Chinese puppeteer Yeung Fai breaks the boundries of puppetry

By Zhang Yuchen Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-12 19:03:01

Chinese puppeteers show off their puppets. Photo: CFP

Chinese puppeteers show off their puppets. Photo: CFP

Yeung Fai, a master of Chinese puppetry who has extensively toured Europe, premiered his new work Border during the Taiwan International Festival of Arts in Taipei in April. Like many of Yeung's previous shows, the new performance is an interesting combination of traditional Chinese glove puppetry and Western contemporary theater.

The popularity of stage plays that make heavy use of puppetry - such as drama version of War Horse, which makes extensive use of life-sized horse puppets - hit all new levels last year. These shows have proved that puppetry is not just for kids, but can also provide more mature material that actually proves more eye-catching than with real live performers.

Border is set during a war inspired by World War II, a time when "loads of people had to leave their hometowns and were displaced for the rest of their lives," Yeung told The Beijing News.

Seeking to breakthrough the boundaries surrounding traditional forms of puppetry, Yeung's hour-long performance pulls a subject of universal concern into the spotlight - humanity.

"We talk about human nature and the harm war causes civilians, which is the basic purpose of art. I used to perform traditional puppetry and almost wanted to change jobs because I didn't feel like I was conveying any emotion," Yeung said, explaining his motivation for choosing such a heavy subject.

Heir to a tradition

Born in 1964, Yeung is a fifth generation master of the glove style of puppetry, which features puppets that range in size from fitting around a single finger to an entire hand, in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province. His father, Yang Sheng, is a well-known master of the northern school of glove puppetry who has had a far-reaching impact on puppetry in Taiwan. 

Yeung began learning puppetry from his older brother when still a child. He later received more systematic training after age 14 and eventually stayed in his hometown to teach the art after graduating from Fujian Vocational College of Art. At the time, puppetry was a very rigid art form steeped in tradition, which made Yeung once think of giving it up.

However, in the 1980s, Yeung headed overseas to Bolivia, where he earned a living with his puppetry skills. Gradually, his art led him to travel all over South America, from Bolivia to Argentina, Brazil and other countries.

Sojourn in Europe

By coincidence, Yeung met a producer of a local French drama center, when he replaced his sick brother during a performance in Spain. At his invitation, Yeung began to develop his career in France.

Yeung told The Beijing News that Western contemporary art opened up a new world for him, causing him to realize that, as a performing art, puppetry could only move modern audiences by uniting with modern art.

"There are many Western contemporary artworks and images that are actually inspired by Chinese opera. So why can't we take inspiration from them? Puppetry is something that can manage to touch audiences."

Over the past 20-plus years, Yeung has created six works and performed all over the world. He describes himself as a "stray." Since he left his homeland at age 24, he has lived in many countries, and currently holds a Hong Kong ID and a residence permit in four countries.

"My life has never been stable. I've experienced far too many difficulties. For a show in Switzerland this month, I have to line up at the Immigration Office at 6 am."

Chinese puppetry

Originating in the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), puppetry in China reached a golden age during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Depending on the tools involved, puppetry can involve hand puppets, stick puppets and marionettes. Glove puppetry as a branch originated during the 17th century in Quanzhou, Fujian Province and has grown into a popular art form in Taiwan, where TV programs and movies have been entirely shot using glove puppets.

Newspaper headline: Pulling the strings

Posted in: Miscellany, Theater

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