After returning from Europe and conquering a particularly nasty bought of jetlag, I am ready to puppet hunt again. This time, to reconnect with some artists from my first forays in Beijing a few months ago. Lu Hai has been on my mind in particular. He was the first shadow puppet artist I met on my Fulbright, and in many ways, he laid the precedence for generosity and openness. We had arranged to meet in Guangzhou, where he was to train a troupe of dwarves for three months, but he headed home early and I’ve been waiting to meet up with him.
We texted a few times and then finally caught each other on the phone. “I’m at the museum”, he said. “Doing what?” “Cutting”, he said “cutting puppets.” I was given a new address this time, the Mengtougou Museum near Pingguoyuan. Mengtougou is a modest museum, supposedly the first county-level museum in Beijing to have a comprehensive collection of Chinese works. It’s close to his house, an hour subway ride followed by a 25 minute bus ride west of the city. As I round the corner from the Chengzi stop, I glimpse Lu Hai’s grinning face at the top of the museum stairs – he has just come out for a smoke break.
We say an awkward hello and then quietly stand together until he has smoked his cigarette down to the filter. We walk slowly up the side stairs, past the sleeping ticket teller, through an empty display room, and into his small makeshift office – set up just behind one of the display walls.
We sit and catch up a bit. His trip to Guangzhou to train a troupe of dwarves went well and they continue to perform down south. Yes, his family is well. Yes, I’ve had an amazing couple of months since we last talked.
What was he doing here, I asked? Lu Hai has been hired by the museum to recreate their aging shadow puppet collection. He has about three hundred puppets, from around the Ming dynasty, photocopied and in a tall stack stuffed in a drawer – he’s been there two weeks and he’s nearly finished eight puppets.
There’s a mini white kitten that seems to live on Lu Hai’s floor of the museum. As we talk, the kitten comes to visit Lu Hai and see what he’s doing with all this leather, but runs away at the slightest provocation. We save him once from climbing onto the welded display structure.
I can tell right away that Lu Hai cuts differently than the Tangshan folks I’ve been studying with. The knives are shaped differently and he staples two layers of cowhide around a paper print out of the design instead of pinning it to the wax board.
We sit quietly for a bit. I watch him cut and watch the kitten get into trouble. I snap a few photos and watch again. Lu Hai stops for his 4th smoke break in 30 minutes.
“Do you like cutting puppets?” I ask. I don’t mean this to be a leading question, but as soon as it’s out of my mouth, I realize it might sound judgmental. He look at me with clear eyes and a sense of relief and says “Yes. I really like cutting puppets.” I think he means it. I sense it’s mostly because he’s got a year of steady work in a nice office with a mini white kitten. It occurs to me, that despite our obvious differences, we artists are pretty similar around the globe; so happy to be able to do our work and even happier when there’s some stability in it. I’m happy for him. He deserves it.
I hang around for an hour or so and at 4:30 he announces that the work day is over. He walks me to the bus station and I wait there and wave to him as he mounts his bicycle. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to visit Lu Hai in this part of town, but I’m happy to know that he’ll be here for awhile.
Thanks for reading~