Judge Bao, the flinty and decisive Chinese opera character with a crescent Moon on his forehead, starts to sing and glide across the stage. As usual, he's handing out his verdict to criminals and upholding morality, yet something sets this particular Bao apart from his other incarnations: He sings in Thai.
"We're in Thailand and the main language we use to communicate is Thai. For Chinese opera to survive here, it also has to be in Thai."
That's what Ampan Jarensuklab believes. Although best known for starring in a TV commercial as an abominable man who won't finish eating his fish _ thus his nom de guerre Meng Por Pla _ television is just a side job. Ampan's main role revolves around the stage, contributing greatly to the art of ngiw, or Chinese opera, chiefly by pioneering Thai-language versions of the ancient craft once seen only in Chinatown.
For years he has given lectures on ngiw at universities. He once staged a performance for HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and he trained Thai actresses such as Siriluck "Joy" Pongchok for a Channel 3 soap series which incorporated a ngiw performance. Ampan definitely takes his art and spreads it around.
He had the opportunity to spend his high school years in China and studied the art of Chinese opera. On coming back to Thailand in 1964, his fondness for the art form and immersion in a community appreciative of Chinese operas led him to become the first to translate Teochew Chinese operas into Thai.
We're talking about the times when television was non-existent, let alone the internet or digital devices, and live performances were the public's only source of entertainment. As a young boy, Ampan grew up in a Chinese family that loved to watch the opera, and he skipped class to watch shows when they came to his neighbourhood.
''It was wildly popular because there were a lot of Chinese people in Bangkok then,'' Ampan recalls. ''From Sam Yan, Chula, Hua Lamphong, Sampheng to Yaowarat, Chinese was the main language people used.''
Back in the 1950s they were solely performed in various Chinese dialects, with the main target audience being Chinese people living in Thailand. Usually, audience members had to pay a fee, but if the performances took place at temples they could be viewed for free. These shows would usually take place during festival seasons _ Chinese New Year and others _ where it is believed that Chinese operas should be hired for the the entertainment of the gods, as well as the people.
''However, when the opera troupes went to tour in the countryside, people took great interest in it because it was something new for them,'' Ampan explains. ''If they didn't watch Chinese operas, there were only outdoor films, likay and Surapol Sombatcharoen-styled luk thung concerts.''
With a growing interest for Chinese opera among Thai people and decreasing Teochew-speaking audiences as the generations died out, it later became crucial to provide Thai dubbing so the story could be understood.
''When [Thai] people know there isn't any dubbing, they just get up and leave. The dubbing is done when there is no singing and it's only instrumental, nevertheless it's still beautiful music to listen to. The problem then becomes the Chinese people who didn't like the Thai dub disturbing their show experience altogether.''
It was then that Ampan saw the light and realised it was necessary to make ngiw a type of Thai art altogether in order to ensure its survival.
Judge Bao, timelessly popular whether in Chinese operas or television series.
''Ngiw is a specific type of art performance and it can become a part of Thai culture, just like how likay is from India and musicals also originated from abroad. There are more than 200 types of ngiw in China because every region has their own language. Why can't we make ngiw another type of art in Thailand? We should be able to do that.''
The task of translating Teochew lines to Thai was no picnic, Ampan tells us.
''It's not an easy thing at all because you need to know about music as well the Thai language. You must understand how the scale and the musical system works and how you can put Thai words in so it creates balance and sounds good. Luckily, I liked to listen to luk thung and international music as well, so it helps.
''Back in the day, there wasn't even any note-reading or script. People either had to memorise everything or they simply sang whatever they felt like singing. It was very old-fashioned and very underdeveloped compared to what I saw in China, where they place great importance on performance art. There's no standard, so what the actors sang didn't go with the music and the message they had to deliver blurred. What is their personality? The things they say should be in line with what they are.''
One of the first developments Ampan initiated was teaching the performers to learn to read musical notes and scripts, which in turn, can create harmony and prevent people from speaking at the same time. Today all performances are scripted and are hardly improvised. Other than that, he also tries to bring Thai plotlines into Chinese opera, using great stories such as the ghost story of Nang Nak, or the historical episode of Queen Suriyothai or King Naresuan. Thinking of new actions and dances to go with it is also trying.
''It looks nice when the actor is doing the horse-gallop stunt. When he's 'riding' an elephant, which is non-existent in Chinese stories, his legs are wider apart and it looks less beautiful and silly when he is galloping.
''This is something I must continue to study and figure out every day.''
On top of the difficulty of changing the language and actions, his objective of trying to preserve the art was not without opposition.
''People didn't understand why I was changing everything into Thai and thought that it was a threat to the Teochew heritage,'' Ampan recounts. ''They didn't understand that I was trying to establish this as a Thai art and that it wasn't specifically a Teochew art any more. With my troupe, it's not a performance group out to just make a living. We have our morals and place great emphasis on the artistry of the craft. You can see that in our stage design, more elaborate costumes and our performers going through longer, harder practice hours.''
Ampan's troupe's performances are hard to catch; in fact, any Chinese opera performing in Thai is hard to find nowadays, according to him.
''There is a lack of personnel in this field today and we must hurry to produce more qualified people because with Asean joining together in the future, Chinese opera is actually one of the things that will be used to bridge the different cultures together. I would want to start a school that gives everyone the opportunity to study about the art. There is so much to learn: how it must be sung, how to write scripts, how Shanghai and Peking operas are different and so on. I want to preserve and to develop the art so it is even better. For me, this is not even about business or financial gain but about building a person.''
After all, the old pioneer sees great importance in this old art, but more importantly, what it gives people.
''With ngiw, there is always a moral and the main importance is every single story teaches people to do good things. It is like a movable school and you can learn about so much Chinese history and culture just by watching.
''In fact, the only real Thai people that first entered this field were Isan people, and they were usually young teens who had no homes. During those times, they lacked performers and these kids didn't have anywhere to go so troupes took them in. They may just start out with small roles like soldiers but through time and experience, now they probably have main leading roles.
''It brings many good things because it doesn't only teach Thai people about Chinese culture, it creates. It's not just something Chinese people can perform, anyone can, if given the opportunity.''
Catch Ampan's troupe from today until Tuesday at Seacon Square, which will be hosting the ''Sueb San Tamnan Mungkorn'' fair to celebrate Chinese New Year. A grand line-up of Chinese opera shows in Teochew and Thai languages will be at both Srinakarin and Bang Khae branches. The programme includes
The Teochew Wife, an international Chinese opera; two Teochew operas,
The Good Wife Must Die and Xichu Bawang (The Great Conqueror's Concubine); and two Thai-Chinese operas _ The Blind Empress and Bao Wen Zheng: Beheading Bao Mian.
Make-up, along with costume and set design, is one of the defining physical components of ngiw .
About the author
- Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer