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Peking Opera Dress Up!

Even for a city of 14 million, Beijing has too many "what's happening" magazines.  They practically litter tables at the foreign hotel coffee shops, where tourists and local expats eagerly flip through them, looking for the latest and greatest things to do in China's capital.  Unfortunately, no single magazine has a comprehensive events directory, nor would any of them win journalism prizes. 

We nevertheless picked up one of each on our way to breakfast one morning, thinking (like everyone else) that it would be a good way to kill time while we waited to be served.  But this time, instead of sighing as she discarded one magazine after another in search of something interesting, Sharon actually said “This looks fun!".  She pointed to a small article about a place where you can dress up as your favorite Peking Opera character and get your picture taken. 

As anyone who has visited our home knows, we are really into Peking Opera.  Not for the music (which is usually described by Westerners as a symphony of shrieking cats), nor for the rich historical and literary allusions (which are certainly well beyond our limited knowledge of Chinese culture).  For us, the allure of Peking Opera is centered on the costumes and makeup, which make even the most elaborate Western operas seem like high school productions.  The highly stylized painted faces, combined with outlandish headpieces and brightly colored robes, result in an explosion of color and texture that doesn't even need music in order to convey a story.  No wonder Sharon found the idea of dressing up like Peking Opera characters so exciting!

The rest of breakfast flew by as we all imagined what the experience would be like.  When we got back to our room, I called to make an appointment (after frantically flipping through the dictionary to acquire an entire new vocabulary, including the Chinese words for "makeup" and "photo shoot").  Unfortunately, while I got a pretty good understanding of what would happen when we arrived, I failed to get clear directions.  By the time we got there, we were so late that we needed to reschedule for the next day (if you decide to retrace our adventure, be sure to leave enough time.  The studio is pretty hard to find!).

The wait was worth it.  We entered the studio looking like a normal American family on vacation.  I wish I had a picture of exactly what we looked like when we arrived, so that it would be easier to see the transformation.  Instead, I’ll start with our standard family portrait to give you the baseline:


As you can see, we are about as apple pie as they come.  My daughters and I have brown eyes, set in faces sprinkled with freckles; my wife is a blue-eyed vixen with light brown hair.

Three hours after arriving at the studio, we were transformed into a family from the Peking Opera.  I am a King, accompanied by my beautiful Queen, and two lovely Princesses:

Yes, we are the same four people!  If I hadn't gone through the process myself, I would find it that hard to believe.

I won't bore you with the details of exactly how they did it, but feel free to scroll down for snapshots from the afternoon.  If you want to try this yourself when you’re next in Beijing, here are some tips:

Make a reservation, and be sure to show up.  The entire team is exclusively reserved for your party, and if you don't show up they’re out of luck.  The studio is actually very well known in the local Chinese community, so they're not hurting for business (judging from the photos on the walls and in the photo albums, most people go there for beautiful, Opera-inspired wedding portraits).
Plan on spending at least four hours at the studio (three hours for make-up and dressing, one hour for the photo shoot and clean-up).
Bring food and drink if you're going to get hungry or thirsty, as there is no concession stand.
Go with someone who speaks Chinese, since no one on the staff speaks English.  It's not the kind of experience that would be fun if all you could do was pantomime.
You'll likely get makeup on your clothes, so wear a scoop-neck shirt and leave your best togs behind.
If you want to bring children, be sure that they will enjoy the process of being meticulously coiffed.  It's one thing to play dress-up with mommy’s clothes and makeup.  It's entirely different when a professional tells you not to move, and expects you to comply for minutes at a time.
Come with cash.  The prices are fixed, and not open to negotiation.  Believe it or not, we paid about $100 for the entire experience, for all four of us!  The fee includes all of the makeup and costumes, as well as the services of (in our case) two master makeup artists, a gifted photographer, professional lighting, and a shoot coordinator.  This included 20 different shots (we actually ended up getting 21), gorgeous 5 x 7 prints of each shot, and one 8 x 10 enlargement of a shot you select.  More elaborate packages are available with different numbers of shots, and different sized enlargements. 
By default, they shoot with transparency film, and you get the original negatives for each shot (unlike in the US, you actually own the negatives at the end!).  If you would prefer digital files, they can also shoot with their own high-end Canon digital camera; instead of negatives, you get a CD-ROM with your prints.
Here's their contact information, along with a map, scanned from their brochure.  They are located in the northeast quadrant of Beijing, approximately between the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel and the Lido Hotel.

Now, on to the "making of" snapshots, followed by the remaining 20 finished images.  We hope you enjoy looking at them as much as we enjoyed having been taken!


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