2000 / 6月
Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by David Mayer
Like so many other ethnic groups, the Hakkas have their distinctive forms of opera, but their popularity has declined in recent decades. Even in Hakka communities, many of the younger generation have never even been to see a Hakka opera performance.
Hakka opera offers a range of different types, from three-part tea-picking opera to grand opera, and while there was once a time when tea-picking opera troupes played at indoor theaters to huge crowds, today's audiences are tiny. What exactly distinguishes Hakka opera from other types, such as Peking Opera, Kunqu opera, or ge zai xi (Taiwanese opera). What are its strong points?
The chance to see a performance of Hakkanese grand opera is hard to come by these days. It isn't put on anymore except on special occasions, such as the birthday of a god or a feast day in honor of a deity. In mid-December of last year, the Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe put on a performance at the Earth God Temple in the village of Shanghsingli in Toufen Township, Miaoli County. The selection on that occasion was an operatic work thanking the god for a bountiful harvest.
Let the show begin
Every winter after the harvest has been completed, the people of Shanghsingli put up a temporary stage in front of the Earth God temple to thank the Earth God for his beneficence. This type of drama, known as chou shen xi (thank-the-gods drama), comes in many varieties, but it generally comprises a main show preceded by a type of propitiatory drama called ban xian xi, in which the actors play the parts of various spirits (sometimes three, and at others eight) who act as a sort of go-between the people and the gods. The propitiatory drama serves many different purposes at the same time-to thank the gods for general good fortune or for specific prayers answered, for example, or to drive away evil spirits.
It is raining today in Shanghsingli, and there is a chill dampness in the air. A few hard-core fans, all of them getting on in years, sit in front of the stage with umbrellas in hand, waiting for the show to begin. The actors backstage hurry with their makeup and costumes, so as not to keep the old folks waiting.
The performance gets underway, and the sounds of various stringed and wind instruments liven up the chilly scene. In today's performance a man named Xue Pinggui is captured by the enemy and his son leads a contingent of troops to rescue his him. On the way, the son meets up with a bandit-woman on Mount Qipan. The theater-goers look on from under their umbrellas with rapt attention, but there are less than ten of them there even counting the baby in a stroller. The performers practically outnumber the audience!
The hills are alive...
Hakkanese grand opera developed from traditional three-part tea-picking opera, which itself derives from the very well known tea-picking songs that the Hakkas have long sung in the mountains. Hakka tea-picking songs are now lilting, now crisp and sonorous, and have an elegant air to them. The late-Qing author Huang Zunxian, who advocated literary innovation, described Hakka tea-picking songs as follows: "Lads and lasses sing to each other from neighboring hillsides. The hills reverberate continually with the sound of their singing, for they can hold a single note for the longest time. It is as if there were some sort of music sprite flitting gaily about the whole day long."
Many people can hum tea-picking melodies, and even those who can't sing it still hear it from time to time. But what exactly is tea-picking opera? There are plenty of people who don't have the slightest idea. Tea-picking opera is the general term for any type of Hakka theater, and has its roots in the tea growing region of Mount Jiulong in southern Jiangxi Province. Like other forms of popular performing arts, such as siping and luantan theater, it made the jump to Taiwan along with the earliest immigrants from the mainland.
There is no undoing the close ties between tea and the Hakkas who have long cultivated it in mountainous areas of southern China and Taiwan. The image of youthful tea pickers wending their way among the planted rows, calling out to each other from neighboring hills, will forever be associated with Hakka culture. Thanks to this activity, a repertoire of songs has been built up over the years. These tea-picking songs became the basis of stage musicals called cai cha deng or cha lan deng, which in turn gradually evolved into three-part tea-picking opera, a name which derives from the fact that no more than three performers take part.
"Strong local flavor and a lively informality are the two hallmarks of local drama." This is the view of Cheng Jung-hsing, president of the National Taiwan Junior College of Performing Arts, who notes the distinctly Hakka character of three-part tea-picking opera. It is intimately related to Hakka life in terms of its vocal music, story lines, and dialogue.
Taiwan's Hakka tea-picking opera troupes are only found in the northern counties of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli. As the story goes, this is because a three-part tea-picking opera troupe that immigrated to Taiwan in the early days of Han Chinese settlement decided to make its home in this area, while no such troupes ever immigrated to any of the Hakka communities of southern Taiwan. They say that this explains why the Hakkas of southern Taiwan sing tea-picking songs but don't have tea-picking opera.
Taiwan's tea-picking opera has always been classified by the government as one type of mainland Chinese opera. In Taiwan, however, it has become rather difficult to distinguish between tea-picking opera and Taiwanese opera, for the two have greatly influenced each other. It is only in recent years that Hakka tea-picking opera and other Hakka opera forms have come to be seen as a category in their own right.
