It takes the wildest of imaginations to conjure up a three-faced puppet replete with fire-spitting dragon or a truly scary, monstrous figure with a fearsome fluorescent green and red face. These grotesque and fantastic glove puppets are some of the characters from the decades-old golden light style of puppetry that will perform at A Sparkling Gathering of Heroes — Unparalleled Taiwan Golden Light Puppetry Exhibition (金光閃閃會英雄－台灣金光布袋戲空前大展) that runs through Jan. 14, 2007 at the Puppetry Art Center of Taipei (台北偶戲館).
After the end of WWII, the Japanese colonial-era ban on traditional folk theaters was lifted and local puppetry entered a period of renewed interest, packing large indoor theaters that could easily accommodate 500 to 800 people in the 1950s. The revival of puppet shows proved to be a great commercial success, but fierce competition raged between companies. New plots, characters and innovative techniques and design were developed in order to attract audiences. Against this background Taiwan's golden light style of puppetry emerged.
“In the 1950s when the average monthly salary was only NT$200, our troupe made about NT$700 a day with two performances,” said the legendary leader of the Hsin Hsing Ge Troupe (新興閣掌中劇團), Zong Ren-bi (鍾任壁), reminiscing about the height of the golden light puppetry era.
The advent of television drew audiences away from folk entertainment. The momentum and popularity of puppet-theater gradually waned in the 1970s and troupes have since been limited to touring performances at small outdoor theaters around the island.
Representing one of the most original and vigorous genres of folk art in Taiwan, golden light puppetry took its name from the streams of colorful ribbons that convey each character's grandeur, and the dazzling special lighting effects used to create sparkling fighting scenes. Fireworks, smoke, laser projections and multicolored revolving lights are also common traits of the genre's characteristic gaudiness.
The Taiwanese art form is a hybrid of Eastern and Western styles, ancient and modern. Traditional Han costumes are embroidered with paillettes and lapin to create a post-modern look. Live nanguan (南管) and beiguan (北管) music is played alongside local pop songs and some from Japan and the US. References to Western culture find their most amusing expression with the famous character A Rogue in the Sky (天頂的流氓), a cowboy-like puppet that wears sun-glasses, a neckerchief and cowboy hat.
“Since puppet troupes were scattered and active in different regions, working with local puppet sculptors of different skills, each troupe developed its own puppetry style,” Liao Chao-tang (廖昭堂), leader of Long Hsing Ge Puppet Show Troupe (隆興閣掌中劇團), said.
The exhibition features over 300 puppets from the 1950s to the 1970s and some 200 historical documents, props such as the gunpowder used to produce the sound of explosions during skirmishes and detailed manuscripts of scenarios, voice-overs and plot discussions that were a troupe's best kept treasures.
“I have kept over 2,000 manuscripts, each of them would take more than three hours to perform,” said Zhoung, the 75-year-old puppetry master who has traveled around the world with his troupe.
Apart from the exhibition, seven large-scale puppet shows to be performed by up to 20 personnel from six celebrated glove troupes including Long Hsing Ge, Hsin Hsing Ge, Zhen Wu Zhou (真五州) and Wu Zhou Yuan (五洲園) will take to the stage at an outdoor theater on weekend nights.