Sun, Dec 27, 2015 - Page 12 News List

The master of puppets

Pioneering puppeteer Huang Hai-dai brought Taiwanese puppetry to new heights and his legacy lives on in his descendants

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Huang Hai-dai enjoying a performance by one of his disciples in 2001.

Photo courtesy of Pili International Multimedia

Taiwan in Time: Dec. 28 to Jan. 3

The moment the Japanese police left the scene to drink elsewhere, Huang Hai-dai (黃海岱) knew it was his time to shine.

The legendary puppet master dropped the kimonos and Japanese soundtracks, brought out the hidden traditional gongs and drums while the audience waited in anticipation for what they really came to watch.

With people keeping an eye on the theater entrance in case the police came back, the performance continued late into the night. If caught, Huang’s troupe would be accused of staging a private show and might even be beaten and having its license suspended.

It was the late 1930s and Japanese invasion of China was in full swing. The new imperialist policy in Taiwan was to “Japanize” the population and eradicate local culture, including the puppet shows.

Because the shows were such an integral part of local culture — especially those staged during various holidays to celebrate the gods — the Japanese decided to keep a few troupes around to avoid public fury.

Huang’s Wuzhouyuan (五洲園) was one of them, but they could only stage government-approved productions with the puppets wearing Japanese garb performing to Japanese or Western tunes. The actors were allowed to speak Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), but it had to be peppered with Japanese phrases. All traditional instruments were banned.

Huang only complied when the Japanese were around. Born on Jan. 2, 1901 in today’s Yunlin County, he was a proud student of Han-Chinese culture. His father, also a puppeteer, didn’t have money to send him to Japanese school, so he would travel every day to learn from a Taiwanese teacher. There, he read literary classics and became familiar with the heroic and historic novels that would later become the basis of his work.

Huang took over his father’s troupe at the age of 24 and renamed it Wuzhouyuan, with zhou referring to an administrative district during the Japanese era.

His ambition was clear here — his goal was to be known throughout all five zhou in Taiwan. His group started out with shows depicting the solving of famous legal cases, and later started putting on adaptations of martial arts novels, which were much more fast-paced and entertaining than the audience was used to. He also stood out because he was able to write his own scripts.

Life was frequently on the road, with an annual trip to Tainan during Ghost Month to perform daily shows to appease the gods for two months straight. He also had precise control of his nasal cavity, lips, teeth, tongue, throat and dantian (丹田, energy center) in order to accurately personify characters of any gender, disposition and age — to the point that he said even a blind person could enjoy the show.

His son, Huang Feng-shih (黃逢時) says in a biography that his father believed that puppetry could inspire people and bring culture to the masses, thus his shows always had elements of “good against evil, loyal against cunning as well as the chivalrous spirit and tender heart (of martial arts heroes).”

Huang’s troupe enjoyed huge popularity after the Japanese defeat, but he slowly retreated behind the scenes, leaving the big stage to his sons and many disciples.

His most famous creation is perhaps Shih Yan-yun (史炎雲), who appeared in his show Anthology of the Loyal, Brave, Filial and Righteous (忠勇孝義傳), adapted from a Qing Dynasty book that was banned during the Japanese era.

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