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Traditional Chinese shadow puppets get a new lease of life

 By Charlene Kwan

In a 300-square-foot studio in an industrial building, a man wearing reading glasses is carefully and skillfully cutting a piece of cowhide into the shape of a puppet.

Wong Fai, director of Hong Kong Puppet and Shadow Art Center, is a shadow play maestro in his 60s. He has been fascinated by puppets since he was a boy and began to learn puppetry seriously, with marionettes, when he was 17.

His love of puppetry led the Hong Konger to travel to Hunan in the late 1970s to study shadow play from Tan Degui, an eminent shadow play maestro at the Hunan Puppet and Shadow Art Troupe of China.

Wong returned to Hong Kong as a full-time puppeteer performing at nightclubs and other places of entertainment. In the 1990s, the market for puppet shows shrank and the demand for performances declined. Wong worked as a building surveyor for the next decade or so, treating his art as a part-time job.

Even so, Wong has never lost his enthusiasm for shadow play. In 2000, he decided to devote himself fully to shadow puppetry once again and invited other masters from the mainland to help.

“I think if we let it fade away and no longer have these performances, this culture in Hong Kong, I think it would be a pity,” he says with an unconscious frown.

What inspires and drives Wong to persist is his admiration for the skill of the masters he was apprenticed to who were passionate about performing throughout their lives. “[They were] performing until the last day of their lives and were extremely enthusiastic about this job,” says Wong, adding that their dedication was a lesson that was worth learning.

Wong thinks the best thing about apprenticeships is that apprentices not only learn performing skills from their masters, but also life values. Despite this, he himself does not have any apprentices. “Shadow play requires a lot of time and patience in practising even basic skills,” explains Wong. “Hong Kong people only enjoy things that yield immediate rewards.”

To make shadow play more attractive to the next generation, Wong acknowledges the need to bring it up to date. In 2003, he used a combination of puppets, including marionettes, hand puppets and shadow puppets in a show, striving to make a fresh impression on his audience.

But he says it is difficult for people of his generation to hit upon new ideas. “Our concepts are very traditional, and we do not have broad enough vision,” laughs Wong. “We will have to rely on the younger generation to modernise this art.”

Opportunity came knocking through a Chinese folk art programme run by the Hong Kong Baptist University a few years ago. Wong met Lee Yuk-shan, a student who was willing to help him in his quest.

Lee, now 28, reveals he was not at all fond of shadow play at the beginning. “At first, shadow play gave me an old-fashioned impression, I even felt there was no use working on it any longer,” he says with embarrassment.

Lee decided to inject something new into this traditional art and was inspired by a Michael Jackson concert where the star dances behind an illuminated backdrop much like a puppet in shadow play.

Wong and Lee collaborated to produce their unique shadow play show of Jackson’s Moonwalk.

Lee appreciates the fact that Wong, a member of an older generation, welcomes new ideas. “Master Wong is very nice and willing to adopt new things, very open-minded,” Lee says with a smile.

Moved by his example, Lee is now a part-time shadow play tutor, committed to passing this traditional art to the next generation. To attract children, Lee creates colourful cartoon characters that are new to shadow play. He also uses plastic and tracing paper to make puppets rather than cowhide.

Recently, Lee co-operated with a group of creative and interactive media production students at the Community College of City University to produce an animated film of a shadow play show.

To his surprise, these youngsters soon became fascinated with shadow play. “Its uniqueness lies in the rich body language of the shadow puppets. I cannot imagine how this little thing can make such complex and delicate moves,” 21-year-old Chow Wai-kuen says.

Chow thinks shadow play enables him to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. As a Chinese, he feels he is responsible for preserving and passing on this traditional Chinese art.

Another student, Kurt Ho Chun-hin, was amazed by how many people and how much effort was needed to produce a shadow play show. He thinks the art embodies team spirit. Directors, script writers, puppet-makers, performers and backstage helpers must co-operate to put on a good show.

Ho thinks shadow play has lost its appeal for a new generation due to its outdated image. He suggests using new scripts and music to replace the traditional Chinese opera stories on which shadow play is generally based.

Les Miserables, a novel written years ago, is still popular today and is and being re-enacted on the stage and big screen,” says Ho. “That is probably because they have constant innovations.”

However, innovation does not come easy. The most significant obstacle in producing the shadow play animation was how to blend and balance the traditional art with effects.

The students thought of many new ideas: stop-motion film techniques to produce the animation, modifying the shadow play show from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, and adding colours to the black and white puppets among a wealth of others.

“However, we questioned ourselves many times about whether it would still be shadow play after the new elements were added,” says Ho. “We struggled a lot as we wanted to add modern features but, at the same time, did not want to lose the traditional flavour.”

Besides universities, many secondary schools are also providing shadow play classes as an extra-curricular activity. Catholic Ming Yuen Secondary School is one of them and has invited Wong to be their tutor.

Ng Yuen-ching, a 17-year-old student in the class, admits there were many times when she considered giving up due to the hard work required. She feels especially distressed when she has to practise during holidays or after school while her friends are having fun.

Recalling her experience of performing, Ng says the area behind the screen is very small and crowded. The puppeteers have to hold their arms straight for a long time to keep the puppet in position. “It is extremely tiring and frustrating!” she exclaims.

Despite these hardships, the satisfaction she gets from a completed performance is what keeps her going. “When you hear the applause, you feel all your efforts are worth it,” says Ng, beaming.

Through shadow play, Ng has learned about how to deal with adversity. She thinks her patience, determination and stamina have improved since taking up shadow play practice and performances. “No matter how tired we are, we cannot quit in the middle of the show,” says Ng. “Therefore we learn to persist.”

Another thing that Ng has learnt is tolerance. She used to feel sad and angry when people criticised her performances. As time went by, she gradually learned to turn these negative emotions into the motivation which drives her to improve.

To broaden students’ horizons, Wong invited some of the students to join him on shadow play exchange tours. The exchange tour to Korea was an unforgettable experience for Ng.

On the tour, Ng found the performance style of Chinese shadow play lagged behind that of other countries. Ng thought the other performances were livelier and they had more interaction with the audience. The Chinese shadow plays seemed dull in comparison. On the other hand, she was proud of the intricate skills required in Chinese shadow play.

“We have to practise for much longer which trains our endurance,” says Ng. “The spirit learnt is precious.”

Yau Wing-yan, another student in the class who has been studying shadow play for six years, joined the exchange tour to Russia.

Like Ng, 17-year-old Yau felt proud of Chinese shadow play after the tour. She excitedly describes how people from other countries were amazed by the complexity of the moves she used to control a shadow puppet, especially when she performed challenging moves.

While most of the others consider shadow play to be an interest, Yau is considering becoming a professional shadow play puppeteer. “My academic results are not that good. It would be great if I could work in this field as I have confidence in outperforming others in shadow play,” says Yau. “Most importantly, I do not want to disappoint Master Wong.”

Unfortunately, in today’s society where monetary rewards are considered the ultimate aim, performing arts are rarely treated as a life-long career. This disappoints Wong. “Of course, I still hope more people might treat the traditional arts as their career so that shadow play can be passed on through the generations,” Wong says.

Edited by Kris Lee