Despite being 72 years old, puppeteer Tsai Tsai-shun (蔡財順) is still performing and said that he hoped to continue until he could no longer walk.
Tsai has more than 50 years of experience in Taiwanese glove puppetry, commonly known as budaixi (布袋戲), and is one of a handful of people in Hualien County’s Jian Township (吉安) who can still narrate scenes from memory.
Tsai was recently invited by Tzu Chi University’s Department of Communication Studies to perform with his mini-actors and said he was able to keep the story running as he continued to act out fighting scenes, with the occasional blast of dry ice helping to enhance the simple style of traditional arts.
Tsai said that he has been in love with glove puppetry since he was a youth, and when he was 17 he was taken on as an apprentice in the trade. He then spent over three years on the road learning this unique trade.
Tsai said that he learned his skills when there was no television, but open-air impromptu theaters in rural villages — often located in front of temples — put on Taiwanese Opera and glove puppetry shows. Many times, he added, he would also be hired to perform at ceremonies at temples celebrating the birthdays of various deities.
A witness to the gradual decline of the traditional art of glove puppetry, Tsai said that in the old days a troupe would consist of four or five people, with two moving the puppets, and a narrator.
Thirty years ago, Tsai said, a troupe like that could have commanded NT$7,000 to NT$8,000 per day, which was a good deal of money at the time.
However, the cost to hire a troupe is still the same today. As a result people have quit the profession and the tradition is dying out, Tsai said.
Nowadays troupes usually consist of one or two people who have to take on virtually all the tasks associated with staging a production, with the music and narration delegated to recordings, Tsai said.
Modern technology and diminished wages mean that the art of puppetry is not what it used to be, Tsai said.
Translated by Jake Chung, Staff Writer