‘We Don’t Perform for People, We Perform for the Gods’

SURFACING | Bangkok Journal

A neighborhood has shaped round Chinese opera in Thailand, preserving certainly one of the oldest dramatic artwork kinds in the world.

BANGKOK — “Anywhere they play in Bangkok, I’ll be there,” stated Warin Nithihiranyakul, 73, a devoted fan of the Sai Yong Hong Chinese Opera troupe for greater than 10 years. While ready for his mates to reach, he helps out by beginning to arrange plastic pink chairs for the viewers to look at the night’s efficiency in an space simply south of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

A devotee of 11 years, Wandee Tengyodwanich, 62, unwraps a number of small plates of Chinese dough sticks and cake, passing them round to her mates in entrance of the stage earlier than the present. She says that Sai Yong Hong is the greatest Chinese opera in Thailand as a result of it invests in very elaborate costumes. She and her mates go to see the group a few occasions a 12 months. They eat and catch up as they reminisce about the first time they noticed Chinese opera as youngsters.

They are a part of a shrinking neighborhood of folks that has shaped round Chinese opera in Thailand. They are preserving a cornerstone of tradition and heritage relationship to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), making it certainly one of the oldest dramatic artwork kinds in the world.

Like a lot of Chinese opera all through the world, the performances are a product of a big Chinese diaspora. Sai Yong Hong is certainly one of about 20 Chinese opera troupes in Thailand. The viewers consists largely of older Thai-Chinese adults, a few of whom take their grandchildren to attach with a cultural reminiscence that has been handed down for generations.

Chinese migration to Thailand will be traced to the 13th century, based on the Minority Rights Group. Today about 14 % of the inhabitants is ethnically Chinese, based on World Population Review, making Thailand the house of certainly one of the world’s largest Chinese communities exterior China.

On a latest afternoon, actors had spent two hours making use of layers of make-up backstage, reworking into gods and goddesses, heroes and villains from Chinese folklore and mythology.

At round 7:30 p.m., the actors and actresses of Sai Yong Hong took the stage and the efficiency started.

The efficiency mixes components of martial arts, singing and dancing, accompanied by music performed on conventional Chinese devices like the hammered dulcimer and the four-stringed pipa. Their scripts are based on Chinese folks tales, however some are variations of Indian motion pictures. They are delivered in Teochew, a dialect originating in Southern China.

The present sends the sound of cymbals crashing by way of the evening, echoing by way of the courtyard till the performances wind down, round midnight.

Sai Yong Hong is certainly one of the best-known troupes in Thailand. It has 34 actors, 5 of whom are from China and the relaxation from Thailand, and, on that evening, about 60 folks attended the efficiency. The supervisor, Tatchai Obthong, 52, stated that when he was youthful a troupe would have about 100 actors and the crowds have been a lot bigger.

“I didn’t like it — it was loud and scary,” he stated of the first time he noticed a Chinese opera as a toddler. Mr. Tatchai, who’s Chinese and Thai, has been in the business since he was 7. His mom had left his father and was fighting a playing dependancy. Having fallen on onerous occasions, she took Obthong, a childhood fan of martial arts motion pictures, to see a Chinese opera efficiency.

At the finish of the evening his mom instructed him that he was going to stick with the troupe. “I was sold by mother for 6,000 baht,” or about $190, he stated.

He remembers that it was onerous for him to adapt as a result of he wasn’t allowed to talk Thai and needed to be taught Teochew, however he shortly realized that to outlive he needed to be taught the craft and the language. He started by serving as a roadie and ultimately went to work with a Chinese opera firm in Singapore, the place he realized extra about the efficiency side, earlier than returning to Thailand, the place he has labored for the previous 12 years.

Performances are free — they’re commissioned by shrines in Bangkok and generally round the nation. “We don’t perform for people, we perform for the gods,” Mr. Tatchai stated. They transport the stage with a six-wheel truck and assemble it at every location the place they carry out. The entire troupe will get paid 20,000 baht (about $640) per evening.

For lots of the actors, the stage is house. “Now it’s a high season, so we travel together all the time,” Mr. Tatchai stated. After the present, some will sleep below the stage or arrange tents close by.

One performer, Somsak Saetae, 62, has been an actor with the group for greater than 10 years. He has been in the business since he was eight and has seen its evolution. “In the past, women couldn’t set foot on the Chinese opera stage, and all the performers were men,” he stated. “Women could not even touch the shrine, only men were allowed; now the whole industry has changed.”

Today even a few of the male roles are performed by ladies, like Malee Saewong, 53, who has been part of this troupe for solely 4 years however has acted in different troupes since she was 14. “I’m outdated now so I get to play male characters, but it surely’s simpler since you don’t have deal with doing all of your hair,” she stated.

Prasong Piewnen, 56, is the group’s prepare dinner and cares for her sleeping grandson after the present. Her husband is a musician and her daughter an actress in the troupe. Ms. Prasong stated that she was used to this lifestyle. “If I stay at home, it’s just too quiet,” she stated.

As the neighborhood ages and audiences dwindle, there’s a worry that the artwork will die out. Performers face unsure futures. Mr. Somsak stated that he needed to proceed performing so long as he might. “In this industry when you retire you just simply say to the gods, ‘You know I’m getting old now, please protect me until the end,’” he stated.

Mr. Tatchai has seen the modifications as effectively, and he stated he thought the business would proceed to get smaller however wouldn’t go away.

“As long as Chinese shrines exist and people continue praying,” he stated, “the Chinese opera will be here.”

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