Me and Howard Go to See the Puppets and Almost All of Them Die

Written by  Friday, 22 April 2016 12:13

    I am a little late because Connor has taken me to UNIQLO to buy some kind of padded jacket--call it turquoise--I am bad with colors. Taipei winter is exacting vengeance on me for mocking it (“it’s like spring back home!”) by inflicting a lingering sore throat. The winter sun is heatlessly ablaze as we skitter ably through traffic, mirthful but cold: I tell Connor that Howard knows I will be a little late, he doesn’t have to rush across the intersection; but Connor is not thinking about me or tardiness. He has his own goals, is rushing to try and achieve traffic nirvana, the pulsing freedom where you hit every traffic light just so, what the Germans call the green wave. I think how every now and then the old desire to dress properly seems, for a moment, attainable; the new beginning! Taiwan will turn me into a cleaner man, will teach me sartorial rectitude. Progress towards that mirage: adulthood, maturity—the codes of which are always obscured by travel, by abrupt changes in climate, language, milieu, context—and which, like all ideals, get only vaguely approached, inclined towards, and never achieved. Whenever I say “I am getting my bearings,” I think of my head as a place where shiny metal balls careen to and fro, knocking my thoughts about, caroming, clinking.

 

    Howard looks at me and my new jacket, then askance, at the pavement, and says, “I won’t say anything. The important thing is that you like it.” Howard has a talent for explaining his own tact; so, silent, I judge his baseball cap. The closer we get to Dadaocheng, the more the streets are impeded by stands dripping over with New Year’s goodies, the “products from north and south,” a smorgasbord for the greedy-guts, the whole pharmacopeia and pantry of Taiwan laid out in dried, fried and liquid form. The area was one of the centres of Taipei until the 1950s, after which the move of business elsewhere caused a decline. But what is it about “decline” that makes areas only then interesting? The most prosperous places, where businesses and fancy hotels are centered; where the affluent dawdle hygienically—are in every city the least alive, the least congregating, the sites of privilege going on in sadly upscale cubicles. But decay! It ferments, it formulates, it’s grasping and necessary and invigorating when not unbearable. It is the decay that makes Dadaocheng interesting, stinky tofu delicious, and wine wine. Culture is a saprophyte, a showy mushroom burgeoning after the rain, indicator of fertility and illness, poisonous and delicious, the two kinds are always hard to tell apart, perhaps the most poisonous are also especially delicious: the brinkmanship of the first mycologists.

 

    Megaphone-advertisements bray the health benefits of certain gelatins, wines, teas; the young and dynamic are deployed to imply the salubrity of whatever is laden on their taster trays. To the smirks of Howard, I nosh a bit of a candied kiwifruit, a square of fruit-paste crumble, the flesh of some fish turned floss, while the human current gathers us up in its havoc, pushes us down Dihua Street and towards the theatre perched on top of local labour offices where only very courageous Indonesian domestic workers gather brochures or file complaints. En route, I am slightly startled by two whole, impaled, fried squids. Howard does that thing where he feigns not being amused or estranged by something because it makes him more local to make believe extraordinary things are mundane. We sit down to soup at the Tainan store, and argue about whether stinky tofu is really stinky or not (me, no; Howard, yes). I argue that stinkiness is mostly a linguistic issue; that the translation predetermines foreign attitudes to it; from this, we shift into durian (me, yes; Howard, no), and drift finally, helplessly into that maelstrom of food banter which always lurks just beneath a Taiwanese conversation.

 

    Meanwhile, in a room on the eighth floor, the puppets are emerging from their chests and getting their clothes tugged on, their headdresses fitted, their sound system rigged. Tickets are ad hoc in this venue; at some point shortly before the performance, a bundled-up apprentice youth shows up, extracting the show tickets from her pocket, circumspect and awkward like a counterfeit billfold. Nor, like much of the informal-looking economy, does she have any change. In the lobby where we wait with the bemused security guard, there are cardboard cutouts of old-timey puppet masters and a piece of paper saying “exhibit being changed.” A few puppets are on display, under glass, from Jinguang, the television puppetry which in the 1950s and 60s revolutionized Taiwanese puppetry, and led to the current iterations as a TV, movie and cosplay practice. Parallel to that, however, more conservative versions have soldiered on, perhaps mostly to respond to official ideas of heritage; the Dadaocheng Theatre is one venue which puts together an annual programme, averaging about two shows a month, which features these types of ‘authentic,’ anti-spectacular, real-orchestra shows. Inside the theatre room, a gilded box (think: Punch-and-Judy) with puppeteers and orchestra behind; there is nothing flashy or experimental about the performance space, although it operates as a Western-style venue in that the lights get dimmed and audiences are broadly expected to be attentive. Try that at a temple festival.

