Category Archives: Updates

一生一世 // One’s entire life

During my last visit to Tangshan city in Hebei province, I could already feel a wave of development coming. Getting off the bus (the only way to Tangshan from Beijing at the time) the new Train Station loomed tall overhead. It would be finished in 2015, they said. Other changes were felt in nearby suburbs and villages: huge high-rise apartment complexes and infrastructure changes in transportation. This time, I rode in on Tangshan’s new train – a world away from that long distance bus – and was welcomed to the city with vast marble floors, soaring curved ceilings and lots of people waiting to head somewhere else.

Tianxiang, of the amazing Lu Family, greeted me outside the new exits. We chatted as we got onto the city bus and rode out to Hancheng, hopped in an electric tricycle and were taken to the front door of Tianxiang’s new apartment. So much has happened since my last visit to his unfinished apartment in 2014. Tianxiang got married! And, as he informs me, with characteristically humble tones while riding the bus, they’re expecting their first child in July!

The joy that is all this good news carries us with ebullience until we reach the front door of his new, modern apartment. During my last visit in 2014, I stayed here even before he did: baseboard weren’t in, water wasn’t hooked up – even still, it was a vast change from the family’s old courtyard home.

Tianxiang’s wife, Zhangwei, opens the door with a cute belly bump. She’s gracious and kind and she’s made the place a cozy, tidy home. Alongside the new fixtures and amenities, their wedding photos are everywhere.

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I love seeing them in their finest, just above the couch, the cabinets and the computer. Soon, his mother and father arrive.

Instead of diving into the shadow puppet stuff, we spend the day catching up. I clumsily assist Zhangwei in cooking us a fabulous lunch, we watch their wedding video (1 hour and 12 minutes of pure fun and firecrackers), and take a trip to the local flea market. In and amongst the news and the updates, we realized we’ve been friends for five years. Five years of sharing our work and struggles and successes and moves and marriages. It’s great to see the Lu family and Tianxiang so happy.

In the next few days, we dive in. We head to their old house, check out the current work and talk about the present circumstances.

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Things have gotten worse for handmade shadow puppetry since 2014, which was already in a downslide from 2012’s machine-made shadow puppet takeover. This year the price for the Lu’s corn harvest was also the lowest in recent history. Luckily, the Lu’s aren’t in immediate danger of losing their livelihood as Tianxiang still makes a solid living as a computer technician in the city and his sister is still working a financial job in the outskirts of Beijing. Still, things have changed. Tianxiang’s father seems a bit more prone to either exhausted silence or short rants about the good old days. His mother, buoyed by Tianxiang’s settled future, is more open about her indifference to shadow puppetry, despite her acquired skills in applying color.

Tianxiang, too, has found his focus shifting. He shows me the ad-hoc cutting studio he sets up in his new living room from time to time, but he’s cutting much less than he was. Understandably.

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With the future of handmade shadow puppetry already seemingly gone, a new life partner and the next generation on the way, he is caught exactly where everyone else is: this lifetime. When I ask him if he’ll teach his kid to cut shadow puppets, he says ‘yes’, but with practicality in his voice. History is important, but so is the future.

Of all my friends and participants in this shadow puppet journey, I worry least about Tianxiang and the Lu family. I’m not exactly sure why that is other than an intuition that’s developed over the years. There is a pure heartedness to them – not to be conflated with naïveté. It means that they’re always the right side, even if it’s the practical side, of the changes. Tianxiang has been open to collaborations and adaptations of his knowledge while also being equally ardent about supporting his father and the Tangshan style of shadow puppetry. This kind of diversification is just what shadow puppetry needs: creative preservation alongside all the other more ‘traditional’ methods of safeguarding or institutionalizing our dying art forms.

Soon, our visit must come to an end. I leave his new wife, his new apartment and take a taxi to the new train station and get on the new train back Beijing. They’re building a fast train from Beijing to Tangshan, set to open 2018. Looking forward to another return and another lesson on how to navigate these oncoming developments, expansions and changes with grace and integrity.

~Thanks for reading

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L>R: Lu Fuzeng, Xu Yishu, Myself, Zhang Wei, Lu Tianxiang

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Paradise Lost – Part 2

{Continued from Paradise Lost – Part 1.}

After a disheartening few days in Heshun Ancient Scenic Area and my sobering discoveries about the Tengchong Shadow Puppet Troupe, I went back to my hostel room to regroup.

Since I’d arrived in paradise, I’d been slowly developing a rash all over my body. This day, today, I’d hit my peak. My skin screamed out for hot water or dry sheets – any place with less humidity. Part of me felt like the increased discomfort outside was simply a manifestation of my growing unease inside. This whole trip, supposedly a triumphant return to Chinese shadow puppet apprenticeship, had turned into a long, sad trail of stories. Although my skin is telling me to run, I know I must stay. I need at least one more day to visit the Master Liu in Liuzha Zhai. 

The next day, I hustle to organize a ride out to the village and make sure the master is at home via his nephew, who is away on a job. The last time I visited Liuzha Zhai in 2011, I had been given a ride by the one of the former members of the troupe and the day had been filled with glorious family fun, community celebrations and stunning food. This time, it is just me – trying to find my way back along the breadcrumbs that might still be there.

A few buses get me back to Tengchong city proper. There, I hunt down directions to Liuzha Zhai. In a town any larger than this, it would be impossible to find someone who knows the way. As it is, everyone knows the way. The easiest path emerges as a bus to Huoshan, the famous volcano monument and then a private ride from there.

The tourist buses in town also have the lonely feel of off-season. Just villagers now, trying to get back to their village after selling their morning’s worth of wares in town or kids returning home from school. I seem to be the only possible tourist on the bus and I’m not even heading to Huoshan. After I dismount, I quickly make my way back to the biggest intersection near the old volcano and ask for a car that might take me to Liuzha Zhai. Within minutes, we are speeding down the road in a beige colored metal box. And, within just a few more minutes, the village’s gate comes into view. I hop off and make my way down a side road into the village.

This little side road feels familiar.

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I’ve walked it before. The tall brick walls of the village homes are only bested by the old growth of the trees that creep over top of them. The canopy feels warm and cool at the same time, casting a green glow on everything below. The relative quiet of village life compared with the din of a small town is noticeable. The mind quiets as well. I walk slowly even though I am anxious to get somewhere.

I know the master’s house is close – well, everything is relatively close in a small village. I ask a few passersby and they point me in the direction I am headed. A few missed turns and dead ends and finally, I am there.

With a timid knock, I step over the threshold of the master’s big red doorway.

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I meet his wife again who tells me the master is out but will be home shortly. I wait.

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She seems tired and not interested in talking, so I let the silence linger. In a few minutes, the master comes waddling through the doorway. We grin and I let him lead the way.

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Out first is a collection of machine-made puppets, which everyone has nowadays. I admire them; let him set them on some white foam backgrounds and we talk about their coloring and design. Next, some simpler handmade puppets depicting the common ethnic minorities in Yunnan province are placed into my hands.

IMG_8038Modern Hand-cut Ethnic Minority Shadow Puppets

The leather feels smooth, beautiful and though simple, the aesthetic is satisfying. Finally, I ask him to bring out his oldest puppets.

IMG_8048A 100+ year old Yunnan shadow puppet, made by Master Liu’s ancestors. 

The workmanship, the thick hide and the strength of the design is mesmerizing. It trumps all here.

Puppets are always my favorite thing. I could look at them for days on end and remain in their differences, their cutting mastery, their design logic – but today, I’m distracted. Even the beauty of the oldest puppet can’t keep me. I want to know how the master’s doing. To understand how he was in 2011 and to see him now, my heart sinks. The master has clearly been drinking at lunch, he has a terrible cough and he’s listless. I start gently by asking him about the troupe, his nephew, the changes. “How many performances do you have per year now?” “Not many”, “How is the troupe doing?” “The young people don’t like to participate anymore.” It seems to be too much already. His answers are patient, but curt enough for me to know I shouldn’t plunge too much further in. We small talk about big stuff: how many shadow puppet players from his generation are left, the power TV seems to have over the young people and his nephew. The answers are clear enough.

We talk for over an hour. I feel paralyzed. Part of me feels like I’m wasting his time and part of me never wants to leave. I can’t tell if my presence might give him a small remembrance that his work is meaningful or if it’s simply a nuisance that I won’t stop asking questions that have little direct meaning in his world. At some point it does feel greedy and I see his energy flagging. I buy a few modest modern puppets (hand-cut) and we say our goodbyes.

Prematurely, I’m back out onto the road, under the canopy, feeling lost. Much more lost than when I came.

Instead of heading directly to catch another car heading back to Huoshan, I decide to take a long walk around the village again. Nothing else seems to have changed from three years ago. Small children run and play, the small weekday market is doing modest business on the main road and though the prayer hall and the theatre are locked, they don’t look as though they’ve been left alone for too long.

