A Master Puppeteer Gives an Ancient Chinese Art a 21st-Century Update

Wong Fai’s puppet theatre has a large and diverse cast of characters.

The room has been thrown into complete disarray, the floor strewn with spent bottles and jars of rice wine. Zhong Kui is the figure at the centre of it all, a crimson faced mess howling pitifully as he seizes another flagon and drains it. Throwing the vessel aside and stumbling across the room, he collapses in a heap, his fitful sleep punctuated by boisterous snores.

Towering above the diminutive figure, an arachnoid web of strings expertly clutched in his hands, is Wong Fai – master puppeteer. Wong moves in tandem with his marionette, the figure mirroring his motions in miniature. The puppeteer’s placid features betray no emotion under his salt and pepper beard; yet the slightest flex and contraction of his forearms telegraph subtle signals through the network of strings, breathing life into the puppet at his feet.

Wong Fai with his puppet proxy, Zhong Kui.

Born in the 1950s in Fujian, Wong Fai has been surrounded by a rich culture of traditional Chinese puppetry since childhood. “In the beginning, when I went to learn puppetry, it was purely for interest,” says the softly-spoken master. “I just wanted to try it. At the time I wasn’t so serious. My mindset was, if I can learn how to do it then great, if not then I’ll go find some other work.”

Wong apprenticed himself to Master Yang Qingyi from whom he learned marionette puppetry. He took to the ancient art and went on to seek out teachers who would guide him in mastering each of the four Chinese puppeteering disciplines: marionette puppetry (tai4 ci1 muk6 ngau5 提缐木偶), hand puppetry (zoeng2 zung1 muk6 ngau5 掌中木偶), rod puppetry (zoeng6 tau4 muk6 ngau5 杖頭木偶), and shadow puppetry (pei4 jing2 皮影). Now in his 60s, Wong continues to hone his stagecraft.

According to Wong, Chinese puppetry dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) but it was in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the art was refined. In their earliest incarnation, Chinese puppets are thought to have been used in religious ceremonies as representations of gods or religious figures before gradually evolving into a form of entertainment closely linked to opera. Marionette and hand puppets have always been closely associated with Fujian and Chaozhou and have kept pace with the tumultuous history of modern China. In 1949 the tradition travelled with the Kuomintang to Taiwan where there is now a strong puppeteering culture.

Wong and his puppets took a different route. At the age of 17, the nascent puppeteer arrived in Hong Kong. He fell in with a troupe of Fujianese puppet masters and together they introduced their art to the British colony, making a living for themselves in the neon soaked nightlife of the 1970s.

“Every night we would perform at nightclubs,” he says. They would hit the stage multiple times each night. “There used to be about seven of these dinner theatres, around Leighton Road and Tsim Sha Tsui, that featured traditional Chinese performing arts. They used to be a big deal.” Wong and his fellow puppeteers were most often found at the Hotel Miramar in Tsim Sha Tsui, where they would perform for well-heeled patrons alongside singers, storytellers, theatre troupes, acrobats and musicians.

Times were good for a period of seven years, but by the 1980s the fortunes of Hong Kong’s puppeteers began to decline. “Puppetry became a sideline for us, a part-time occupation,” says Wong. “We could no longer support ourselves with it alone. If we could get a gig we would perform together but if there was nothing then we’d take on various jobs to keep the wolf from the door. The decline was gradual.”

The cause of the Hong Kong puppeteers’ misfortune was not a sudden decline in interest, as usually seems to be the case, but the opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping. Puppeteering had continued to thrive within China, unlike other traditional arts such as lion and dragon making, which were heavily repressed during the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it was their modest yet amusing folk appeal that saved Chinese puppeteering from the fate met by more flamboyant art forms. Their inherent storytelling power would, no doubt, have been useful and much needed in those difficult times.

“Going to the mainland used to be hard,” says Wong. “It was difficult to access traditional Chinese culture and the only place to see it would be at these Hong Kong nightclubs. With China opening up people could consume that culture directly.”

In the 1970s, Wong’s master had sent him to Hunan with a mission to learn shadow puppetry from master Tan Degui and to bring it back to Hong Kong. Two decades later, in the late 1990s, Wong and his daughter Janet decided to make a pilgrimage to revisit the Hunanese masters.

