A Longtime Expat reflects on her love for Beijing

A Longtime Expat reflects on her love for Beijing
Beijing Today
April 20, 2012

By Wu Hao

Elyse Ribbons, a radio host at China Radio International, is proud of her Chinese name, Liu Suying. “Su is a middle name meaning simplicity and plainness, related to nature,” she said. “And ying sounds like cherry blossoms but is also related to ‘hero,’ combining delicate and strong.”

Ribbons can be described as delicate and strong, too. She has acted in several Chinese films, and is a director who initiated Cheeky Monkey Theater. She is currently at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts studying peking opera and has plans to pursue a PhD after graduating next year. Ribbons moved to China in 2003 just as SARS was raging and foreigners were evacuating. She had been determined to return to China ever since she first studied here as an exchange student in 2001, when she was learning traditional Chinese concepts about health and medicine. She changed her major to Chinese after her experience in 2001.

“I got a great job in 2003 because most expats went back, so it was a pretty good opportunity,” she said. “My mom is a nurse, so she understood that if you have a strong immunity and know how to keep healthy, there would be no problem.”

Linking two languages

Ribbons decided not to pursue a career in medicine, joking that she was afraid of hurting others by giving them acupuncture (even though it only works if it hurts!). Instead, she turned to acting, something that had interested her ever since she was young. “I thought, I have to learn Chinese opera if I want to learn true Chinese culture and acting, and it might be good for improving my Chinese,” she said. “But later, I became really fascinated by it and fell in love with it. I did it totally out of love and interest.” Ribbons said one has to dig deep into every word and gesture truly experience Chinese opera.

In 2006, she wrote and directed a play, I Heart Beijing, that won her publicity. It was a story about two women, a Chinese and an American living together in Beijing. Afterwards, Ribbons produced six more plays, including Green Eyes on Chinese and Iron Brothers in 2011. A recurring theme throughout is cross-cultural issues. Ribbons addresses these through comedy and dance – more importantly than anything, she wants her audience to laugh.

She is currently working on adapting a Western musical into Chinese and adding peking opera elements, like the erhu, dance, costuming and makeup. “I think the Chinese opera culture is really profound, but few people can understand it,” she said. “I want to present it in a more modern way. It could be modern, like the lines in the Red Lantern.” She made a gesture and sang a line.

This year, Ribbons would also like to do more situational comedy, using settings like bars to illustrate cultural and gender differences. She is also seeking cooperation with online video companies to broadcast her shows to more Chinese audiences.

“Our goal is to communicate with more people,” she said. “We couldn’t earn money through plays, and no one is willing to come to a theater from far away – not to mention traffic jams – but they’ll watch it online. This is how I connect art and profit.” Developing drama in China “The market for plays in Beijing hasn’t been fully developed,” Ribbons said. She said the market is there, but plays and theaters of high quality are hard to find.

She thinks Beijing doesn’t have a suitable place for small plays. The theater is either too small or super large, and the rent is too high as much as 10,000 yuan per night. “Many theaters are too large, so that audiences and actors can’t see each other’s faces,” she said. “That’s quite awkward for the actors because they do it not for making money, but for communicating with the audience. If they can’t see the audience, they will feel empty in their heart.”

The theatergoing culture is also different. In the US, people dress up before heading out to a Broadway play. But here, people are always fighting traffic and rushing. It’s not uncommon to see people enter a theater when the play has already started. “The rhythm is too fast – people don’t have the mood for theater,” Ribbons said. Ribbons said a talented writer in the US can get grants, but in China, writers struggle to make a living and support their family. Many troupes don’t last very long, because they can’t make money.

Ribbons also feels annoyed by China’s custom of overcharge for tickets. They become luxury items that can be given away as gifts, but it prices out ordinary people. A storyteller, Ribbons however, doesn’t regret being in Beijing, citing the city’s excitement and “interesting and distinct culture.”

As for the future, Ribbons hopes to wing it as she goes. “I’m that kind of person who doesn’t like commitment,” she said. She’s been working at China Radio International for the last three years but has never formally signed a contract. “It made me uncomfortable to realize we could be tied together for a long time,” she said. Ribbons said she stays in Beijing because of the inspiration she gets every day and everywhere, and because she has fallen in love with Peking opera. “I’m pretty sure that my whole life will be related to Beijing, but I’m not sure whether I’ll live here most of the time,” she said.

Now she is writing a book of her experiences in China, something like Sanmao’s Story in Sahara. She said she appreciates Sanmao’s simple way of writing about feelings in everyday life. “My dream is to have a house both in Beijing and New York, and continue to create plays and art,” she said.

2 Responses to

  1. 你好啊 says:

    这么好的文章没人顶?

  2. Elyse柳素英 says:

    那你顶了吗? ;)

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