It was 1974. Thailand’s civil rights movement was in full swing when Thatchai “Tong” Obtong was sold by his parents for 5,000 baht. He was 7.
He was bought by a traveling Chinese opera troupe and taken from his native province of Satun in the south. He never went to school and remains functionally illiterate to this day. But what he lacks in arts and letters, he’s made up for with the thespian talents his life has singularly been devoted to pursuing. No one can belt out the signature, soul-shaking howls of the tough-guy roles he’s been typecast for ever since.
He wasn’t the only one.
“My wife’s parents sold her because she was a girl, and they said raising her would cost too much,” Tong said.
Both are now members of the Sai Yong Hong troupe, one of about 30 still active in Thailand. They recently performed during the Vegetarian Festival for a few wizened Chinese-Thais in a hall in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Four decades ago, tens of thousands would gather to watch Tong’s large companies as they toured the country. Today, though he still paints his face to stalk the stage as Cao Cao from “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” or Justice Bao, his audience is usually small and older than his 50 years. Sometimes, it’s an empty room.
Though the once-ubiquitous art form has been hanging on by a fraying cultural thread, it was thrust back into the limelight when a 167-year-old Chinese pier recently opened as the latest hipster hangout.
“Ngiew is beauty, dance, music, kungfu, acrobatics and literature all in one. Show all of this to someone, and they will be entertained too”
At a gala event replete with contemporary crowd-pleasers such as nacho stalls, beer taps and indie bands was the art form few under 50 today have ever even seen.
Usually relegated to small or nonexistent audiences in temples or cultural halls, Chinese opera got a shot of vitality at this month’s Lhong 1919 opening, where a generation that likely never stepped into either was exposed to the three-century-old form for the first time.
There, before an audience of hundreds, a general in bright blue sequins and a pheasant-feathered headdress offered his honorable aid to a wounded noblewoman fleeing an enemy army with a child. She hands him the baby – of royal birth – before committing suicide to not slow the general’s escape. High drama was followed by a skit depicting an old man and young woman bickering comically in a boat.
“This is the first time we’re performing in a hip place for teenagers like this. Before, young people wouldn’t have the chance to see it,” said Ampan Jarensooklab, the 74-year-old head of the Meng Por Pla troupe, a competitor to Tong’s Sai Yong Hong company.
Before there were sitcoms and soap operas, there was Chinese opera, called ngiew. Equal parts drama and entertainment, performances unfold in situational sketches over an hour or so.
“Ngiew is beauty, dance, music, kungfu, acrobatics and literature all in one. Show all of this to someone, and they will be entertained too,” Ampan said.
Afterward, people lined up to take photos and selfies with the performers in their mirror-covered costumes with images that would make a splash in their Instagram feeds.
It was a far cry from their usual audiences of a few elderly women or empty chairs. Ampan, who’s taught the art for 50 years, said that’s why ngiew is itinerant – it’s always had to go to the people.
“It’s Chinese opera’s responsibility to serve the people. We have to bring the performance to them; young people aren’t going to buy a ticket to see it. We put it in front of them, and they will absorb its value and beauty,” Ampan said.
Meng Por Pla is one of around 30 companies still performing in Bangkok.
A few weeks earlier, Sai Yong Hong troupe performed in a more typical setting: the Sai Tee Lui Im Yee Vegetarian Hall in Soi Charoen Krung 79 for this year’s Vegetarian Festival.
“Hello to all the hardcore fans of the Sai Yong Hong Chinese opera troupe! Today we’ll be performing for the long haul. The leading man’s handsome; the leading lady’s beautiful. The costumes are all fresh out of the box!” announced manager-slash-performer Tong to a sparse crowd of maybe two dozen elderly ethnic Chinese.
Ngiew is Old
It would be difficult to overstate how big Chinese opera was at one time. While today’s companies are tiny crews of only a couple dozen people, large casts staging elaborate performances in the Yaowarat area once drew ethnic Chinese audiences in the thousands.
At least until radio and television and cinemas siphoned off those audiences, and the opera went the way of the world’s traveling entertainment shows such as likay, vaudeville and circuses.
One of the first records of Chinese opera in Thailand dates back to the 18th century reign of King Taksin, when it appeared alongside Thai khon in temple rites capital by way of Teochew Chinese immigrants. It then proliferated under the Chakri dynasty, and opera schools popped up in Chinese diaspora communities.
While subsequent waves of immigrants kept it going through to the mid-20th century, opera’s role diminished due to modern entertainment and the loss of Chinese identity and language. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the operas began performing in Thai, rather than teochew, like the Meng Por Pla troupe’s riverside performance at Lhong 1919.
“Chinese people who regularly watched opera thinned out and died off,” said Huyseng “O-tee” Sae-lim, president of the Teochew Ngiew Preservation Society.
Indeed, today’s Sino-Thai descendants who can still speak any teochew are likely to have little more than vague memory of the shows.
“Before we had tens of thousands of viewers. Now it’s dwindled down to about 50 for our troupe, maybe 20 for others. The audiences who spoke Chinese, the opera teachers and old actors died,” Tong said.
