Behind the curtain of Bangkok’s Chinese operas


Guest contribution by Visarut Sankham

After graduating from university, I left my home in Isaan to work in Bangkok while staying in the Phaya Thai area.

One day in February, as I was walking past Phetchaburi Soi 10 on my way home, I encountered a Chinese opera stage being set up in the middle of a small alley where the community market is located.

I had seen Chinese operas before in my hometown Kalasin where it is performed every year during the cold season. As a kid, I had gone to the provincial shrine where these performances were held many times. But I did not understand the language and was more interested in the dragon and monkey-shaped candies or the Game Boys for rent.

But this time it was different; I stopped to watch the workers setting up the stage for the Chinese opera as they chatted in a familiar Isaan dialect. I asked the troupe leader and found out that three or four members of the team were from the Northeast. I learned that they had relocated to work in the capital just like I had.

Soon I found myself hanging out with them, talking about their roles in the troupe. I learned how this profession, regarded as a major part of Chinese culture, is carried on by Isaan people who make a living through it.

I decided I wanted to tell their stories through photography, the stories of those who came from where I came from, those who relocated and worked in the capital, just like me.

The performance has begun. There is a lot of commotion backstage. “It’s your turn, your turn, Roong!” calls out a young woman in a glittering gown that looks like it’d come straight out of a historical Chinese television show. Turning her head left and right, she is looking for someone. “Brother Roong! Brother Roong!”

A man runs to the back of the stage. He’s carrying plastic bags of green, red, and black-colored soft drinks. The colors reflect the many colors on his face.

“I’m very sorry. I was asked to get soft drinks,” says the man in Isaan dialect who then hands the bags to the performers and musicians backstage. He rushes off to get his red and black frock on and jumps on the stage wagging a stage lance at the audience.

It is Roong or Roongtawan Chernprasert, a 24-year-old Chaiyaphum native who has worked in this Chinese opera troupe for three years. He says he had often watched Chinese opera as a child when it was performed at the Chinese shrine in the province, and he first acted in one at the age of 16.

Roongtawan “Roong” Chernprasert, a Chaiyaphum native is tending to his gown, making sure it is as clean as it can be. It’s a delicate 5,000-baht frock that hardly withstands washing.

He recalls falling in love with Chinese operas from the very first. He had watched the performance four years in a row as a child. In the fifth year, his parents placed him under the care of the troupe owner and he became a professional performer.

“My parents liked watching Chinese opera,” he recalls. “My father brought me to work with a group in the province, placing me under the care of the troupe owner and I entered into Chinese opera performance then.”

Roong says as he began performing, the first obstacle was the Chinese language and pronouncing his lines correctly during the show.

“The language is a big problem because sometimes we have to speak Chinese during the performance. I have to memorize it without knowing all the meaning. I have to look into another actor’s eyes in order to know what he is going to say next.”

“I usually act as a soldier because I don’t have to say anything long,” Roong says, laughing.

An actor from Isaan jots down the Chinese dialogue into karaoke spelling for easy memorization.

A study on Teochew Chinese opera by Sayamol Chareonrat points out that the current form of Chinese opera in Thailand is influenced by the ever-changing Teochew style. The performance used to be under the patronage of aristocrats, but economic changes turned it into a travelling show, with provincial shrines as the most frequent venue.

Personally, I believe these constant changes are the reason that Isaan people started joining Chinese opera troupes.

Members of the Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong troupe that was hired to perform at Phetchaburi Soi 10 rest on their small stage in the middle of a busy market. Chinese operas are mostly performed at night, so actors and staff rest during the day.

At Phetchaburi Soi 10, the Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong troupe stays at a shrine building where they sleep and eat.

The Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong troupe was founded only about two years ago. Its owner had worked with other troupes for over 30 years. There were more than 30 actors in these troupes, a higher number compared to the more common number of 10 to 20 performers. Many of the actors come from the Northeast.

“Isaan people have been working with Chinese opera troupes for 40, 50 years,” the owner of Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong says. He adds that Isaan people were the first who got to work with the troupes and were trained by Chinese actors who owned the troupes. These Isaan actors at first mainly perform as soldiers or thieves.

But Isaan people have other roles, including beating drums backstage after finishing performing on stage or cooking and preparing stage props. Those who don’t perform might work as hi kea, the staff that looks after actors and the stage in the background.

An Isaan performer of Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong practises with an actor from China while two staff members are resting under the stage.

The busiest period for Chinese opera troupes is in February and March when their schedule is often packed with more than 20 performances per month. During other times of the year, there might only be five to six performances a month

Phanawan (left) and Phairot, a couple from Sisaket, apply their makeup. They met while working with a Chinese opera troupe and decided to live and work together.

But times have not been great. The owner of Tea Kia Ei Lai Soong tells me, “Many troupes are facing more difficulties than before, not because there aren’t any jobs, but because there is a shortage of performers.”

“The young generation has to study or go find jobs that pay better. Many troupes that experience this problem started to go out of business,” continues the owner. “We are relying on Isaan people to help us and we are going to train them to perform as similar as possible to the Chinese performers.”

The interview is cut short. The owner has to go fetch headwear for an actor who plays Bāo Zhěng, a famous Chinese literary character known as a judge, who is waiting for his cue behind the curtain.

Backstage, I meet Naen who is 23 and from Srisaket. She followed her parents who came to Bangkok to work. She has performed Chinese opera for about three months. When she first started working in the troupe, her tasks included cleaning and looking after performers and other staff. She told me that after she finished cleaning, she often practiced different roles by observing other performers and memorizing their movements and lines.

Naen, a 23-year-old woman from Sisaket, only started performing in the Chinese opera three months ago.

“The owner helps us with the script sometimes close to the day of the performance, but we need to memorize and learn the cues with senior performers,” Naen says, “We have to know that if they sing this, what we should sing back.”

New staff is usually assigned to work backstage, preparing the stage or performing in minor roles.

Performers who do not know any Chinese will learn their parts in pre-show rehearsals by observing the gestures of other performers, including cues like blinking.

Performing in a Chinese opera is difficult and Naen admits that her Chinese language and communication skills have not gotten much better. But she still likes performing and the job also supports her financially. She stresses that there is a lot of mutual support from colleagues and actors in the troupe; they’re like a family.

Children from the neighborhood on Phetchaburi Soi 10 sit in the front row to watch the performance. The Chinese opera performs every year, so many of them have become friends with the actors.


First published in Thai on 31 December 2018. Edited and translated by The Isaan Record.

วิศรุต แสนคำ

Visarut Sankham is a visual storyteller based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, whose work focuses on human rights, migration, and social justice issues. He is a member of Realframe, a human rights advocacy group focusing on visual media.