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Chinese Opera Portrait
Bangkok
By Andre Malerba
25 May 2018

A Chinese opera actress poses for a portrait in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

Chinese opera in Thailand is a dying art. Opera companies performed for years in theaters, but the tradition is now under threat because of changing cultural habits and demographics. Nowadays these companies travel from village to village, bringing the tradition as a way to honor ancestors rather than to entertain the masses. Local Chinese temples raise the money to pay expenses.

Chinese opera became popular when Chinese migrated to Thailand in large numbers two hundred years ago. About 14 percent of Thailand’s population is ethnic Chinese. As older ethnic Chinese pass away, younger generations who have assimilated into Thai culture do not really continue the tradition. Further, just a small number of Thais of Chinese descent understand the dialect used by these opera singers.

Text: Ana Salvá

Fotos: Walter Astrada

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 01
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

One of the star performers applies makeup before going on stage. He is one of the few who continue to sing in Chinese dialect. Some of the company are ethnic Chinese, but others are rural Thais who were sold into the troupe when they were children. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 02
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

An opera company member applies makeup before the performance. The child is the son of a couple of the performers who accompanies his parents in their nomadic life. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 03
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

Chinese opera companies travel from one village to another in Thailand performing in local fairs and festivals. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 04
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

A portrait of one of the performers. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 05
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

Chinese opera company members ready for a performance. The actors and singers carry on the tradition as a way to honour ancestors rather than to entertain the masses

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 06
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

An audience member enjoys the performance of a Chinese opera near Ayuttaya, north of Bangkok. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 07
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

Two children watch the performance of a Chinese opera near Ayuttaya, north of Bangkok. As time goes by Chinese opera performers see fewer new faces in the audience. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Dying Chinese Opera in Thailand 08
Ayutthaya
By Ana Salvá
23 Mar 2016

A member of the opera company applies makeup near the stage. Some of performers are sold into the troupe as children and raised in the company with little education. Picture by Walter Astrada.

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Chinese Opera 21
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A Chinese opera performer waits on the stage before the show.

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Chinese Opera 20
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung Chinese opera applies makeup in front off the stage, to the audience eye. The company has been hired by the congregation of Chinese shrine 'Jing Sia Ma', in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.

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Chinese Opera 19
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A performer plays with the youngest member of the company on the stage before the show.

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Chinese Opera 18
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Lao San Zian Sung performers smoke cigarettes and relax prior to hitting the stage.

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Chinese Opera 17
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung applies makeup backstage. Chinese opera has been performed for hundreds of years.

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Chinese Opera 25
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung and his son, who sometimes also plays at the shows, are seen at the backstage. Some members of the company, aside of being colleagues, also are relatives.

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Chinese Opera 24
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung applies makeup backstage. They spend several hours getting ready for the show.

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Chinese Opera 23
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung applies makeup backstage. They spend several hours getting ready for the show.

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Chinese Opera 22
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung applies makeup backstage.

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Chinese Opera 16
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Lao San Zian Sung performers relax prior to hitting the stage.

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Chinese Opera 14
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A Chinese opera performer is seen in the mirror while applying makeup. Each mask color has a different meaning. They are used to portray a character's role and illustrate their emotional state.

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Chinese Opera 13
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung is seen on stage lowering the curtains to prepare for the next show.

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Chinese Opera 12
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung performs Chinese opera during the Vegetarian Festival in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown. A show can run for five to six hours.

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Chinese Opera 11
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Members of Lao San Zian Sung performs Chinese opera during the Vegetarian Festival in the heart of Chinatown's Bangkok. Their shows usually run for five to six hours. The itinerant Thai-Chinese opera troupe The Lao San Zian Sung Thai-Chinese opera troupe has been performing since the mid-1960s.

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Chinese Opera 09
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A thai little girl carefully watches a play by the members of Lao San Zian Sung.

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Chinese Opera 08
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung is seen in the backstage ready with her makeup and costume to take part in the show. Despite busy activity backstage, performers always remain in character.

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Chinese Opera 04
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung waits his turn to take part in the show.

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Chinese Opera 02
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung gets ready backstage. Performers need to be physically and mentally ready since the show lasts for hours.

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Chinese Opera 01
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Members of Lao San Zian Sung performs Chinese opera during the Vegetarian Festival. The Thai-Chinese opera has about 30 members and some have been with the troupe since the early beginnings in the 1960s.

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Chinese Opera 15
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

An opera performer gets ready before the show.

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Chinese Opera 06
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Chinese opera performers are seen in the backstage waiting their turn to take part in the show.

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Chinese Opera 03
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung waits his turn to take part in the show.

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Chinese Opera 05
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung is seen in the backstage ready with her makeup and costume to take part in the show. Colours are used to portray a character's role and illustrate their emotional state.

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Chinese Opera 10
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Space backstage is limited, so the artists have to take turns applying makeup and getting dressed.

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Chinese Opera 07
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

A member of Lao San Zian Sung is seen in the backstage before the show.

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Chinese opera struggles to survive ne...
Bangkok
By Biel Calderon
24 Sep 2014

Lao Sa Jia Sung, an itinerant Thai-Chinese opera troupe, has been performing Teochew Opera, an slight variation of Chinese Opera, since the mid 60’s. Some of them are part of the troupe since the early beginnings of the company.

Traditional Chinese opera is one of the oldest performing arts in the world. The opera dates back to China's early history with its importance ramping up in the 13th century during the Song Dynasty. This ancient art combines drama, music, literature along with acrobatics and martial arts.

It is hardly seen on stage in Thailand in the 21st century, except during the Vegetarian Festival, the Chinese New Year and other holiday periods, always around Chinese temples and shrines. Modern forms of entertainment, like TV Soap Operas and the Internet, are widely established within Thai society, thus it is very difficult for traditional opera groups to attract new public. Despite the difficulties in gaining new audience and, therefore, funding, Chinese opera resists disappearing and keeps performing in the Southeast Asian country.

Lao Sa Jia Sung recently performed during the eleven days of the Vegetarian Festival at the Chinese Jing Sia Ma shrine in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown. The team, consisting of about 30 members, delivers a delightful daily show for its mostly Thai-Chinese audience, combining literature, theatre and musical performance, with plenty of old fashioned entertainment. They spend most of the time together, working full time for the company.
Performers spend several hours a day applying makeup backstage and getting into character. "With our commitment with this performing art, there is no room for tiredness", one of the performers says. They need to be physically and mentally ready since each performance lasts for about five hours.

Now, they are on the road again. The troupe will now travel around Malaysia for the next six months. They will come back to Thailand after the Malaysian tour. Despite their difficulties, the members of Lao Sa Jia Sung show strong enthusiasm and fight to keep alive this ancestral form of Chinese art and entertainment. As one of the performers stresses, “It's our way of life.”