Sun, Aug 26, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The puppet master heads west

Lee Tien-lu was about to retire in the 1970s when a French scholar turned his fate around, and for the next two decades he would travel the world promoting his traditional puppet theater

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Lee Tien-lu almost always appeared with his trademark shades.

Photo courtesy of Lee Tien-lu Hand Puppet Historical Museum

Aug. 27 to Sept. 2

After wowing the audiences with a masterful puppet performance, an 82-year-old Lee Tien-lu (李天祿), still wearing his trademark sunglasses and traditional clothes, stepped up to the podium with the help of director Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢).

His biopic, The Puppetmaster, directed by Hou, had just won the Jury Prize at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. In perfect French, Lee said merci to the laughter and applause of the crowd. It was not surprising to those who knew him, as this was his eighth trip to France since 1978.

What’s remarkable is that aside from an trip to Shanghai in 1947, Lee never left Taiwan until the age of 68 as he headed to Hong Kong to perform at a festival. But as he liked to say, his life didn’t begin until he was 70 as he became a frequent international flyer, also making his movie acting debut in in 1986.

“A fortune teller once told my youngest son that the older I got, the further I would travel,” he said in his biography by Tseng Yu-wen (曾郁雯). “He never met me, and didn’t even know my birth date and hour. I was 68 years old and pondering retirement. I thought, how could that be possible?”


Born in 1910, Lee started performing as a child to help his family out. He established the troupe Also Like Life (亦宛然) when he was 22, which endured the banning of Taiwanese traditional arts in 1937 and flourished after the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), even becoming the first puppet troupe to score its own television show in 1962.

Public interest in puppet theater and other folk arts started waning in the 1970s, and Lee started thinking about retirement. But little did he know that his adventure was just about to begin.

“One Frenchman overturned my entire situation,” Lee says.

In 1973, scholar Jacques Pimpaneau paid Lee a visit. Pimpaneau had been teaching French in Hong Kong and developed an intense interest in traditional puppet theater. He was visiting Taiwan for field research, and noted that Lee’s troupe stayed mostly true to the original art form while others were experimenting with modern elements.

The two hit it off, and Pimpaneau asked Lee if he could send some of his students from France to learn from him. The first one to arrive was Jean-Luc Penso, and Lee officially took in two more French disciples after that. Through their connections, for the next few years Lee received students from all over the world. He found it ironic that foreigners were so interested in his art while Taiwanese were not. When someone advised him against taking foreign students, Lee replied, “I’ll teach anyone who wants to learn.”

The trio stayed with Lee on and off until they returned to France in 1977, forming their own puppet troupe, Theatre du Petit Miroir, that helped popularize the art form in Paris.

Lee’s performance in Hong Kong that same year was a huge hit and and received the attention of the international press — but he still carried through with his retirement plans once he returned home.


Once formally retired, Lee had time to travel. Penso invited him to visit France for the first time in August 1978, and Lee finally made the trip after obtaining government permission in late September. Due to a lack of funds, Lee traveled alone, detailing the various mishaps due to communication barriers in his biography. He stayed for more than a month before returning to Taiwan.

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