 

    Well, the story goes something like this: many years ago, some guy stole some other guy’s girlfriend. The guy whose girlfriend has been stolen becomes the bad guy; we hear him whine about that for a while. Eighteen years later, he kills off in succession the guy, the girlfriend (“even you do not recognize me!”), and the guy’s two brothers. When he is almost ready to kill the son, he decides, in an access of high-minded clemency, to cut off the fingers on one of the son’s hands instead. The son is understandably ticked off, and ferrets out an old Taoist figure who teaches him a special trick. Having located the villain, the son, rather than exacting his vengeance, he magnanimously forgives the bad guy. Oh, revenge even greater! For charity and nobility drive the bad guy insane and he throws himself off a cliff. The end. The play is named after the special trick.

 

    It is sometimes hard for a person with a love of story or character to be drawn into in this kind of traditional budaixi, because everything seems designed to provide the flimsiest excuse for the puppets to come to blows, and they have the ungentlemanly habit of stomping on each other long after their victim has kicked it. Yet, everyone is always telling you how adorable these murderous bits of cloth are. It seems clear that the plot is a secondary feature. How many people really grasp the plot, anyway? The children are asking their grandparents for Mandarin translations. The Guangdong tourists behind us are trying to piece together what they can of the Hokkien, and when Howard understands more than I do—he belongs to the generation and education of Taipei people whose Taiwanese is of the passive persuasion—he takes the program in front of his mouth and whispers renditions of dialogue fragments.

 

    After the show, I have a dutiful research-talk with the puppeteer Hong Qiwen (b. 1964), allowing me to situate him in the Taiwanese puppetry universe. He learned the trade from his father Hong Guozhen, still active in Yuanlin Township Changhua (Entire World Puppet Troupe); in 1987, Hong Jr. was accepted as a student of Xu Wang (1936-) who is still known as the “top scholar” of budaixi. This connection makes Hong Qiwen a fifth generation “descendant” of Hsiao Hsi Yuan (Little Western Garden). Starting in 1987, Hong was a member of that troupe, traveling with them also on several visits abroad, before founding the present troupe in 1998. This genealogy gives the troupe (Entire Western Garden, founded in 1998) its name: the “Western Garden” allusion comes from the Xu family and is matched with the “Entire,” which he inherited from his father’s troupe. 

 

    But what does this lineage describe? The related Hokkien glove-puppet traditions in Southeast Asia are populated mostly by autodidacts, and the flexibility of the performance tradition is perhaps why registered troupes seem to be endless in number; also why budaixi is the only form of Chinese theatreto have prominent foreign puppeteers, such as Frenchman Jean-Luc Penso, who has for decades performed both budaixi repertoire alongside new shows of his own devising. From a Western perspective, I suppose one can choose to see the puppetry as furnishing the materials for which many different kinds of shows can be enacted. From a Chinese theatreperspective, the genre seems an oddity, because rules of performance appear to be so loose, and the troupes so easily disposed to go diverse and almost casual. 

   

    When I ask about the plot of the play we have just seen, the puppeteer derives it from “some wuxia (i.e. martial arts) novel.” He doesn’t know which one, and in any event, he has changed the characters’ names. Although affiliated with his father’s troupe in Changhua, he performs mostly in Taipei—going into the primary schools; seldom, if ever, into temples. Opportunities to perform at the Dadaocheng theatre seem limited: the troupe was last programmed in June 2014 for a Three Kingdoms play, and it is not programmed again in the current season (which runs until November 2015). Another troupe in Greater Taipei with which I talked recently told me it was mostly schools and old folks’ homes these days. Speaking to troupes in the south and centre suggest that the performance economy there is more temple-based; in Taipei, it would seem to have a heavier connection to official education and culture institutions.

   

    It’s intriguing for me that, unlike on Java or on Mainland China, where I spent some time researching related Hokkien forms, many of these stories on offer are neither “old” nor “new.” In China, puppet troupes often produce large-scale original scripts in the style of opera shows—funding is linked to prizes they can win in competitions, and since they are classified as xiqu (i.e. “Chinese opera”) their trends follow more general trends; on Java, the repertoire is often quite strictly the Chinese martial stories of the late 19th century, and the performance venue either Chinese temples or market demonstrations of Chinese culture for Javanese audiences. But many of these Taiwanese stories are “new” in that they involve new characters without being “innovative,” by which I mean their plots are generic. When Hong says he is borrowing from a generic novel, does this just mean that he is borrowing from a general kind of idea-repertoire? But if one doesn’t lay any emphasis on the “newness,” what is the added value? Why not instead perform the scenes that are known, and that might generate audience recognition?

 

    The same type of question applies to much of the gezaixi (“Taiwanese opera”) that I have seen here recently, which neither emphasizes the creation of a new script, nor seeks to attach itself to older narratives. Or is this perhaps the sign of an organic art? In Mainland China, theatre you are likely to see in the cities is officially funded; coming to Taiwan, I needed to rework all of the assumptions about arts funding, and the mechanisms governing the system between market, private sector, and troupe. And every time I am tempted to think “funding-wise this is probably similar to how puppetry operates in the US or elsewhere in the West,” I realize how little beyond assumption I know about the Western situation(s); and how seldom the scholarship is there, when one looks for it. Brief methodological despair: the way one gets information is so random, so uncontrollable; formal learning is such a small part of it; and in any event, the theatre journals so often focus only on the stage, on the performance—understandably—but performances don’t emerge from nothing, and as a field we still have a hard time finding firm footing in science. The big-picture hobgoblins go to town on that one—philosophy, mathematics, experimental science—they can’t find firm footing! And we’re going to ground theatre science!?   

 

    Conversation with Howard as we head towards the MRT station: we mull over the various gory deaths we just witnessed; the weird thing is that they were all of them without gore. I would not have liked to watch such a show if it involved actual blood or pain. But the killings occur so quickly and are so muffled with people flying distractingly about and sometimes being flung from the puppeteer’s hand (the fanciest trick today involved puppets jumping i.e. being thrown through the upper window of the box stage)— there were even some TV-inspired slo-mo effects—that the deaths never quite sink in, occur in a frantic or even merry series. Every few minutes, someone is crying “brother” or “mother” and carrying another slain shred of cloth off-stage. But the cloth was never all that convincingly alive.

 

                        behind the stage the fiddle creaks out a standard melody

                        and another revenge has been fulfilled.

                        bloodless retribution! briefly, miked falsetto sobs.

                        no, the son is not shouldering his dead mother

                        the puppet is not even carrying the puppet

                        sheathed in each of them, in the living body and in the living corpse

                        lie the hands, blood circulating nails growing

                        and attached to those two hands are two minds

                        seen by my eyes, perched in front of the brain,

                        adamantly refusing to translate the sighted

scene into emotion, ruling the lazy    

muscle of compassion, until something nearer,

something bone-quick-closer, the sinew, the skin of the eye—

begins to smart. 

                                   

 

    By the time I reach home, my throat is killing me, and I go again to the doctor with the line drawing of the nose and ear and open mouth whose clinic is near my MRT station. For two hundred kuai, I am told that my tonsils are beneath all contempt and that if they do this to me seven times in three years, I should consider having them removed. I assent to this while also defending them feebly, then buy some wonton soup to swallow the pills on the way home and linger until eight pm before I go to bed—like someone trying to put one over on the jetlag demons—answering in plaintive conjugations the messages luring me to the cinema or the night market or the bar, those more immediate promises of escape, and answering “I went to see the puppets” whenever the phone bleeps with a friendly message comes asking, and what did you do today?

    …and nearly all of them died. 

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