Sun, Jul 22, 2001 - Page 17 News List

How a tradition adapted to survive

Traditional Taiwanese puppet theater took on mass media and won, bacoming a legendary success story with Huang Chun-hsiung as its hero

By Robin Ruizendaal  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

It is 3am in a local karaoke club in Huwei, Yunlin County and Huang Chun-hsiung (黃俊雄) is in full swing.

At 68, he dances in step with the girls and sings with gusto. The attending male audience of puppeteers, cameramen and technicians chain-smoke and drink, as they watch Huang with respect. He not only dances and sings better than anyone else, he is also the man who reinvented Taiwanese puppet theater, brought the whole Taiwanese economy to a halt when his popular TV puppet shows were aired in the 1970s and built one of the biggest puppet film studios in the world.

Huang is the only man in Asia who was able to bring a traditional performing art like puppet theater into the mainstream of popular culture. In other Asian countries the vast and important puppet theater heritage now leads a marginal existence as a cultural tradition in need of preservation, while its audience turns en masse to other forms of entertainment.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, traditional puppet theater has been commercialized and televised and is the subject of hundreds of Web sites that go as far as discussing the zodiac signs and blood types of the puppet characters.

Building on Taiwanese identity

The TV puppet stories about roaming martial arts warriors who lead the lives of lonely Byronic heroes refer to the popular Chinese martial arts novel tradition. Yet, because of the creative use of the Taiwanese language and distinct imagery, TV puppetry had become an essential part of Taiwanese identity for several generations of viewers.

The story behind this unique development is that of Huang Chun-hsiung and his family.

Traditional Chinese culture assigned performers to the lowest rungs of society, together with prostitutes and criminals, and were the only people who were forbidden to take part in the imperial exams. Despite this social stigma, theater has always been a refuge for literary and creative minds at the grass-roots level.

Glove puppet theater is the newest branch of the 2,000-year-old Chinese puppet theater tradition, likely starting about 400 years ago in the coastal regions of China. It later developed into an elaborate form of theater with delicately carved puppets and stages, as well as an extensive repertoire and orchestral accompaniment. Despite their low social status, many puppeteers could actually read and write and were often well-versed in the use of the classical Chinese written language.

Huang Chun-hsiung's father, the puppeteer Huang Hai-dai (黃海岱), 103, was born to a family of glove puppeteers at the end of the 19th century and is one of the best examples of the glove puppetry tradition. He is well-known for his calligraphy and is one of the few Taiwanese who still writes beautifully phrased letters with brush and ink. Although he was deeply rooted in tradition, he was always ready to innovate and experiment with the music and the content of the performances.

In the 1950s, it became clear that modern comic strips, music, movies and TV would have an enormous impact on puppet theater. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep young audiences interested in traditional puppet theater shows, and, at present, puppet theater shows are indeed entertainment almost exclusively for pensioners.

Many puppeteers started experimenting with new and larger puppets and other innovations. This form of puppet theater would be known as Golden Ray puppet theater (金光布袋戲) and would develop into one of the most elaborate forms of puppet theater of the past 40 years, with huge, gaudily painted stages, sometimes more than 20m wide, with special lighting effects, fantastic stories, exploding puppets and even striptease puppets.

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