Chinese Opera Revival

The howling sound of Chinese instruments grows louder as I weave my way through the narrow alleys. Passing under dim street lamps, I finally reach the origin. Blazing stage lights, brilliant colours, flashy costumes, dramatic choreography, high-pitched vocals, and the scrambled sound of loud music—this is the grandest show you will ever find on the streets of Bangkok.

Chinese opera first took root in Thailand during the Ayudhaya Period, hundreds of years ago, and peaked under King Rama V, when a wave of Chinese labourers migrated to the country. It was once the most popular form of entertainment. Then came the cinema, television, and iPhone. Today the number of opera troupes has dropped from the hundreds to around 30.

With profits squeezed, opera companies can’t afford to maintain their own theatres. And so, traveling in groups, sleeping in tents like gypsies wherever jobs can be found, they are like a big family living together year-round.

They do their own make-up, each person with his or her own box-table. They chitchat as they help each other get dressed backstage. Life behind the curtain can be as dramatic as the show on stage. And the performances are full-on, no matter how many people are in the audience. The opera is largely financed by wealthy Chinese businesspeople, and shows are staged free of charge.

“We perform for the gods and goddesses,” the actors insist.

Many talented actors are in their 50s, 60s or even 70s. The biggest problem is not lack of audience but lack of replacement performers. Fewer and fewer young people are interested in what they consider to be an old and out-dated art form. Language is also a barrier. The younger generation does not speak their predecessors’ tongue anymore. Nobody really understands what they are saying and singing. Some shows provide subtitles, with Thai or English translations appearing beside the stage. And some companies perform other kinds of shows, like magic, to lure bigger crowds, while others import more expensive actors from China.

Modern technology might be the main culprit in Chinese opera’s setback. Yet despite the challenges, the art form has quietly survived through the years. And it seems now like the table might be turning again. Newer generations are beginning to pay more attention, flocking to makeshift theatres and climbing up backstage with warm welcomes for the actors. They post photographs and videos on social media, in turn luring more people to come.

If you have an opportunity to see a show, it’s well worth your time. Just grab a cold beverage from a nearby grocer, sit back, relax and indulge in the brilliant sights and sounds. You don’t have to understand what they’re saying. Just enjoy the magical sidewalk art that is Chinese opera.

Co-founder of the UNDERDOG.bkk. A story collector/ photographer/ writer/ school skipper/ hitchhiker/ carnival goer. Picking up the camera thirty-something years ago just to "look cool" without any clue it would become a life long journey. The camera opened doors to all aspects of life, high and low, light and darkness, good and evil, joy and sorrow. It's a passport into people's private life, their house, their work, their leisure, their dreams, their struggles. A way of studying life, both in width and in-depth. A way of telling those stories with the most honesty possible.

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