Chinese Opera in Thailand: A Dying Art?

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on February 18, 2018

Despite the fact that many in Bangkok still have some form of Chinese heritage (mostly Teochew) in them, many Chinese traditions are at risk of vanishing - one of them being the Chinese opera. But there are still groups out there keeping the performance art alive and adapting to a new generation.

TRANSCRIPT

Nestled in the back alleys and canals of Taling Chan, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the Jao Mae Tubtim Shrine.

It's been part of the Thai-Chinese community here for more than a century.

Across from the shrine, a group of young women and men are preparing to perform Chinese opera, the same way others before them have done for decades.

Pongsakorn Nanarnkawin is the third generation of his family running a theatre dedicated to Chinese opera.

His parents were performers themselves, when Chinese opera was in its heyday.

PONGSAKORN NANARNKAWIN; Chinese Opera Owner:
"I’m a child of the Chinese opera, I’m sure when my mother was pregnant with me, she was performing Chinese opera. My father was a very skilled instructor from China […] There were no roads here back then so everything came by boat. Even the unloading of the equipment drew in a massive crowd - contrary to today where less and less are watching."

Bangkok has a sizable population of people whose ancestors came from China, and this is reflected in arts such as Chinese opera. But tastes have changed, and theatres like these aren't pulling in the crowds as they used to. Many are now looking at how they can interest the new generation, and keep the heritage alive.

It is estimated that about 70 per cent of Bangkok residents with Chinese heritage are of Teochew descent, but very few speak this dialect today, let alone understand the dialogue in the opera.

So Pongsakorn found ways to get around this.

PONGSAKORN NANARNKAWIN; Chinese Opera Owner:
"When we started to translate it into Thai, people slowly started to come in. After that, I decided to create an original story or adaptations. When we performed for a museum, we retold the story of Mulan, which is pretty popular. So we took bits from it and made a Chinese opera out of it in Thai both in spoken words and singing."

It is hard to say for now, whether Chinese Opera is making a comeback in Thailand, but there is a new generation of performers still passionate about it, and they hope to carry the torch.

PAILIN KAMKAEW; Chinese opera performer:
"I would like to tell people to study Thai-Chinese culture and to keep the tradition alive and so that the Chinese opera can further develop itself."

Thailand's Ministry of Culture has suggested ways to preserve the performing art, but those are still in their infancy -

It could well boil down to succeeding generations to secure a new lease of life for Chinese opera to keep the artform centrestage for more New Years to come.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok