Monthly Archives: January 2013

History Repeats Itself

This past year has been an incredible mash-up of personal and professional adventures.  I’ve been able to return to China twice (a record for me) and also appreciate home more than ever.  And even though my stays at home leave me longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America.

As part of my continued research stateside, I’ve come into contact with a surprising number of amazing scholars, students, enthusiasts and cheerleaders for the work – egging me on and keeping me going.

A few days after I landed back on US soil in December 2011, I was gifted a present in my inbox.  One Grant Hayter-Menzies, a biographer living in the west of Canada, had found me through my blog and asked if we could chat as he was in the midst of finishing a biography about Pauline Benton.  Pauline Benton, hmmm.  My mind ticked back through my dusty Rolodex of names – and – oh Yes.  I knew about her Chinese shadow puppet collection – now housed with the Chinese Theatre Works company in New York – and a few tidbits about her life, but the details were fuzzy.

We started a correspondence, Grant and I, and after an interview, chats via phone and email, I was given the opportunity to read his manuscript before it’s officially published through McGill-Queens University Press.  I can’t tell you what a dream it was to read, both for content and also for its writing.

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Pauline Benton was an American Woman from Kansas, born just before the turn of last century.  She fell in love with puppetry in 1923 when she encountered her first shadow puppet performance in the courtyard of her Aunt Emma, who was then teaching in Beijing.   From there, she dedicated her life to become its lone steward in the states – the first female puppet master in the west and a collector, collaborator and creator of shadow puppet shows in her own right.  Her company, The Red Gate Shadow Players, were ambassadors for both the Chinese people and their incredible folk artistry during an ever-changing relationship to the states.

What Grant does so well with all his beautifully researched facts is make it, her and shadow puppetry, come to life.  He places her amazing story within such a rich context that you can’t help but be transported.   He takes you to Beijing in the 1920s, with all its chaos and tumult.  You also get to travel to New York in the early part of the century and around the country as a fledgling Chinese shadow puppet troupe tries to make a name for themselves despite the obvious obstacles.   Between performances at the White House for the Roosevelts and the seedy streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, you can feel the determination and dedication of Pauline and her troupe mates.

Of all the historical books I’ve read on shadow puppetry, this is the one I will reread over and over again – if not for pleasure, then for encouragement.  To know of a woman doing much the same work nearly 80 years earlier makes me feel comforted, supported.  I’ve got company on the puppet trail.   Somehow, without even knowing much about her, I seemed to have traced much the same path and even drawn many of the same conclusions on my own.  We seem to be kindred spirits, only separated by time.   Now, I simply have to live up to the rest of the trail she blazed for a Shadow Woman.

The story is echoing a theme in my recent musings of the past years of fieldwork, driving home the fact and fear of knowing that the stories we carry die with us if we don’t share them.  Whose responsibility is it to share these?  The teller or the listener?  As I finished the Epilogue, I had a moment of panic followed quickly by gratitude.  I can already tell this story, this work, will continue to impact me for many years to come – and to think it could have so easily remained buried and eventually lost forever but for another story hunter who saw its quiet potential.

This is a book for anyone who recognizes the inherent curse and blessing in a passion you can’t ignore.

I will certainly post the book’s release on the blog!

Thanks for reading~

Shadow Woman, The Extraodinary Career of Pauline Benton by Grant Hayter-Menzies.  Due out in Fall 2013 from McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal.  Press release below.

Hayter-Menzies PR

Visit Grant’s other works here at: http://redroom.com/member/grant-hayter-menzies

Information on the Pauline Benton collection at Chinese Theatre Works: http://www.chinesetheatreworks.org/w/education/images/

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China-Lite

During my Fulbright tenure, I had a few friends who took their precious two-week out-of-country trip to nearby Taiwan.  Their reports were so glowing I was suspect.  “The air!  The order!  The internet access!”, they’d exclaim.  Could it be true?  In the year that has followed my return, I’ve heard countless people recount the same wondrous impossibilities to me: “no one spits!” “I didn’t get travel diarrhea!”

