asia last Wednesday - A popfest With sugar, and some spice which he filed from the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan.

Demolition: The Musical!

Behind the scenes at Love U Teresa! or, Don’t judge a show by its poster by Nick Frisch

Dongguan's reputation precedes it. Last year in a Shenzhen gym, my buddy’s albino muscle-bound fifty-something workout pal lumbered over. "Yo man, I was in Dongguan last week, it was fucking crazy, they bring out fucking fifty girls and you can fuck whichever ones you want. Fuck, man. Fuck."

"I don't normally hang out with that guy," insisted the friend. "But Dongguan is definitely a den of evil. Once, one of my company's field offices there was besieged by Triads. Nothing but factories, gangsters, fat officials, and whores. Fucking Dongguan." He forgot hideous, speculative real-estate developments.

Flash forward to last week, over pizza in Hong Kong. "You're going to Dongguan? For musical theater?"

No expense spared: a rose-encrusted curtain with light-up text.

Legitimate musical theater, no less. The invitation came from a Beijing acquaintance who took a break from his freelance magic career to work as a bilingual consigliere, shepherding the show's Broadway, Taiwanese, and mainland talents around cultural barriers and into a fruitful collaboration.

I had seen posters for Love U, Teresa! (爱上邓丽君) in the corridors of Hong Kong's metro. It looked like dreck.

But sure, why not? Who doesn't miss squat toilets and slogan-toting red banners? Not to mention being literally the only non-Chinese in the audience. It’s a familiar phenomenon, I thought as they stamped my passport at the Lowu border post: flush with cash but terrified that they lack “culture,” government officials overspend on dubious prestige projects.

Boondoggle, for now: the Tangxia Performing Arts Center, which aspires to become an incubator for Chinese musicals.

Tangxia – a Dongguan subdivision rumored to specialize in blue jeans and Nokia phones – did not disappoint. A “Cultural Plaza” was circled by extravagant government buildings, a sparkling hi-tech library, and the blandly angular Tangxia Performing Arts Center. Signs of normal human habitation – a pulled-noodle joint, say, or karaoke brothel – were a full half-hour walk away along massive avenues. I was ushered into a VIP room with chairs arrayed in a U-shape (why do they always look like that?) for reporters’ chance to interview Li Dun, the producer.

In the hall, one banner hung on the balcony: “Carry out creative and superior performance activities, strengthen grassroots Party-building, firm up the foundations of the Party’s rule, promote ever-faster, ever-better economic and social development of Tangxia!”

Another, slightly more prosaic propaganda effort overhung the stage: “[Dong]guan-produced musical ‘Love U Teresa’ Tangxia Previews.” Scattered scenes were rehearsed and tightened – cooperation seemed cordial between the Broadway types and local talent, but working styles were clearly different. “Can you translate!? Tell him to move forward. Into the light! Into the light! Around the sofa!”

– Pre-demolition and backstage, a Shanghai shikumen home marked chai (拆)

Dozing off in the seats, I was roused by a boom as a Shanghai shikumen (石库门) home crumpled onstage. Production values were clearly high – besides the crumpling building, I saw sections of an airplane fuselage, a boat-shaped bandstand on wheels, a levitating heavenly throne, and some swirly number they called the “purgatory set.”

The whole thing looked hit or miss. At dinner break, the Western talent eschewed canteen food to decamp for steaks and coffees. The magician improvised a rather clever “Moonlight Sonata Represents My Heart” mashup on the coffeehouse piano. And then, it was showtime.

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