Godspeed, Storyteller Guy - An Obituary for Shan Tianfang
Original author: Charles W. Gravelle (BWAXN) 2018-09-13
One cold winter’s night, barely a month after I first arrived in Shenyang, I needed to get a taxi home as the weather had grown too chilly to comfortably walk the distance I needed to go. I climbed into the old, red Volkswagen, gave my directions, and we drove off. Waiting at the first set of lights, the driver turned on the radio. I had expected music, but instead the heavily accented voice of a man narrating a drama joined us. This incorporeal presence was not at all unwelcome; to the contrary, I found myself captivated just by the manner in which he spoke.
It was two days after his death that I first learned Shan Tianfang’s name and saw his face. Do not let it then surprise you to know how sad I felt to hear he had passed away at 83. I had known him and known him well. I never needed to know his name; I could describe him simply as “the storyteller guy” and people knew who I meant; Shan was unparalleled. For decades, his unmistakable voice could be heard telling stories across the Northeast.
There was a sense of peaceful continuity being able to get into a taxi far from home, ride for an hour listening to his voice, pass through a brief interlude of silence, then get inside and find your family listening to the same story. From homes and shops, to parks and plazas, people throughout Shenyang spent their days listening to Shan Tianfang.
Shan himself was no stranger in Shenyang. Born in Yingkow, Shan’s family later lived in Shenyang where his mother regularly put on her own performances at Beishichang. Shan also spent some time at Shenyang’s Northeast University.
I confess that my own Chinese is still insufficient to easily follow his stories, but that doesn’t matter. A friend asked if I could understand Shan Tianfang’s stories and I replied that I could. To demonstrate, I quoted a line from one of my favorite performances:
“砰刷刷刷刷刷刷刷刷嘎嘣!” (Pēng shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā shuā gā bēng!!!)*
His strongly emotional storytelling always made it easy to feel what was happening in the stories despite the language barrier.
*Writers Note: Shan is famous for his frequent and highly energetic use of sound effects