BANGKOK Battles, a search for love and justice, all set in China. Hired by local Chinese shrines, opera companies in Bangkok’s Chinatown perform mythical stories in Mandarin to round off celebrations marking the Lunar New Year in the Thai capital.
The wobbly wooden planks creak as the actors perform, moving from makeshift stage to stage. Among the audience, children look captivated, including a boy wearing a Barcelona soccer strip while his neighbor holds chopsticks and a bag of street food.
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Chinese opera has a long pedigree in Thailand, home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world. The Chinatown cast, a mix of Chinese and Thai performers, range from a seasoned actor of more than 30 years, to a 7-year-old girl.
“Every time I get nervous and excited,” says the girl, Vonvai, who began performing two months ago. “I want to perform well and enjoy it. I try to get better each time.”
Hours before going on stage, performers in these operas, which blend music, legend and drama, start to apply their elaborate make-up, while the baby of a cast member sleeps backstage.
Offstage, musicians follow the dream-like action while playing traditional Chinese instrument including drums, plates and flutes. The operas combine colourful costumes, elaborate sets, with dialogue and singing that tell tales of tragedy and comedy alike.
Nappapat Natee, 25, part of the Yong Hong Troupe, has been involved in Chinese opera for 10 years. She typically performs the role of a warrior. Occasionally she plays a character such as the emperor or his mother.
Beyond entertainment, the purpose of these roving performances in the Bangkok evening is to preserve Chinese culture and tradition in a country where Thai-Chinese are often third or fourth generation. The performances are also put on to please the gods.
All the elders of the neighborhood around Yaowarat Road, Chinatown's main thoroughfare and often referred to as the Golden Road, attend these operas. Among them is Monchai, 70, who has been a loyal spectator for more then four decades.
While an unwavering fan of the skill and artistry of the operas, he is anxious that their appeal may falter.
“I really like these stories based on history,” he says. “But I’m worried that the younger generation will struggle to understand them.”
(Reporting by Jorge Silva, writing by Brian McGee; Editing by Alison Williams)