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It’s true what they say. Some things change and some things stay the same. So, I hitch a car back into town and do my best to keep my chin up.

Thanks for reading~

Paradise Lost – Part 1

After a twenty-two hour train ride from Chengdu province to Kunming, I hopped a 10 hour bus ride from Kunming directly to Tengchong. I had ridden a similar bus three years ago when I came the first time, but Yunnan province has worked hard to improve the roads since. We sailed over the highways and stopped at newly built rest stops with impressive restroom facilities. I had forgotten, however, that once you get towards the far west of Yunnan, you have no choice but to start weaving in and amongst the increasingly tall mountain ranges. Somewhere in the midst of the last three hours of hairpin turns, I made a mental note to add travel notes of this nature to my Evernote log: “Hellish bus ride! Remember to take Dramamine 4 hours in, you dummy!” Not sure how I managed to keep my lunch.

We finally arrived, to my great relief, at the lonely longride bus station in Tengchong city proper just before dusk. From there, the puppeteers had told me to find them in their new location just northwest of the city in Heshun. I hopped a cheap taxi and we drove swiftly out of the city and into the green. Yunnan is so blessed with natural beauty it puts everyone, everyplace and everything else to shame. I’m not exaggerating. I would have been jealous of Yunnan had she attended my high school.

Quickly, we arrived at a beautiful little village nestled at the nape of a large mountain range.

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Water rushed between rivers and small lake below, and the sky was lit up with the natural fireworks of a southwestern sunset. Compared with the very nice but predictable city experience I’d had last time, these new digs felt like paradise. We passed some tourist guesthouses and what looked like a host of new construction, but I didn’t think twice about it. I was so happy not to be turning on a bus or stuck in a city somewhere that I went to sleep at the hostel with a smile on my face.

Three years ago, I visited Tengchong for a few weeks. I had met the troupe at the Huanxian Shadow Puppet Conference and had been so impressed with their rough and bold designs that I decided to make the trek down. After my trip, I declared it one of the best and most sustainable situations of any that I had come across in my travels; the government supported most of their work as stewards of Tengchong’s historical culture to leave them time to create new work and continue performing traditionally for their village nearby. They even had some young apprentices who were beginning to master performance techniques and showed interest in beginning puppet making.

The memory of that trip was keeping me optimistic. I figured their move to the tourist area of Heshun was simply following the tourism crowd, but that everything, probably, remained the same more or less.

I awoke with promise the next morning. All I had to do was find the troupe and begin the fun. They had replied to my early communication with short messages like, “Annie, we welcome you!” and “whenever you get here, we are also here!”

As I set off, I realized I was disoriented in this new village. The further I walked, the further I had to reevaluate my understanding of what this paradise was. It was beautiful, for sure, but it was also confusing. Local Baizu minorities were manning much of the food stalls, there were costumed docents in front of the historical temples and there were old folks selling trinkets all along the roadside. But, no one was there. Just me. They looked at me like I was an apparition. They didn’t even try to harass me for my patronage. They just let me pass silently onto the next onlooker. And so it went.

Soon, I got to what was clearly the ‘center’ of this village and here, things became clearer. Modern cafés, jade shops, restaurants and clothing shops lined the small winding streets and cobblestone alleys all the way from the mountain bottom to the water’s edge. The signs began to advertise for the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area. Closer to the base of the village, I spied an expansive parking lot, a main gate and tourist vans by the dozens.

The Heshun Ancient Scenic Area is a new project masterminded by an enterprising Chinese businesswoman who somehow bought visitation rights to the village and developed it for tourism.

M538These are the types of images that come up when you do an internet search for Heshun Ancient Scenic Area.

12_20120405100403_JUJBJUNEJUNCJUIzJUI5JUM1JUQ1JUYyNQ==More idyllic PR images for Heshun Scenic Area.

The main gate ticket is 80 yuan and gains you entrance to the ‘village’, the shops and a handful of old temples. The main entrance is a confusing layout of shops that look more like museums than anything else. And this is where the shadow puppet shop is.

Although the development is one of the nicest I’ve seen, it’s still a development. It has the soulless quality of the copy. And, worst of all, we visited in the low season of rainy June, making the entire place feel more like a movie set than an active village. The longer we stayed, the creepier it got. I couldn’t help but feel for the earnest trinket sellers and restaurant owners who prepared daily for the sad trickle of guests.

I waited at the empty shadow puppet store for a few minutes before I texted my friends. They were on their way for the 4:30 performance. The troupe of four arrived at 4:27, said their brief ‘hellos’ to me with much grinning; then flicked on the lights and CD player to set up for…Turtle and the Crane. Next up? The story of how Er Kuai (a famed dish of Tengchong) got its name. These were the same shows they’d performed nightly in 2011.

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My face dropped as I realized they’ve been performing these shows twice a day, 365 days a year for over three years.

This mistake happens to me often; I assume. It’s a bad habit as an ethnographer. So often I don’t notice the damage it has done until it’s too late. The confidence I had developed for the troupe’s stability in 2011, coupled with the responses I had recently received from the troupe members, had led me to believe the troupe was doing well – maintaining stasis. As I sat through the same two shows, however, with a troupe half the size of what it was, performing in a tourist area in recession, it was clear that Tengchong shadow puppetry had undergone severe changes.

After the show was over, the group’s new leader, Fu Guanguo, her young helper, Qiuju, and a few others headed to tea and dinner. Within an hour, everything was made clear. The troupe’s deal with the government in 2011, their lucrative gig playing to the nightly tourist buses at government-supported restaurants, had dissolved. They then moved the Troupe to the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area, employed as a ‘local Tengchong cultural act’, to enliven the tourist area and help validate that 80 yuan entrance fee. Their job was simply to perform the same shows everyday at 9:30 and 4:30 and if no one came, which they very often didn’t, they didn’t have to perform. With decreased income and almost no audience, the troupe divided.

The main master and his direct descendents, the core of the troupe in 2011, had all returned to ‘real’ jobs in order to provide for their families. Fu Guanguo, her nephew Liu Chaokan, Qiuju and her friend Liu Rong, can afford to keep working as puppeteers because they are not the main income earners in their families. With little income to start with and a tenuous future for the tourist village, innovation and development within the troupe will likely never happen.

I was starting to get that creeping feeling again, one that’d I’d also had in Xi’an when I visited a few weeks back. The decline is happening too fast, the changes too slippery and I can barely keep up with the news of it, let alone the research. But, at that moment, what can you do? I could only take a deep breath, be present and keep moving forward.

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Over an incredibly simple dinner of home-cooked pig’s feet stew, fresh local vegetables and my favorite sour tomato sauce, the mood grew quiet and contemplative. All of us, quietly torn between what we want and what is. We parted ways reluctantly and went out into the dark, empty alleyways under a light, warm rain.

{Continued in Paradise Lost – Part 2}

Thanks for reading~

Don’t Kill the Messenger

On my way west to Gansu Province from Beijing, I had to pass through my old stomping grounds of Shaanxi Province. Xi’an city is the only logical throughway before heading north by bus to the small desert city of Huanxian. My intention was just to check in on everyone, see how they were doing and be on my merry way. I had not expected to find things so wholly changed.

I had heard rumblings prior to my arrival about the Yutian Wenhua company and knew the Xi’an branch had closed down. I was worried about where my puppet making friends had scattered. When I asked my good friend, puppet maker Wangyan, what she’d be up to when I swung into town, she said “just getting back from doing a shadow puppet performance in Beijing”. I was overjoyed at first, but my relief was short lived.

Save just a few puppet cutters from the old Yutian Wenhua cultural commodity company, and they are the best of the best, the rest are currently out of work. One is delivering sodas, another working in a hotel and Wangyan tried a stint at the local mall. No wonder she jumped at a random opportunity to join a one-time-only shadow puppet performance to welcome the Turkmenistan leader to Beijing, even if she finds herself out of work again on her return to Xi’an.

One trip to the famed Muslim Quarter tourist street in Xi’an and everything is explained. The few shadow shops that were there in 2011 were filled with both machine and hand-cut shadow puppets. I had a growing worry then that most of the vendors were passing off machine-made as hand-cut and making a mint, but had still assumed the industry would progress slowly. Having spent so much time researching in China, I should have known better.

Now, the number of shadow puppet shops in the Muslim Quarter has tripled. And, the handcut shadow puppets? Gone. All of them. Not a single hand cut sample in the shops I visited.

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5This is just a sampling of the shadow puppet stores along the Muslim Quarter.

I’ll admit, the grump took a hold of me around the fourth shop or so and I gave an impolite scolding to a shopkeeper; not because they are only selling machine-made puppets but because they are still praying upon the ignorance of the consumer to make a profit.