Three-part tea-picking opera
Hakkanese opera is called tea-picking opera for two main reasons. First, the vocal music is adapted from Hakka tea-picking songs. Second, all the story lines in traditional three-part Hakkanese opera involve tea-picking. In fact, the story lines in Taiwan are even more focused than that-in every work of three-part tea-picking opera that plays anywhere on the island, the story revolves around a particular sojourn by a man named Zhang Sanlang, who set off from home to sell his tea.
The plot unfolds in a series of about a dozen different works. In Shang Shan Cai Cha (Tea-picking in the Hills), Zhang Sanlang goes tea-picking with his wife and younger sister. On the way, they prepare some offerings with which to pay their respects to the local Earth God. In Song Lang Shi Li Ting (Proposing a Journey for the Master), the trio finish picking their tea. Seeing Zhang idling about the house with nothing to do, his wife and sister persuade him to take his tea on the road and sell it. In the remaining works, Zhang sets out to sell his tea, but his wife tugs at his umbrella, reluctant to let him go. Zhang finally forces his wife to turn back, and he sets off on his way. Arriving at a distant village, he meets a high-spirited barmaid and the two take an immediate liking to each other. Three years later, having sold all his tea and spent all his money, Zhang must return home. The barmaid bids him farewell. Zhang's wife, in the meantime, has become worried about her husband's well-being, and consults a fortune teller. Zhang returns home, and is welcomed by his younger sister. Zhang's wife wants to know where all the money went, and Zhang cleverly turns her accusations back upon her. The finale is a happy ending.
Tea-picking opera goes native
The lyrics of three-part tea-picking opera are very playful: "Hey there, girl on yonder hill! How can I resist your eyes? As the flower turns toward the sun, turn your loving heart my way!" More often than not, the subject is romance: "Hey there, guy across the gully! All day long you peek and glance. If tomorrow you're still lonely, don't blame me! You had your chance!" The frequent focus on male-female relationships has led officials on many occasions to ban three-part tea-picking opera for being too prurient, while organizers of temple events have long tended to eschew it in favor of luantan (also known as beiguan) and siping opera.
"No one watches this kind of opera anymore," laments Huang Hsiu-man, an actress in her 60s who has been performing three-part tea-picking opera since she was a teenager. According to Huang, if you really want to put on a rousing performance you have to do grand opera because no one is interested in watching just three people on stage. In fact, this was clear as early as around 1920, when some in the theatrical community began to innovate by composing many new historical dramas and fusing three-part tea-picking opera with luantan and siping opera. The new "revised opera" has come to be known as Hakkanese grand opera. With that development, Taiwan's tea-picking opera took off in a new direction and differentiated itself from its mainland Chinese predecessor.
Lots of variants
Vocal music is the focal point of Chinese opera. According to Cheng Jung-hsing, "An opera without singing is not opera." The vocal music in Hakka tea-picking songs comes in many different varieties; by Cheng Jung-hsing's estimate, there are several hundred types. In tea-picking opera there are three main types. The melodies never change; only the lyrics do.
Luantan by day...
For a long time, traditional Chinese moral concepts effectively banned females from performing in the often-suggestive three-part tea-picking opera, so the female roles used to be played in most cases by male performers. That did not change in any major way until the 1940s when a group of child stars-including Cheng Jung-hsing's grandmother (Cheng Mei-mei) and Ah Yu-tan-broke the taboo. The number of female performers then began to gradually increase.
Just like puppet theater and Taiwanese opera, Hakka tea-picking opera was hugely popular for a time after Japan handed Taiwan back to Chinese rule in 1945. In addition to holidays and temple festivals, it was often performed indoors at theaters in extravaganzas that continued for up to two weeks in a row. The cast often ran to over 100 performers, and even the smaller events could boast some 40 or 50 performers. Ah Yu-tan and Cheng Mei-mei were very famous back then, and many of their performances earned critical acclaim while attracting huge audiences. Later, in order to suit the tastes of the day, tea-picking opera began to incorporate pop songs and elements of Taiwanese opera.
In addition to the annual Hakka holiday in July to commemorate the Yimin Militiamen, which ranks as the most important Hakka religious celebration of the year, Hakka theater is also performed on many other occasions, including Matsu's birthday in the first lunar month, the Jade Emperor's birthday on the ninth day of the first lunar month, and various other holidays throughout the year.
Outdoor theater generally starts at 9:00 in the morning with a two-hour propitiatory drama, which is more or less one long prayer to the gods. The "day drama" starts at 2:30 in the afternoon and runs until 5:00, and then the "evening drama" runs from 7:30 to 10:00 pm. Generally speaking, the day drama tends to be relatively formal, while the evening drama is more playful, hence the phrase, "luantan by day, tea-picking opera by night."
