Amazed by the beauty of puppet theater, Dutchman Robin Ruizendaal has devoted himself to studying Asian — particularly Taiwanese — puppet theater and is now the director of the Lin Liu-hsin Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei.
“I’ve always been interested in drama in general since I was little. I wrote scripts and directed some plays when I was a university student,” Ruizendaal said in Mandarin during an interview on Sept. 4 in his office at the museum.
Surrounding him were shelves of books on puppet theater, the making of puppets, drama, posters featuring puppet theater performances from different parts of the world, trophies, certificates of gratitude — and a few puppets.
“So, I’ve read about puppet theater in Asia long ago in books, but when I saw real-life performances in China’s Fujian Province, I was totally amazed and overwhelmed by its beauty,” he said.
Having received a master’s degree in Sinology in his native Netherlands, Ruizendaal went on to study Chinese at Xiamen University in China in 1986.
It was in Xiamen that Ruizendaal first saw live performances of Hokkien puppet theater, which is a close relative of Taiwan’s budaixi (布袋戲).
Bringing home with him the interest he developed for puppet theater in China, Ruizendaal returned in 1991 to the Netherlands where he entered the doctoral program at Leiden University and specialized in Chinese marionette theater.
“Actually, besides being amazed by puppet theater performances, a key reason that motivated me to study puppet theater is that there was not a lot of research done in the area,” Ruizendaal said. “Most people like operas, musicals and dramas, but not so much puppet theater, so I consider puppet theater a minority culture, and I always care more about minority cultures.”
Although he made most of his discoveries about puppet theater in China, life brought him back across the Taiwan Strait to the country he visited for a few months in 1991.
“I came to Taiwan in 1993 originally to help organize a puppet theater festival,” but ended up staying in the country, Ruizendaal said.
Today, Ruizendaal is the head of a leading puppet theater museum in Taiwan and its puppet theater troupe.
The museum is suitably located on the west end of Taipei in an area known as Dadaocheng (大稻埕).
With its harbor on the bank of the Tamsui River (淡水河), Dadaocheng was a busy trading port during the Qing Dynasty and Japanese colonial period.
A centuries-old temple and a busy commercial street with storefronts and houses of the country’s leading traders — built during the Japanese colonial period — are found near the museum, which was founded to preserve the puppet theater culture.
“We keep over 8,000 items relating to puppet theater in the museum. Some of the puppets in our museum are over a hundred years old,” Ruizendaal said.
“We often go to antique shops searching for puppets, and, as we’ve established our reputation, some antique dealers would come to us when they acquire antique puppets,” he said.
In fact, the museum is more than just a museum; it also has a troupe that performs Taiwanese budaixi around the world.
“We’ve been to Europe, North and Latin America and neighboring Asian countries to perform — in fact, we will be representing Taipei in a performance art festival in Seoul, South Korea,” Ruizendaal said. “Such tours are great opportunities for us to exchange puppets with troupes in other countries and expand our collection.”
Besides performances by the museum’s troupe, it often invites other professional troupes to perform at the museum.
“On every Saturday this month, we have puppet masters from the well-respected Xiaoxiyuan (小西園) troupe to show off their amazing skill in performing kung-fu scenes with glove puppets,” he said.
The museum also makes their own puppets.
On the second floor of the museum’s office, there is a room with a table on which the museum’s own craftsman works on the heads of puppets.
Traditional Taiwanese budaixi glove puppets consist of a body made with cloth, while the head, hands and feet are made with wood.
“Here’s an unfinished head of [Frederic] Chopin — we’re invited to perform a story of Chopin with puppet glove,” Ruizendaal said, holding an unfinished and uncolored wooden figure.
On the table, there were several print-out portraits of Chopin.
In another small room on the left of the visitor’s entrance to the museum, several people were busy working on puppets’ clothes using a tailor machine, scissors and sewing needles.
“I would call this an amazing success,” Ruizendaal said.
“It’s a success, but it would’ve been perfect if we were not always short of funds,” he said, laughing.
At the moment, the museum runs on income from ticket sales and performances, government subsidies and corporate sponsorship.
“Corporate sponsorship is a big part of our income because we don’t have that many visitors, and cultural organizations like us seem to be less favored by the government,” he said. “But in any case, I think puppet theater in Taiwan has passed the endangered phase, and the development is somewhat stable now.”
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