Puppetry festival at MOA exhibits a unique Taiwanese cultural practice

According to puppeteer Ying-yuan Shueh, the key point of appreciation about a Taiwanese puppet show is the exquisite technique | Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology

According to puppeteer Ying-yuan Shueh, the key point of appreciation about a Taiwanese puppet show is the exquisite technique | Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology

Politicians play puppets in their campaign to impress voters, students cosplay as their favorite puppet characters, and a superstar puppeteer drives a Ferrari. These are street scenes in Taiwan, and Vancouverites will have a rare opportunity to see this puppet art form at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) Nov. 4, when the Ouxi Taiwanese Puppetry Festival kicks off.

The festival will feature two puppetry groups from Taiwan: the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre and the Chin Fei Feng Marionette Theatre Troupe. The former group features glove puppetry and has toured over 30 countries, while the latter company specializes in string puppetry.

Ying-yuan Shueh, a puppeteer from the Chin Fei Feng troupe, is excited to present his work to Vancouver audiences and experience the city himself.

“The key point of appreciation is the exquisite technique of the puppeteering,” says Shueh. “Every country has a different culture, and I see my trip to Vancouver as an opportunity to learn from other cultures, so as to enrich my performance.”

A symbol of Taiwanese culture

A traditional performing art since ancient times, puppetry has been in decline worldwide, giving way to

Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology

Photo courtesy of Museum of Anthropology

modern entertainment and the internet. Puppetry in today’s Taiwan, however, is swimming against the tide.

“Puppet theatre is considered a symbol of Taiwanese culture. It is a truly indigenous,” explains Robin Ruizendaal, a Dutch scholar who is globally-recognized as an authority on Asian puppet culture, in a 2013 lecture at the University of Scranton.

Ruizendaal has been living in Taiwan and China for more than 20 years researching Asian puppetry. He has published several scholarly books on this subject, and is also the managing and artistic director of the Taiyuan Puppet Theatre.

According to Ruizendaal, although Taiwanese puppetry has its roots in Mainland China, Taiwanese puppetry has developed its own style since 1949, the year when Taiwan and Mainland China were politically separated. While puppet theatre in the mainland was banned under Communism, the puppet theatre managed to survive in Taiwan and began to thrive in 1987, when martial law was lifted in the country. At the time, the Taiwanese were seeking an identity and they found in puppetry one form of cultural representation.

The fusion of many cultural elements

In Ruizendaal’s view, one of the unique characteristics of Taiwanese puppetry is the fusion of many cultural elements. The big eyes of some female puppet characters are an influence from Japanese manga. The pointed chins are the imprints of the plastic surgery appeal from South Korea. Some puppet shows even incorporate American music. Some troupes go further to include lasers and explosives to amplify the visual experience. Ruizendaal characterizes this practice as “postmodern.”

“Taiwan’s rich and complex history has had a major impact on its unique identity,” writes Jill Baird, curator of Education and Public Programs at MOA, in the announcement of the event.

She cautions that some Canadians oversimplify Taiwan and subsume it under a stereotypical understanding of China.

“We want to show Taiwan is different,” says Baird.

In May 2014, MOA launched a four-year program called Spotlight Taiwan to explore Taiwanese culture. The puppetry festival is a feature event of this program.

An interactive experience with the puppeteers

Besides staging a puppet show, the festival will include interactive activities and school workshops for younger audience to experiment with puppets. Visitors will also be invited to dine with the puppeteers, in homage to Taiwanese tradition. The festival ends on Nov. 9 with a collaborative performance between the Taiwanese puppeteers and two Haida artists, storyteller Kung Jaadee (Roberta Kennedy) and visual artist Gwaii Edenshaw.

“Live performance of puppetry is rare today,” says Baird.

She expects that tickets will sell out quickly as there are only 90 seats at the MOA theatre.

MOA presents Ouxi Taiwanese Puppet Theatre

Nov. 4–9

Museum of Anthropology, UBC

6393 NW Marine Dr., Vancouver