On learning of the state of affairs in Hong Kong, Wong’s masters expressed dismay. “They felt it was a shame that puppetry in Hong Kong had declined in popularity,” he recalls. “They encouraged us to reinvigorate the art.” Charged with a new mission Wong and his daughter formed the Wong Fai Puppet Shadow Company in 2001. Its goal? To slowly reintroduce traditional puppetry to Hong Kong audiences.

They realised that if they were going to succeed, they needed to build a new generation of audiences, so they began performing in schools. “If we want audiences we need to capture their interest when they are children and inculcate them with an appreciation for traditional Chinese culture,” says Wong. “It’s a long-term strategy.”

Wong’s company is fighting against the impression that puppetry is “just some fusty performance with a person standing there pulling on some strings – rigid and boring, old and out of fashion,” he says. He has been tireless in updating the craft for modern audiences, taking in new dramatic devices and adapting the craft to a modern format. “We’ve made the show shorter, cutting it down from three or four hours to ten or 30 minutes,” he says. “We’re taking modern themes and applying them so that people will feel like there’s relevance to life today.”

In 2004, Wong began combining the four traditional forms of puppetry into single shows. This combination of artistic forms is more than a gimmick, he says. “In a show that involved multiple time periods, each dynasty was represented by a different form of puppetry.”

Wong has a magpie tendency to adopt any stage device, regardless of origin. The results are surprising and delightful, melding traditional puppetry and stories with modern pop culture and technology all the while pressing Western dramatic techniques into service. Wong’s surreal performances routinely break the fourth wall and employ non-linear timelines, audience participation and meta-referencing. “These devices are very common in Western theatre but I’d never seen them incorporated into traditional Chinese performing arts,” he says. He first came across some of these techniques on a trip to the Netherlands. “I decided to borrow them,” he says.

The future of Chinese puppeteering in Hong Kong looks bright.

It seems nothing is too outlandish for Wong’s charming imagination. His heady productions already explore such concepts as technology, space travel, and the dark web. In one performance, a time travelling monkey stranded on the moon is aided in his adventures by an obliging Michael Jackson.

Wong’s efforts have attracted collaborators the world over. His recent performance, Zhong Kui and the Reform of Hell, was a joint effort with the German-American artist duo eteam. The result bore all the whimsical hallmarks of Wong’s tripped out fantasies augmented by eteam’s conceptual and multimedia flourishes.

Eteam comprises Franziska Lamprecht and Hajoe Moderegger, who first came into contact with Chinese puppetry in 2015. During a residency in Taipei the duo noticed their son Louis had been completely transfixed by a puppet show. They thought puppets might be able to replace smartphones and tablets as a source of entertainment, which led them to explore the link between puppeteering and the digital realm.

The duo came to Hong Kong thanks to a residency with Hong Kong Baptist University, where they eventually came into contact with Wong Fai. The three artists found common interest in two characters that had never previously co-starred in a production: Zhong Kui—a vanquisher of ghosts and evil spirits—and the White Bone Spirit, a character from Journey to the West.

The resulting play, which was performed at Tai Kwun, is an adventure spanning millennia and employing live video game fight scenes, video art and audience participation. It tells the tale of how Zhong Kui, enamoured of the paper offering phones and tablets he receives, escapes from hell and into the future by means of a drone, with the action being live streamed by the “God of the Dark Web.” The story is sprawling and surreal, taking in themes as diverse as technology addiction and obsession with beauty.

“We wrote it all together,” say Lamprecht and Moderegger over a patchy video call. “The actual production was a merging of Master Wong’s amazing puppeteering skills and our aesthetics as visual artists to design the stage and its visual effects.”

Among these mechanisms was an analogue Whatsapp exchange and a modification to the White Bone Spirit marionette which allowed the puppet to perform movements inspired by the German dancer Pina Bausch. Lamprecht, who deftly manipulated the White Bone Spirit, practised up to eight hours a day, three days a week for three months to get to the point where she could perform before an audience.

Wong Fai says the partnership may continue, though it isn’t yet clear what form it might take. In the meantime, Wong and his daughter have enough work to keep them busy; they are already planning to teach 30 classes to introduce puppetry to the public, alongside visiting troupes from Taiwan and the mainland that will perform and conduct workshops on puppet making.

Underneath it all, Wong’s aspirations remain as simple as ever. “I hope this culture will continue into the future,” he says. “We’re trying to find more audiences, opportunities and venues to perform. We’re going to keep preserving traditional shows as well as adapting them for modern audiences.”

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