Some humans desire to transcend their biological limits. Such pursuit of immortality is expressed through art or architecture, or living through their descendants. I have been in touch with a number of artists who struggle to preserve their craft amid changing times. A succession crisis occurs when one cannot find anyone to continue his or her artistic legacy and only some can let go, though not easily.
I recently interviewed the owner of a Chinese opera troupe almost 100 years old at the Bangkok Design Week earlier this month. Thirapatnon Anankawin, 53, is currently at the helm of Chae Lang Ngek Lao Chun. After 40 years, a founding tycoon in Yaowarat sold his business to a music instructor, who managed the troupe for another 40 years but failed to pass it down to his children because they chose to run their own businesses. In the late 1990s, Thirapatnon bought the troupe.
"I don't expect my children to carry it forward. I'm not sure they will be able to resist change, go do something else," he said.
Originating in the Song Dynasty, Chinese opera appeared in a record by Simon de la Loubère, a French diplomat to Siam in 1687 during the reign of King Narai. It enjoyed the greatest popularity in the era of King Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), as evidenced by a plethora of Thai and Chinese troupes, theatres and schools on Yaowarat Road. Yet, it is experiencing a steady decline. As of now, there are around 20 troupes, down from over 100 in the glory days.
Thirapatnon attributed the downturn to finances, but other factors, especially the language barrier and changing demographics, come into play. Mostly delivered in Teochew, Chinese opera shows are accessible to a limited audience, most of whom are older Chinese-Thais. Meanwhile, there is a much wider choice of entertainment on other platforms that vie for consumer interest.
I praise him for fighting for his own cause, but not forcing it on his children. If they are not interested and skilful, succession can lead to failure and affect family relationships. In Balancing Family Tradition With Entrepreneurial Growth (2003), Yong Wang and Panikkos Poutziouris argue that only one-third of family businesses survive into the second generation, and the same ratio makes it through to the third, meaning that the rate of survival decreases over time.
He is a textbook example of luk jin, or Thai-born descendants of Chinese immigrants that depart from or negotiate traditional values, especially Confucianism. Born to a family of Chinese opera performers, Thirapatnon wanted to achieve success to make up for his parent's struggle to build their business future here. He actually did it over a decade ago when he injected entertainment into ritual-oriented shows to expand the audience, but as time goes by, Chinese opera is petering out.
Dating back to more than 2,000 years ago, Confucianism played a crucial role in shaping Chinese politics and society. It is based on the idea of mutual obligation in each type of human relationship -- whether it be family, couple or state -- that will bring about "an ordered society". In a 2006 article, Jun Yan and Ritch Sorenson discuss the effect of Confucian values on family business succession. Once a father retires or passes away, an elder son will take over the business because he must take care of subordinate family members in accordance with Confucius' hierarchy.
Thirapatnon's continuation of the troupe once coincided with the growing recognition of the Chinese in Thailand. He grew up in the last quarter of the 20th century, which saw China's reopening to the world in the 1980s and its rise to economic power in the 1990s. Its economic boom increased pride in Chinese origins, which dates back to the early 19th century when Siam saw an influx of immigrants. Histories of great business families or jao sua became bestsellers, providing aspirations for others to climb the social ladder. Television dramas, songs and fashions celebrated Chinese identity.
Yet, Thirapatnon does not force his ambition on his children, knowing that success cannot be replicated in changing scenarios and obstinacy will not get him anywhere. Individuality and self-determination should not be compromised for continued success in business, other than one's own. Refusal to pass the legacy/burden will open up opportunities to find new paths, which may unexpectedly give a new lease of life to the artistic past. But to do so, the older generation must let go.
Thana Boonlert is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.