Teochew opera keeps Chinese culture alive in Thailand

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On hot and humid night in northern Thailand, a group of performers in colorful costumes, accompanied by crashing gongs and drum beats, draw crowds to a makeshift stage.

It's a performance of Teochew Opera "Luo Shen" (The goddess of the Luo River) staged by a professional troupe Qing Nang Yu Lou Chun which has enjoyed over 80 years of history in Thailand.

Thanks to a vast number of Chinese immigrants who brought Teochew dialect across Southeast Asia, Teochew Opera used to be a favorite entertainment in Thailand.

Xu Qing'an, 54, a veteran performer, has seen the troupe's peak. "When I first came to Thailand in the 90s, the troupe had over 100 actors with thousands of visitors every show."

As one of the best-known Teochew Opera troupes in the Southeast Asian country, the troupe was once invited to perform for the Thai Royal family.

"But now, things are completely different," Xu said while looking at the sparse audience.

The audiences of Teochew Opera are mostly older Thai-Chinese. As time goes by, the community of both actors and fans has dwindled. According to Xu, the troupe has only about 30 actors now, and sometimes the audiences are fewer than the actors on stage.

Dressed in a red cheongsam that night, Yierkun stood out in the audience of barely 20 people. Influenced by her father who moved from southern China decades ago, the 75-year-old Thai has been exposed to Teochew Opera from an early age.

Unlike her, nine-year-old visitor Suphakorn Nirungrang doesn't understand the Chinese Teochew dialect, but was fascinated by the artists' glittering headgears and elaborate costumes. "They are beautiful on the stage, like angels," he said.

Behind the scene, actors huddled in a small, crowded backstage filled with their costumes and props, and spent nearly two hours applying layers of makeup before the show.

Nearby, tents were set up as their temporary accommodation during the performance. Not far from the stage, a six-wheeled truck loaded with all the belongings of the crew, also carries the life of the troupe, which is currently in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The average number of performances was 300 per year before the pandemic, but now it is less than 100," said Wu Guide, vice chairman of the Thai Teochew Opera Association and head of Qing Nang Yu Lou Chun.

The loss of actors is also putting the preservation of Teochew opera in Thailand at risk.

At 66, Suluan Chen is in her final year on stage. She is the oldest actor in the troupe, and was sent to be a performer by her parents at the age of eight. The troupe paid her parents and she was indentured for eight years.

Chen still wears a necklace with photos of her parents. Even though they sold their daughter, she didn't hold a grudge against them because they gave her a career she loves.

Zhuang Meilong, 81, the founder of the Thai-Chinese Dramatic Arts Institute, is struggling to stop the curtain coming down forever on Teochew Opera in Thailand.

"We are trying to translate operas into Thai to make them easier for the local audience, and also plan to establish an opera school in Bangkok," Zhuang said.

Around midnight, when the lights went out on the stage, Xu took off his costume and crawled into a tiny tent. In a couple of days, the company will be back on the road and the opera will roll into another village, and the curtain will rise again. 

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