Finding out I was headed there this past November to travel with the Taiyuan Puppet Company (whom I met in Beijing last year) on their Touch Taiwan project and check out the Lin Liu-Hsin Puppet Theatre Museums Chinese shadow puppet collection got me so curious.  I was going back to China, or was I?

Mainland China and Taiwan’s political conflict runs deep.  If you know anything about the Communist Revolution, then you’re well versed why.   But, it goes beyond that.  Since then, their relationship has remained tenuous at best.

I arrived on a long flight from the Netherlands and couldn’t tell quite where I was.  They were speaking Chinese, yes, but so much of what I had come to know and love about mainland China wasn’t immediately present.  There really was no spitting.  And – so. much. order.  The Taiwanese people wait in line quietly for the next subway.  These waiting lines are painted in clear pathways on the platform floor and no one is a step out of place.  (I actually butted ahead of someone, not noticing the painted lines, and got a ‘she’s from the mainland’ dig from a person behind me.)  The sense actually didn’t make sense to me.  I don’t mean to say that mainland China is only a bundle of chaos, but there is a level of unpredictability and disorder that exists just under the surface, all the time.  Adventure, good and bad, is always in the air.  Taiwan was immediately safe and knowable.

After a few days fighting off a terrible cold and flu, I finally made my way to the oldest part of Taipei, the Dadaocheng district, to meet up with the Taiyuan Theatre Company.  Here, the streets narrowed, the smells erupted and the sound pollution tripled.  I felt a familiarity in the air.  The puppet theatre resides in a cozy four-floor building and butts up next to their partner museum that houses a lovely, comprehensive Asian puppetry collection.  The entire place is a physical manifestation of my brain and heart: half practitioner and puppeteer, half researcher and archivist.  It instantly felt like home.

The office was exactly as I’d imagined – a hive of activity and laughter.  It took me but a moment to get situated, meet everyone and I spent the rest of the week working on various projects including scenic painting for their latest puppet show.

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Rehearsal for their next show, with the Golden Ray style of hand puppets – which are slightly larger than the oldest form.

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Scenic painting some desert rocks – in progress.

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The puppet theatre

When I’m not in the workshop, I climb the rickety stairs out back to another haven: the beautifully kept puppet archives.  Inside the frosty chambers are shelves upon shelves of treasures so beautiful, I feel subservient.  You can reach out and touch them, actually touch them.  All of them, perfectly laid out on their corresponding shelf – everything from hand puppets, shadow puppets, rod puppets, head pieces, and accessories from nearly every Asian country.

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IMG_1939They look like they’re just resting there, waiting for you to appreciate them.

I spent a couple afternoons helping the museum identify a few sets of Chinese shadow puppets and to simply spend time with the pieces.  So few collections are this close to me.  Usually, the great pieces in the mainland are behind glass and unable to be touched, others are in collections so wrapped up in red tape, I’ll probably never see them.  It was great to touch, to smell, to scrutinize in glorious leisure.

When my time came to an end, they waved me off in characteristic style.  We split a feast of food at their meeting table and shared a few gracious toasts.  I was sad to leave, but as usual, confident I’ll find an excuse to return.

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As I found my way to the airport, without a hitch in the getting there, I was again made to recognize the benefits to Taiwan’s ideological proximity – somewhere in between mainland China and the west.  The collection in particular.  My inquiries of pieces, of origins, of context are met with equal interest, never offense.  The education that intimacy with the pieces brings is unparalleled.  Just as I was grateful for the opportunity here, I grumbled about the treasures that will most likely remain out of my reach on the mainland – forever.  I may spend a lifetime in service to the art form and never get a moment with the true ancestors.

Still, in some ways, I missed the fight, the adventure, the obstacles that the mainland always presents to me.  It has helped me tangibly connect with my own desire to understand and champion the art form.  So, glad for the mainland and glad for China-lite – both of which give me an different entry point into this tradition that I love so well.

Thanks for reading~