“If there weren’t spirits, opera would’ve gone bankrupt a long time ago”
Pornsuda Jirachotsakul, 71, followed raptly and understood every word at the recent matinee in the Yaowarat vegetarian hall.
“I’ve been watching since I was 10,” she said. “In the past decade, I’ve been watching one almost every day. It’s fun, and the clothes are beautiful.”
Pornsuda’s daily opera dose is also a social event.
“I used to be so addicted to soap operas that I didn’t leave the house much. But here, I meet and chat with friends and have fun even if the performance that day isn’t fun,” she said. “Afterward, we go out to eat.”
Like that during the Vegetarian Festival, most work comes at the nation’s many Chinese shrines, called sarn jao. Patrons hire opera troupes to perform at least twice a year to honor the temple’s spirits.
“If there weren’t spirits, opera would’ve gone bankrupt a long time ago,” Tong said.
O-tee of the preservation society said the decision to sing in teochew or Thai depends on whether anyone is listening.
“When there’s people in the audience, actors might sing in Thai. If the people leave and there’s only spirits watching, they will switch back to teochew,” he said.
In the Past, Purely
Chinese opera is strictly limited to stories from the Chinese literary or historical tradition.
For the Vegetarian Festival matinee, it was the story of Eiang Chung Kiew Chu, a general who helps a dynasty’s heir escape in hope of one day returning to reclaim the throne.
Letters are written in blood, a royal infant is tearfully placed in a chest, and nobles stab each other. The drama is as high-pitched as the actor’s voices.
Musicians by the stage ring gongs, pound drums, tickle woodblocks and pluck a khim to accompany the show. They even make crying baby noises on cue.
Each performer, including the musicians, earn about 18,000 baht per month.
Although that adherence to unchanging storylines – most often episodes taken from enduring folklore figure about Song dynasty judge Justice Bao (also the subject of a 1993 Chinese TV series which aired in Thailand), 1300s novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Song dynasty collection of military stories Generals of the Yang Family – risks relevance to younger audiences, both O-tee of the preservation society and Tong said changing them would cause confusion.
“It all has to be old stories, set in the past. If we do new stories, people will think it’s strange or we’re see-sua,” Tong said, saying a Sino-Thai word that roughly means “messing it up.”
Ampan, leader of the Meng Por Pla company, said the restrictions are a strength.
“Although the opera is stagnant and has to compete with other forms of entertainment, it’s a fast and fun way for literally anyone, not just the high class, to learn Chinese history and culture,” he said.
The Circus Life
There are currently 30 Teochew and 3 Hainanese ngiew troupes roaming Thailand, from dozens-strong groups using LCD screen backdrops for international performances, to small back-alley troupes touring countryside shrines. Once there were many more troupes with regular performances at local shrines everywhere.
Sai Yong Hong is one of the largest remaining troupes, with almost 50 members.
According to O-tee, an average troupe gets paid around 25,000 baht per night, but only if they perform for at least four consecutive festival nights at a shrine. On less auspicious days, the pay is less, but if the troupe has to travel farther, they get paid more.
A leading lady, leading man, percussionist, flutist and khim player get paid around 18,000 baht per month. Teenagers in the troupe who play supporting roles get paid around 100 baht a day.
Many of the Thai actors cannot read Chinese, so they memorize lines by ear. A laozi, or Chinese teacher, checks their pronunciation of the dialect.
“If laozi says we pass, then we can make a living,” Tong said. “My wife never learned her letters, but she never misses a word.”
Today many of the performers are old, and the sale of children has fallen out of fashion.
New blood is hard to find. Tong’s daughter Patamaporn “Fern” Obtong, quit school after sixth grade to perform full time. She’s now 24.
“I followed what my parents did. Don’t know what else to do at this point,” she said, applying red paint to the sides of her nose.
Asked whether people her age are interested in watching opera, Fern dipped her brush into the red paint, shrugged and said they’re more likely to watch a performance on Facebook rather than come to a show.
She prefers playing men’s roles to women’s. “I’m a brash kinda person. Women in opera always hafta be so delicate and gentle,” she said in a guttural, mischievous voice.
The rest of the troupe, Tong said, consists of actors from China and other interesting characters, such as ex-cons who haven’t been able to find a regular job, those who’ve run away from home and stagehands from Cambodia and Laos.
“We’re all like a family,” Tong said.
How to See it?
The next best chance to see an elaborate Chinese opera will be a Nov. 27 show in honor of late King Rama IX at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang. The Chae Lung Ngek Lao Choon troupe will perform in costumes dispensing with the usual auspicious red.
Most years, the largest annual show is in August, at a collaboration between Thai and Chinese troupes at the Chinese-Thai Friendship performance.
Several troupes have Facebook pages to find performances.
Sai Yong Hong troupe posts their activities on their Facebook. Other troupes with an online presence include: Chae Lung Ngek Lao Choon, Lao Gheg Lao Cung, I Lai Heng Giah Tuang, Shengngoy and Laoyilaiheng.
Otherwise, stumbling upon a ngiew performance remains a combination of serendipity, timing and luck: O-tee says look for red signs with gold letters around shrines and temples, which means there’ll be a performance soon.