The pulsating beat of the Chinese music blares with militaristic fervor. Xumin Liu, donning a golden headdress and yellow face mask, sweeps across the restaurant, flinging his red cape so fiercely that patrons at Z & Y Restaurant feel like they have to duck or get smacked in the face. The choreography is swift and precise. Upon the swish of his crimson fan, the mask magically changes to blue with a different expression.
This is bian lian or face changing, an ancient art form that started in China’s southwest Sichuan province for the distinctive Sichuan opera more than three centuries ago. And in the United States, this is rarely seen. The instantaneous swapping of masks is deceptive and astonishing, a treasured secret that families would pass down only to heirs. Few can master this feat. It is rumored that entertainers have offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn the trick. The performer wears a multi-layered mask and pulls a trigger hidden in the costume to reveal a new “face.” Each expression indicates a mood of the opera character.
The ancient technique is serious business. Thirty-six-year-old Xumin Liu was trained under bian lian master Shimen Lu more than a decade ago. Master Lu saw his potential when Xumin was entertaining masses at a kung fu tea performance, another revered art form that involves pouring a stream of hot water with a long spouted copper kettle into a tea cup.
When Z & Y Restaurant owner and chef Li Jun Han was looking for a way to showcase the Sichuan culture at his restaurant, he immediately thought of bian lian and convinced Xumin, a native of Sichuan, to come to San Francisco in 2018. On specific days the performer dazzles audiences with his kung fu tea martial arts skills and face changing abilities at Z & Y Restaurant and at Chili House SF, Chef Han’s Peking duck restaurant in the Richmond district.