I am standing in the shadows of a dimly lit backstage area made of wooden planks, where a middle aged gentleman sits before a cracked mirror, slowly transforming himself into a beautiful woman. The process is mesmerizing and painfully slow. Paints, powders, and lots of mirror gazing time is involved, in a process that can take several hours, as the actor makes his change to another gender and personality. For how elaborate the ritual is, one would think I’d be watching a tour de force performance at the Met, but this is only the dusty backstage of a simple stage setup, constructed in a small Chinese temple in a dead end alleyway in the bowels of Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Bangkok’s Chinese opera has long been a colorful staple of Bangkok life. The Teochew Chinese, who immigrated to Thailand in the 19th Century, brought along the ngiew, as the opera was called, with them as part of their cultural traditions. The ancient art form, combining literature and musical performance, is one of the oldest performance arts in the world, with roots going back to the Tang Dynasty, and the regular performances at venues along Yaowarat Road drew huge crowds, perhaps filling an entertainment niche somewhat akin to that of today’s television soap opera, albeit with a far more perfected and enthralling live performance.

I am standing in the shadows of a dimly lit backstage area made of wooden planks, where a middle aged gentleman sits before a cracked mirror, slowly transforming himself into a beautiful woman. The process is mesmerizing and painfully slow. Paints, powders, and lots of mirror gazing time is involved, in a process that can take several hours, as the actor makes his change to another gender and personality. For how elaborate the ritual is, one would think I’d be watching a tour de force performance at the Met, but this is only the dusty backstage of a simple stage setup, constructed in a small Chinese temple in a dead end alleyway in the bowels of Bangkok’s Chinatown. Bangkok’s Chinese opera has long been a colorful staple of Bangkok life. The Teochew Chinese, who immigrated to Thailand in the 19th Century, brought along the ngiew, as the opera was called, with them as part of their cultural traditions. The ancient art form, combining literature and musical performance, is one of the oldest performance arts in the world, with roots going back to the Tang Dynasty, and the regular performances at venues along Yaowarat Road drew huge crowds, perhaps filling an entertainment niche somewhat akin to that of today’s television soap opera, albeit with a far more perfected and enthralling live performance.
Chinese opera performer prepares for a performance at the Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok, Thailand

The operas are an extremely visual affair, with an astounding attention to detail being a vital part of the show. The performers use masks and highly exaggerated facial painting to illustrate their roles and show off character. Different colors represent different emotions or traits. Red stands for bravery and loyalty, while green shows impulsiveness or lack of control. Black faces show fierceness, and white shows evil, worn by the main villain in each performance. Additionally, lines painted on the face also have symbolic meaning. For example, a character with white lines around the nose is nowhere near as malevolent as someone whose entire face has been marked with white stripes.

Yet just as Bangkok’s traditional way of life continues to be ever encroached by an endless sea of condominiums and shopping malls, so is today’s Chinese opera. The arrival of video and then DVD, the internet, and of more affluence and forms of entertainment, not to mention a younger generation who can’t understand Chinese, has relegated the cultural art to that of a sideshow, now found in back streets and alleyways only during Chinese holidays and festivals. Many of the old ngiew theatres were converted into cinemas or just left to ruin, and the performances themselves faced dwindling audiences comprised mainly of the elderly.

Chinese opera performer prepares for a performance at the Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok, Thailand

Even the performers themselves have changed. Traditionally, all the members of opera troupes were ethnic Chinese, with performances by girls, who began training with the troupes as small children. But as other professions and businesses became more lucrative and accessible to the Chinese community, all of the sudden there was a demand for actors and actresses lacking any of the glamour or pay of regular theatre. This niche has been filled by natives from Isaan in Thailand’s northeast. The Isaan performers not only take on stage roles, but also serve as musicians as well as positions in troupe maintenance, such as cook, seamstress, or stagehand. The performers do not need to speak Chinese, but just need to memorize the words to their respective roles. Of the thirty odd opera troupes in Thailand today, less than 25% of them are composed of Chinese performers.

The salaries are paltry and the work is demanding. An entire troupe, comprised of some thirty plus members, can earn about 25,000 baht ($800) per night for a performance, but when you figure in transportation costs, the elaborate costumes, and other miscellaneous expenses, there isn’t much left for personal salaries. Ms. Gern, an older performer, told me she earned around 9,000 baht a month, which she said used to be enough to send 2-3,000 back home to her family. But with recent inflation, she said she couldn’t send more than 500 baht, and often nothing at all.

Yet despite the hard life, one that involves picking up and moving every several days and even sleeping in hammocks below the makeshift stages, not all is doom and gloom in the Chinese opera world. Troupe managers, instead of trying to sell their performances as entertainment, have gone to a new strategy. As Chinese communities tend to have strong beliefs in ghosts and the need for protection from bad fortune by guardian spirits, new buildings and businesses do not spring up without the building of a shrine which is worshipped daily. And with 15-20,000 sacred shrines all over Thailand (not to mention Malaysia and Singapore), Chinese opera has found a new market. There is a constant need to perform special merit making ceremonies at each shrine annually, and thus the troupes are called in and the performance is done for the deities protecting the shrine rather than the audiences themselves.

Chinese opera performer prepares for a performance at the Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok, Thailand

Other developments in the field have also been positive. Ampan Jarensuklab, a Thai playwright who has devoted much of his life to preserving Chinese opera, has been successful at getting Thai language infused into many of the opera performances, making them accessible to a far wider audience. Jarensuklab says that these days, most shrines asking for a performance request that it be in Thai, and they are willing to pay more for this as well. Add to this an effort to reach out on the internet via Facebook and other social media to try and market Chinese opera as a worthwhile colorful spectacle that might actually be worth a fun night out and one can see that perhaps all is not lost.

The performers themselves remain upbeat. Lek, a young performer from Nakhon Ratchasima in Isaan, told me that he was thrilled to get to travel and see a lot of his country, and that he was proud of his work, citing a adage amongst actors that “one minute’s performance takes ten years of practice.” One famous Isaan actor, Som Nujklang, went from earning one baht a day as a boy to eventually becoming a troupe manager several decades later, so there is example and incentive to keep the actors and actresses striving.

But perhaps most importantly, the opera troupes see themselves performing on a higher plane. While some Thais may look down on the performers, seeing them as rather itinerant gypsies, the troupe members don’t really mind. As one older female member remarked, “I know it is a dying art. The audience is dwindling. But our performances are meant for the gods and ghosts.” With such a distinguished audience, they have all the more reason to get their roles just perfect.

Where To See Chinese Opera:

Opera performances take place around Chinese New Year and during the annual Vegetarian Festival, but also at local shrines throughout the year. During holiday times, a walk around Chinatown’s Yaowarat will usually reveal several performances. There is usually a performance set up behind the main Chinatown temple of Wat Mangkon Kamalawat on Pom Prap Sattru Phai as well as at the small temple on the Chao Phraya River accessed from Charoen Krung Soi 20. Alternatively, contact local shrines and have a look at the Thai Chinese opera website, www.ngiew.com

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Dave Stamboulis is a travel writer and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos, represented by Alamy and Getty Images, have appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of Odysseus’ Last Stand, which received the Silver Medal for Travel Book of the Year in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers. In addition to working as the updating writer for Fodor’s Guidebook to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, he is the “Bangkok expert” for USA Today’s 10Best website, and a regular contributor for publications throughout Southeast Asia such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines), Asian Geographic, International Traveller (Australia), Virgin Voyeur, Tiger Tales (Tiger Air), Bangkok 101, Look East, Tropical Magazine, Get Lost (Australia), Sawasdee Thai Air, and Bangkok Post among others.

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