I had been living in Bangkok for more than a year, had walked through all the streets and lanes of China Town and never encountered any troupe of Chinese Opera. But, that day, the sound of drums and cymbals brought me luck and I was instantly captivated by the artists, the atmosphere and the music of a small itinerant group. Here are some images recalling the moments when everyone is focused on his or her make-up.
The exact origins of the Chinese Opera are unclear but seem to date back to the 8th century and the Tang Dynasty. It was introduced in Thailand by early Chinese immigrants and became an integral part of any Thai festivity until the destruction of Ayutthaya by Burma. Later, it appears again during the reign of King Rama I in Bangkok. The King was a great patron of the arts and an artist himself. Another factor was also the huge influx of Chinese immigrants during this period. When, in the late 19th century, the Chinese community was well established, the opera played a very important role even at the Court where princes and princesses established their own company. Later, with a new influx of Chinese immigrants, the opera was adapted to new tastes and lost its support by the Court. It became a popular art.
In Thailand today, there are two types of troupes: troupes invited from China and local traveling troupes. The major difference lies in the quality of the show. In China, where the opera has never been more important and fashionable, the troupes were able to keep a high standard. In Thailand, where Chinese Opera has lost its popularity, local troupes have difficulty to survive and therefore the quality of their performance suffers. In Chinatown there are still around 30 troupes but most of them play only up- country because their repertoire is limited and their wardrobe is faded.
Each company belongs to a boss who usually has 2-3 troupes, sometimes more. The various Chinese communities invite troupes during festivals or religious events; they play 3 nights at the same place and move. Artists receive a fixed salary, about 3000 baht per month for small roles and up to 8000 baht for the major role. Actors of Chinese origin play the main roles and secondary roles are often played by Thai from poor provinces in the north-east.
The theater itself consists of few boards erected on stilts and covered with a tarp for a roof. Below the floor of the stage live a certain number of families in charge of the theater and some of the actors who have no housing anywhere else. Some sheets hanging down from the stage give them a little privacy. Mats are laid on the floor and this is where all the activities take place: sleeping, eating, looking after the children, and preparing for the shows. I spent hours with them, conversing, watching them live, sharing joyful and sad moments. I admired their courage and persistence to make their theater stay alive.
Mornings are quiet, carrying out daily chores, but sometimes also rehearsals take place in order for the young ones to learn their role. In early afternoon, drums, cymbals and gongs begin to play to inform the surroundings of the evening performance. After the hottest hours of the afternoon where everyone rests, the theater starts to wake up, all the actors arrive, works starts and life begins.
I climb the narrow ladder that leads to the upper floor, the stage. The floor is divided into two by the back curtain. Behind the curtain, one can find the makeup and dressing rooms and on the side, the musicians. The back scene is so crowded that I need to make myself tiny to be able to take my photographs. Boxes in each corner, hanging costumes, masks, weapons, feathers, makeup boxes, workers changing the settings, the actors in the process of dressing-up, undressing, applying makeup. All this represents a continuous and incredible movement in a very limited space, surrounded by loud and captivating music. The orchestra includes the Chinese equivalent of our violins, guitars, flutes, gongs, drums and cymbals. In this band, there are only 6 players but harmony is perfect. Percussion players know no moderation and the result is deafening. But, is it not a must to cover the noise of the street and of the traffic of Bangkok ?
Each actor applies his makeup himself, which takes him an hour. He first applies a white mask, then the make-up of the eyes, eyebrows and nose. The colors, as well as how it is applied reveal the nature of the character. At last, he puts the lipstick and takes care of his hairstyle. The men pull their hair back and put them in a headband. Women have very sophisticated long hairstyles. The costumes are very colorful with beautiful embroidery. There is generally a dresser or sometimes actors help each other. All characters have defined costumes; the quality and color of the clothes reflect the social status of the character. In this small theater, many costumes have lost their luster and freshness. Often a dual-pin is set in the folds of a costume to hide a hole. But the public, captivated by the show, will not take any notice of that flaw. When a family goes to the opera, each member already knows the plot of the story. The opera is the language and the art of Chinese people; it is an integral part of their lives. Here the audience is composed of poor Chinese community, mostly elderly and children. Adolescents have abandoned this traditional art for modern entertainment. But, on all the faces, in the public, I read the same wonder, elderlies relive their youth and children discover the enchanting atmosphere of the theater.
The subjects are drawn from classical Chinese literature, fairy tales, folk tales and historical facts of the Tang Dynasty. The show is diverse because it includes music, singing, dialogue, mime and acrobatics. The voices are very high; the dialogue is declaimed with emphasis, rhythm, clarity and strength. Nothing is left out; the smallest movement of the eyes, lips or fingers is significant. Tonight we play the “ Heroic actions of the Lau family” a series of complicated historical events, full of intrigues but good will triumph over evil. The public is spontaneous, laughs easily but is not always attentive and as in all outdoor shows there is a constant back–and-forth.
During the performances, I divide my time between the show, the audience and the backstage. The atmosphere is relaxed, I am well accepted in the troupe and after a few nights, I am part of the decor. Each actor, when he is ready to enter the scene, asks me to take a picture. These images will later adorn their make-up boxes and they show them with pride.
Subsequently, I had the privilege to attend performances of the opera of Shanghai and Beijing. There, I also shared the life of the actors backstage. I was impressed by the splendor, the rich costumes, and the quality of the show. But, despite all this, I have not felt the same enthusiasm I had experienced with the small itinerant troupes of Thailand. These people have kept spontaneity, simplicity and warmth that famous people have lost. For the small troupes, the theater is their life, they fight for it. Their intensity and strength made me attracted to them and appreciate their true value.
Today, for most people, small touring companies in Thailand no longer have any interest in comparison with professional Chinese troupes. But, for me, they perpetuate a tradition that allows disadvantaged social classes to escape through a surprising art. Probably in a few years it will not be possible to find any touring company throughout Chinatown Bangkok. Chinese opera certainly will survive in Thailand but, only through renowned Chinese troupes passing through the city. And, once again, a legacy will be gone.