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That's no cricket, that's a six-legged crooner

Some sing, some fight. Many are pampered. In China, a craze is reborn.

January 13, 2008|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Before the 2nd National Cricket Singing Competition begins, the master of ceremonies issues a stern warning to contestants.

"Don't let your cricket take drugs. Anybody caught cheating will be disqualified."

The performers are lined up in glass bottles that look like big salt shakers. Some have socks around the bottom to keep out the late December chill, because it's well known that cold crickets don't sing. Hovering over the bottles, a judge wields a hand-held sound meter.

In competition, louder is basically better -- one of them tops the chart at 106.3 decibels up close, putting it somewhere between a lawn mower and the roar of an incoming subway train -- but the timbre and resonance is taken into consideration as well.

"There are billions of crickets in the world who can sing, but there is only one Pavarotti," fancier Niu Zhousays over the din.

Crickets are taken very seriously in this city, where the best specimens can cost thousands of dollars. But it's not all about money. Crickets are being rediscovered by young Beijingers eager to appreciate an old and unique part of their own culture. Fanciers here also are organizing cricket fights, and the sponsors of the recent singing contest are planning a competition for the best-looking cricket.

The events are attended by men and women (well, mostly men) who are so impassioned about their hobby that their cellphones literally chirp. The younger generation of cricket lovers share photos of their "babies" over Internet forums.

"Crickets have become a sort of fad," said Li Xuegyan, 29, at the singing contest. "We used to be told that we should love only the party and the country, that we shouldn't have hobbies. Now people like crickets because they are a way to express their individuality."

Li sheepishly opened his overcoat to reveal, tucked away in a warm inner pocket, a gourd-shaped container with his favorite cricket. He carries his pet with him most places.

The Chinese tradition of keeping crickets dates back at least as far as the 7th century Tang dynasty, when it was a favorite pastime of spoiled princelings. After the Communists came to power in 1949, crickets acquired a bad reputation as the playthings of a dissipated elite, and the tradition nearly died out.

"My grandfather used to keep crickets, but my father, who was educated under the Communists, disapproves. He told me keeping crickets would make me corrupt," said Niu, an advertising executive who accompanied Li to the singing contest.

Li and Niu don't fit the expectation one might have of cricket fanciers. They are both tall, well-dressed, sporting longish hair. Niu wears jeans and a leather aviator jacket, all the better to keep his cricket warm, and carries a laptop case (which he is using to carry cricket paraphernalia acquired at the market).

Niu's inspiration to keep crickets came in part from a scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" that shows the boy king Puyi with his pet. Niu says he was turned off by the obsession of his contemporaries with Western culture. He was uninterested in the films, the music and the video games and he wanted a hobby that was distinctly Chinese. And he found the insects fascinating, with their distinctive voice and the intricacy of their pincer-like mandibles and rapidly vibrating wings.

"Can you imagine how cool it would be if Picasso had painted crickets?" he interjected in the middle of an interview.

The cricket lovers are not so much fans as connoisseurs. They mostly are an intellectual bunch. And there is an overlap between this crowd and the fans of Peking opera -- perhaps because the discordant tones of Chinese opera sound to the untrained ear like the chirping insect.

"The instruments we use in Beijing opera were inspired by crickets," said Jia Guoquan, a 62-year-old retiree who served as one of the judges at the singing competition. He says the tone of the best crickets should be sort of a cross between an opera singer and a snorer. "The sound should be deep and majestic."

That's where the doping comes in: The cricket's song is produced by its wings, and an unscrupulous seller sometimes will apply a drug to slow the rate of vibration and lower the pitch.

A singing cricket (the species Gampsocleis gratiosa, usually known as bushcricket or katydid) can command as much as $250 if its voice is pleasant. That price seems especially steep considering that average life span is no more than a few months.

Fighting crickets have sold for as much as $10,000 -- because of their ability to rake in money from gamblers.

But it's not just the cost of crickets that makes this a hobby of the affluent. Fanciers are expected to invest in paraphernalia. And as with dolls, it is really the accessories that are the most interesting.

For housing, there are intricately designed clay pots that can cost hundreds of dollars or graceful hollow gourds.

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