BANGKOK – Despite the large Chinese diaspora that has spread across Southeast Asia over centuries, one of its best known cultural exports, Chinese opera, has become somewhat of a relic in the region.
Due to armed conflicts and political resistance to Chinese cultural influence, the art form has all but disappeared from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The only countries in the region where this traditional performance art has survived are Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
The first shows date back to 10th-century China as entertainment for the emperor’s court, and acquired religious overtones when they were performed in Taoist temples to appeal to the masses and pay tribute to their ancestors.
After centuries of being passed on orally, sheet music and scripts began to be transcribed during the Ming dynasty (XIV-XVII centuries), from which emerged classics such as Mu dan Ting (The pavilion of the peony), composed by the poet Tang Xianzu.
“This piece is from 1598 but it is still performed today,” musicologist Ampan Charoensuklarp told EFE, adding that there is evidence of shows being put on in Thailand, during the reign of Ayutthaya, which lasted until 1767.
“In principle, the audience was made up of the Chinese diaspora but the local crowd was later incorporated,” said the 74-year-old expert who, after his training in China, dedicated his life to ensuring the survival in Thailand of Chinese opera.
Ampan, who is of Chinese origin, stressed that the shows demonstrate the full palette of human passions, just as in European opera.
In contrast with Western opera, the Chinese form includes elements of martial arts and acrobatics, in addition to masks and the symbolic use of color.
While Chinese opera has been performed in Thailand for over four centuries, these days only three or four are put on every year.
In an effort to arrest the further decline of the performance art in Thailand, Ampan has adapted and translated several works into Thai.
One of them was staged earlier this month in a Chinese community enclave that has been rehabilitated in the center of Bangkok, as photos made available by EFE on Saturday show.
“Bao Zheng” tells the story of a legendary magistrate who lived in China during the Song Dynasty (9th-13th centuries) and who faces the painful dilemma of choosing between justice and family when forced to judge a nephew charged with corruption.
The role of Bao Zheng is played in Bangkok by local actor Somboon, who is also of Chinese origin.
Somboon echoed the thoughts of Ampan, lamenting the slow decline of Chinese opera in Thailand.