Sunday, March 11, 2007

Taiwan puppetry

One of Taiwan's renowned puppet masters, Huang Hai-tai, was honoured in a presidential citation at a funeral ceremony in central Yunlin county this weekend, after he passed away at the amazing age of 107.

I met him a few years ago - I was doing a story about his legacy; and his family - several generations of puppeteers.

He began learning his art at the age of 14 from his father. Puppet masters would be the "voices" of all the puppet characters. At a time when the shows were based on Chinese historical tales and themes of patriotism and filial piety, he introduced racier stories - tales of good and evil, with dramatic plots and action-packed martial arts scenes.

His sons carried on the tradition. One, Huang Chun-hsiung, got his show aired on television. It became massively popular - as it had all kinds of special effects - and ran for more than 500 episodes. It was stopped by the government in the end because workers would down tools to watch the programme.
His grandsons started the Pili puppets - which has become so fashionable with young Taiwanese.
Pili International Multimedia is a multi million dollar enterprise - putting out dvds, all kinds of merchandising; and re running old episodes on their own cable channel dedicated to puppetry.

The puppet figures were selected in a public poll last year as the top image to represent Taiwan internationally.

Glove puppetry - or budaixi - is one of Taiwan's traditional arts - introduced around 200 years ago during the first large wave of immigrantion from China's eastern Fujian Province. In its heyday, there were hundreds of troupes. But in modern Taiwan, their numbers - and audiences - are dwindling.
The Huang family have somehow managed to swim against the tide; making their art relevant and popular with modern-day audiences, and using the latest media and technology to do so.

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