This domination of the machine-made puppet hawked as the ‘real thing’ and the inability for the general public to tell the difference has put my good friends out of work. These incredible, beautiful artists have laid their hard won talents to rest. Worst of all, they make more working in malls and delivering sodas then they ever did cutting puppets. The world confuses  me at times like these. How have humans come to place more monetary value in a bottle of Coke than in an inherited intangible cultural folk art form?

Certainly, this change is happening swiftly everywhere if it hasn’t already. Worst of all, this market change has cemented the demise of Shaanxi’s famed shadow puppet cutting apprenticeship system.

There are just a handful of cutters now working in Xi’an and only a few more in shadow puppetry’s original hot bed of Huaxian. I can’t help but wonder just how long they can all hang on. And, I can’t help wishing for a miracle.

Thanks for reading~

As The World Turns

I’m back in mainland China for a 10 week fieldwork trip, focusing on shadow puppet troupes and puppet making methods in Gansu and Yunnan. Somehow I finished the first year in my PhD program and left for China within the span of just a few days. I’ll try not to ever do that again. The mental quiet and focus that the school year has demanded has softened my fieldwork rigor for the moment. I was wholly unprepared for the deluge of stimuli and the unforgiving pace of Beijing upon arrival. But, slowly, I can feel myself steeling up again: remembering to carry toilet paper and water with me, abandoning my expectations that anything will start on time and always (always) managing to recheck my assumptions.

As usual, I’m starting my trip in Beijing. It’s the perfect place to recover from jetlag, get my belly used to the oil and spice and get my brain firing in Mandarin again. It is also home to a growing number of shadow puppet friends from all walks of life. Beijing, from the beginning, has never been a place I thought I would invest much time into, as most of what remains here are modern shadow puppet troupes. Still, it grows increasingly undeniable that China’s capitol is the center of many things in this country, which continues to draw artists and innovators, including shadow lovers. Within just a few calls to some of my pals, I see that I’ve lucked out with my timing: so and so has an exhibition, so and so has a new theatre and so and so is opening their new shadow puppet collaboration tonight. Never a dull moment in China, ever.

Hanfeizi, the brother and sister company I first profiled in 2011, is currently busy with a few projects. Most notably, they are participating in an exhibition of handicrafts for the ART BEIJING expo happening. I attended on press day, a day before the exhibition officially opened, and was impressed to see a large showing of journalists, supporters and general enthusiasts. The shadow puppet corner takes up one of the 4 main walls and boasts a small, but classy collection of Dongbei style shadow puppets.

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HFZ 2Hanxing, left, beside two of the event organizers, his father and mother.

Liu Laoshi and the Longzaitian Troupe are also doing well. This troupe of little people remain some of the best trained and most enthusiastic students of shadow puppetry in the country. The manager, curious about my continued returns (this being my third in 3 years), decided I must be serious about shadow puppetry and welcomed me in with decided earnest. He explained that while the troupe’s reputation was growing steadily, with three branches in Beijing and 3 outposts in other provinces, the financial situation was still tight. The government does assist the troupe with things such as rehearsal and performance space, but does little else. They are still mostly subsisting on commissioned collaborations, ticket prices and some private funding. Because I had toted my friend Serge along as well, we got an extra special private showing of their prized blacklight show. So much neon! 

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Over at the Shichahai Shadow Puppet Themed Hotel, which is one of the nicest boutique hutong hotels around, my friend’s Larry Reed and Maomao have just teamed up together to launch a new shadow puppet performance of The Butterfly Lovers for the hotel’s audience. It was exciting to attend their opening night and I was impressed with the amount of work they managed to accomplish in one short week of rehearsal. It’s a great story to translate into shadow and will add to their growing repertoire of shows.

SCH HotelReading for the audience. Isn’t that screen gorgeous?

Buttefly lovers

As the luck of my timing continued, last year’s hutong shadow tour team is all in Beijing at the same time: Julie, my great friend who works with Miao textiles and shadows and Serge, my friend from Holland who works in contemporary painting and performance. Recently, I connected Serge to my friend Tianxiang to help him make leather puppets for some upcoming experimental animated films. Together, Julie, Serge and I did what we like to do. We made some shadow friends, took them to the hutong alleyways and lit up the night.

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All in all, a raucous and unrelenting beginning to my trip. I have no false expectations that this good timing will continue, only grateful to have been apart of the convergence. Can’t wait to see what the next two months has in store.

Thanks for reading~