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Funny about that hutong

Publication Date : 19-08-2012


Prophets, prostitutes and spies are all in a day's work as a comic tour guide combines improv with Chinese history.

Jeffrey Schwab gestures for his tour group to stay to one side of the alleyway as a wagon stacked with propane tanks eases by. "Look out, explosive gas!" he warns, tongue in cheek.

Once the wagon turns the corner, he turns his attention to more temporal matters. "Before we leave, does anyone need to use the bathroom? Because all the restrooms along the way will be time portals I disappear into."

Schwab, 32, leads groups of Beijing's curious on tours of the city's hutong - the network of tile-roofed courtyard houses that are slowly giving way to modern buildings.

The tours, like almost everything in Schwab's life, are never safe from his imagination.

He mixes humour with theatre and historical fact as he guides groups through Beijing's celebrated residential mazes, slipping into public restrooms along the way to change costumes and characters.

This tour - called "Prostitutes, Prophets and Spies" - features three ill-fated figures of Chinese history telling their stories from a first-person perspective.

Schwab developed the tour with The Hutong, a local cultural exchange centre. He says the tours are constantly evolving.

"I'll find little bits of information here and there from books I'm reading," he says. "And the people you bump into in the hutong are always very forthcoming."

His favourite character to impersonate is Wu Sangui, the military general commonly credited with helping dismantle the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In this role, Schwab hardens his voice, swats air at his face with a fan, and shoots the occasional salute to curious passers-by.

Schwab says Wu, like his other characters, isn't black-and-white.

"Was he really a traitor, or was he not?" he says. "I think these characters are so up to interpretation. The way they write history books is just one interpretation."

Schwab, an improv comedy enthusiast and amateur thespian, says his background simply wouldn't allow him to run a typical hutong tour.

"I figured I could just give out information on the tour, but that always feels a little strange. Being this white guy talking about Chinese history, I feel like I need to do something a little different," he says. "I figured I'd just be the characters and just have fun with it."

Erin Henshaw, one of Schwab's colleagues at The Hutong, says Schwab's personality shines through on the tours.

"His tours are very animated," she says. "He puts a lot of effort into research and presentation, and his love of Chinese culture and history really shows."

Henshaw says Schwab's ability to speak Chinese sets him apart from other tour guides. "He's able to investigate parts of Chinese history that are usually hidden to foreigners."

Thinking beyond the hutong, Schwab has led groups to Inner Mongolia, and he hopes to develop a tour of the Forbidden City. Ultimately, Schwab wants to lead tours between the US and China, especially to Jiangxi province, where he once taught English.

"I often went to visit many of my students during the weekends in their cities and towns, and I was so overwhelmed by the hospitality I received wherever I would go in Jiangxi," he says. "It would be an amazing experience for any traveller."

Jiangxi province isn't a major tourism destination for Westerners, says Schwab, "But there are some amazing sites: Jingdezhen, the capital of Chinese pottery and Lushan Mountain, which is a very impressive mountain often noted in Tang Dynasty poetry."

Schwab came to Beijing in 2008, and says travel, like laughter, has always played a role in his life.

"Every summer, as soon as it got hot, my family would just drive in a van out to Colorado," he says. "And when I was 2, we lived in France for a year because my Dad was a professor."

"I remember doing improv with my brother when I was a kid," he says. "In college I joined an improv group, and afterwards I lived in Portland and started an improv group there."

He says a bit of truth goes a long way when performing comedy.

"If you're truthful, you'll be funny," he says. "Usually when you laugh the most, it's when someone is just being truthful."

His journey into the world of Chinese improv comedy started when he chanced upon an advertisement for Beijing Improv, a local improvised theatre group. Schwab began going to the group's shows and workshops, and now he's one of Beijing Improv's only comedians to perform in both English and Chinese, despite having little formal Chinese language education.

"It's a lot of guesswork," he says. "It helps your Chinese because you have to think on the spot."

Lottie Dowling, co-founder of Beijing Improv, says Schwab has an affinity for the comically absurd.

"He's always staying positive, performs bilingually, and knows enough about improv to teach at our workshops," she says.

For Schwab, it doesn't matter in what direction you're going in life, only that you keep putting one foot in front of the other, much like in improv.

"You're living in the now when you're doing improv. You're not thinking about what's going to happen next," he says. "It creates this immediate, positive gratification. It's like walking backwards because you have no idea where you're going."


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