Born into a well-off family only to later fall into poverty, Chen Ming-shan (陳明山) has worked hard to become a master at hand-painting traditional puppet theater stages and backgrounds, as well as earn a living for his family. With his younger days behind him, the one thing he now has in mind is passing on the tradition.
“I was born into a well-off family and I did well in elementary school, but I never imagined that I would become a stage painter when I was a kid,” Chen said during an interview with the Taipei Times at his workshop amid rice paddies in Sikou Township (溪口), Chiayi County.
In his workshop are carpentry tools, large cans of paint, completed or half--finished puppet theater stage pieces, photos with celebrities, certificates of appreciation and numberous awards.
Chen is one of the very few people who still hand-paints stages for puppet theaters and he has clients all around the country. In fact, his work extends to much more than just the puppet theater stage, as he also paints traditional Taiwanese opera stages known as yige (藝閣) and jiao (醮).
Yige stages are decorated parade floats used for the Lantern Festival or other traditional folk religious festivals, while jiao are stage-like constructions used to decorate areas where religious festivities are held.
Traditionally, both types are decorated with paintings of scenes from myths and images of deities.
At age 60, Chen has worked as a painter for more than four decades. However, he never thought he would become a painter until his family became destitute when he was 14.
Chen said he was shocked when he learned that his family was broke and he would not be able to go to junior-high school despite having passed the entrance exam — which was not common in the countryside where Chen grew up.
“I still have feelings of regret even when I think of it [not having attended junior-high school] now,” Chen said.
After the family lost its money, he was sent by his father to sell meat buns on the streets of Kaohsiung.
“I worked late into the night and I had to wake up early to make the buns, so I often slept about three hours ever night,” he said. “I worked until very late to make sure that I could sell 100 buns and bring back NT$100 to the boss.”
Technically, Chen was entitled to NT$20 out of the NT$100 in sales, but his boss would deduct the cost of a meal and a stall rental charge from his salary, leaving Chen with only NT$12 for his day’s work.
“I would always make sure that I save NT$10 a day, so that I could send home NT$300 at the end of the month,” Chen said.
One way to save the money was to not spend too much on food.
Chen said that he always brought a lunch box with him in the morning, but in the summer, the food would usually go bad by noon.
“I would put on a lot of chili sauce to cover up the sour taste so I could eat the food,” he said.
Chen sold meat buns for about half a year before deciding the job was too harsh and returned home. He worked briefly as a snack vendor at a local movie theater and a duck keeper until he finally became an apprentice with a local stage painter.
“I wanted to learn puppet stage painting because I’ve enjoyed watching puppet theater since I was a kid,” he said, laughing.
However, life as an apprentice was not easy. As an apprentice, Chen did not have to pay tuition, but he was not paid either.