Keeping Chinese Opera alive in Thailand
Interest in Chinese opera has waned, but for this travelling troupe in Thailand, the show must go on...
With Chinese New Year kicking off next week, the nomadic Lau San Chia Soon troupe from Thailand, who pitch their stage wherever they are invited, are expecting a particularly busy few days.
But this eye-catching form of musical theatre is struggling as younger generations of Thais look for entertainment elsewhere.
The performers want desperately to reverse this trend.
"The history of Chinese opera is getting forgotten and is vanishing as new generations don't really know much about it," 25-year-old Natnicha Saeung, who began performing with this troupe at the age of 13, told AFP at a recent performance in Nakhon Pathom, a province to the west of Bangkok.
Her fellow artist, Mr Chukiat Thippan, 23, agreed.
"There are not many people watching Chinese operas now," he told AFP behind a hastily erected temporary stage.
"Some of the older Thai-Chinese people passed away and the new generations don't really continue the tradition."
About 14 per cent of the Thai population is ethnic Chinese, following centuries of immigration and assimilation.
Many more have Chinese roots among their forebears.
But the number of Thais of Chinese descent who understand the Teochew dialect used by this group of singers is dwindling.
There was a time when nomadic Chinese opera troupes like this were a common feature of the Thai landscape, travelling from village to village and bringing the entertaining sights and sounds of a tradition that dates back centuries.
Mr Mangkorn Supongpan, 62, whose parents founded Lau San Chia Soon, said there are now fewer than 20 mobile groups like his travelling across Thailand.
He admitted that it is hard to attract people to the lifestyle. Performers bring up their children, eat and sleep beneath the stage and every few days, they pack it and all their belongings up to move to a new venue.
"It's a hard life because we barely go back home. We perform all year long, non-stop," he said.
And few will see riches.
The average monthly wage for a performer is between 10,000 baht and 20,000 baht (S$390 to S$790), depending on his or her role.
Most communities that invite opera troupes to perform do it more as a way to honour ancestors than to entertain the masses.
But some of the largely elderly crowd who watched the performance that night hoped that younger generations might be inspired to give Chinese opera a try.
"People now stay home and watch TV," said Mr Prasit Puthiprapa, a sprightly 81-year-old.
"But watching Chinese opera is like watching movies and soap operas, it's good fun especially when you pay attention to it," he added, somewhat admonishingly.
At the start of the show, shortly after dusk, dozens sit on plastic chairs watching the drama unfold.
But by the time it wraps up around midnight, just a solitary audience member and a street dog remain.
The troupe aren't bothered though. By morning, the stage will be gone and they'll be off to the next village.