Chiang Tse-mei (江賜美) has become one of the most renowned female performers in the puppet theater tradition known as budaixi (布袋戲) through her keen sense of observation and diligent practice, despite not having been officially apprenticed by any known masters or part of a renowned troupe.
Chiang said that her great-grandfather, who was a practitioner of divination, once predicted she would do a job that was done more by men than women, but if she endured the hardships in the beginning, then she would go far in the industry.
Her father worked in a puppetry troupe as a musician and because of the demand for puppetry — often to the level where the troupe was short of staff, especially on big occasions, such as Matsu’s (媽祖) birthday — he would sometimes take her along as an pair of extra hands.
The experience started Chiang in the trade.
“I was not willing at first; my dad had to force me to go along,” Chiang said, adding that her father’s serious nature left no room for argument.
Chiang said her reticence had been fed by comments from older people who said puppetry was a hard business, but she was forced onto the path.
Despite reservations about the job, Chiang said she did not find anything too difficult and she would remember everything she had to do the moment she took up the puppets.
Quite unexpectedly, the appearance of a small girl in the troupe, usually full of men, drew the attention of many in the audience. Since her first appearance with the Ji Yi Yuan troupe under Chou Kun-jung (周坤榮), a renowned puppetry troupe from Nantou County, Chiang’s name spread.
By the time she was 16 years old, Chiang had made enough of a name for herself that her father applied for the establishment of a puppetry troupe in her name to take advantage of the novelty of a group with a female leader.
When Chiang turned 35, she uprooted her family and relocated to northern Taiwan, along with a large number of people in the troupe.
“I did not want to get into puppetry and used to go to performances in tears during my childhood. I never thought I would stay in the troupe for so long. I have even raised six children with income from the troupe,” Chiang said.
“Even after the troupe’s relocation, we still had good business,” she said.
After a performance at Houtong Train Station in Ruifang District (瑞芳), New Taipei City, Chiang said she woke up in the middle of the night and saw a long line of bobbing torches moving along a mountain path.
“Asking around the next day, we found out that it was people returning home after walking all the way to Houtong to watch the show,” Chiang said.
The trade was hard, and perhaps the hardest moment in all her years was performing close to the times when her children were due, Chiang said, adding that the business held a charm that made it difficult to leave.