They eat, sleep and raise their children beneath the stage floorboards and when dusk falls Thailand’s traveling theaters come to life with ornate costumes, colorful face paint and high-pitched Chinese opera.
It is a generations-old way of life for the nomadic performers who tour venues ranging from sport stadiums to small Chinese shrines in back alleys. However, faced with an uncertain future as the troupes struggle to attract younger audiences, supporters are turning to the Internet to widen their appeal.
“We’ve performed in all corners of the country. We stay three to four days at each place, then we move on,” Annop Promma, 21, told reporters after a recent performance by his 30-person troupe in a temple compound in Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown.
“I love travelling, love having fun. Everywhere I go, I meet new friends. It’s like opening myself to the world,” said Annop, who joined the troupe when he was 12.
When the performance has finished, the troupe members retire to their makeshift homes under the stage, equipped with hammocks and even small tents, illuminated by light bulbs powered by dangling power wires.
“We are nighttime people,” said Chuchart Ongchai, a 40-year-old performer who has been with the troupe for almost three decades. “After performing, I shower, eat, watch TV or movies until three or four in the morning, then I go to sleep and wake up in the late afternoon.”
Their cramped quarters serve as bedroom, living room and dining room, where they feed their children, rest and watch television.
When it is time to move on, they pack up their theater and belongings and hit the road.
With nasal singing about Chinese legends and comedic folktales, period costumes and unique melodies, the crews perform from around dusk until around midnight.
They can earn from 80 to 1,000 baht (US$2.4 to US$31) each per day depending on their roles.
While their nomadic lives are unlikely to bring fame and fortune, they seem content.
“I don’t know what else I can do as now I’m good at performing. I don’t want to start all over again. Doing this, I am already happy,” Chuchart said, who started to work at the age of 13 painting furniture to earn money.
Now he is the main character of the show.
However, these days the traveling troupes find themselves up against more contemporary leisure pursuits such as the lure of shopping malls, raising fears for their future.
About 14 percent of the Thai population is ethnic Chinese.
The number of Thais of Chinese descent who understand the “Teochew” dialect used by the singers is dwindling.
“There are fewer people watching as old generations started to pass away. The new generation is interested in other entertainment,” audience member Jirapat Saetang, 33, said.
“The parents of the new generations do not speak Chinese with them so they do not know it,” she added. “When they [younger people] see the opera with friends, they don’t understand it but they think it’s fun and want to conserve it.”
There are about 20 such opera groups left in Thailand — about three-quarters of the number that entertained theatergoers in the 1980s heyday, according to experts.
In an attempt to keep the traveling theater tradition alive, supporters are turning to Facebook and other Web sites, uploading pictures of the opera in an attempt to reach younger Thais.
“Nowadays, Facebook and computers help Chinese opera to survive,” Annop said.
“People want to see things that are hard to find. Teenagers think it is colorful so they go to see it,” Annop added.
Although other Thais sometimes look down on their wandering lives, the performers feel proud of helping to preserve their culture.
“I don’t think this job is only about dance and show. I think of it as conserving a kind of arts. It is also for entertainment. Thinking like that, I can feel happy,” Annop said.