Just how popular was tea-picking opera in Hakka communities? Ku Te-fu, a farmer from the township of Chishan in Kaohsiung County, recounts the tale of his uncle's marriage. The uncle hired a tea-picking opera troupe to entertain the wedding guests and planned for the celebration to last five days, but people came complaining on the second day that nobody in town could get any work done because everybody was watching the performances. They had to wind up the celebration after three days in order to keep the peace!
Cheng Jui-miao, head of a Hakka folk song group in the Taipei suburb of Neihu, was a big fan of tea-picking opera as a child. He recalls that whenever a theater troupe came to town, everybody would drop whatever they were doing, come back home to watch the morning performance, go back to work, come back later for the afternoon performance, and get back to work one more time before coming back to catch the evening performance. "There were some ladies who would follow the troupe around wherever it went. Some people even chartered buses for entire groups!"
After Taiwan reverted to Chinese rule in 1945 Taiwanese opera went through a period of intense development, and tea-picking opera enjoyed a 20-year golden age. But nothing lasts forever, unfortunately. Modern technology-especially television and movies-began stealing audiences away in the 1960s, while a succession of natural disasters prompted the government to push for austerity and ask people to hold fewer temple events. Opera performances became less frequent, with indoor performances disappearing altogether. Some performers switched careers entirely, while many who had been involved in indoor performances had to start performing in the open air. Little did they know that 30 or 40 years would go by without another chance to perform indoors. Troupe members have aged and begun dying off one by one, and today there are only about a dozen tea-picking opera troupes left in Taiwan. The troupes run by Cheng Jung-hsing and Huang Hsiu-man are among the busier ones. They get hired very regularly, and are able to put enough performers on stage-sometimes as many as 20-to fill all the roles even in relatively large productions. The other troupes, however, are all very much in decline and cannot muster the number of performers needed for big shows.
In late December 1999, Fu-te Temple in Taoyuan County celebrated the 15th anniversary of the temple's complete renovation, and local residents held a big contest to see who could show the most obese rooster. And for the sixth year in a row, they hired Huang Hsiu-man's troupe to put on two days of theatrical performances. This troupe is quite well known in the counties of Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli, and in 1993 won top honors in three categories-best opera troupe, best young male character, and best musical accompaniment-at an island-wide Hakkanese opera contest.
Huang Hsiu-man learned her craft from her mother, the famed Ah Yu-tan, under whom she began studying at the age of ten. Huang began at age 14 to play the roles of young females. Now she's over 60 years old and has long since switched to playing the roles of young males.
At about 11:00 they begin to perform a propitiatory drama, which finishes up in less than 20 minutes, and Huang Hsiu-man starts thinking backstage about what to perform in the afternoon. Huang says mostly old folks watch the afternoon performances, which tend to go heavy on historical dramas. Although she knows 60 different works, selecting one for the afternoon is still quite difficult. This is her sixth year at this event, and she can't repeat anything that she's done here before. Furthermore, there aren't so many performers available, and they're all getting on in years. All these factors narrow down her options considerably.
The performers are seasoned veterans who can handle each role in each work. All it takes is a short little refresher and they're ready immediately for full-dress performance. They often get creative on stage and improvise on the spur of the moment, which adds to the fun.
You sometimes hear strains of Taiwanese opera mixed in with outdoor tea-picking opera, and there are even scenes where one character will speak Hakka and the other will answer in Minnan. According to Huang Hsiu-man, tea-picking opera troupes learned very early on to sing in Hakka to Hakka audiences and in Minnan to Minnan-speaking audiences in order to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. These troupes have often added dance routines, pop tunes, and non-musical stage plays to their repertoires, with truly eclectic results.
Old performers, old audiences
The decline of traditional opera has forced troupes to cut prices to stay in business, and this has naturally had a deleterious effect upon the quality of their performances. According to Huang Hsiu-man, the going price for a single performance is usually around NT$35,000 to NT$40,000. Each stage actor earns at least NT$2,000 per day, while a musician commands a daily salary of NT$3,000 to NT$4,000. The only way troupes can keep afloat is by reducing the number of performers. The quality of the shows has naturally declined.
"A performer doesn't get so many gigs-less than ten days a month on average," says Huang, "and you can't live on that kind of money." Many have abandoned their stage careers, while those who continue to perform often supplement their income by working the funerals as professional wailers. Since there are no young performers joining the troupes, Hakka tea-picking opera is gradually disappearing as the current performers age. "It's all old folks up on stage and old folks down in the audience," says Huang. "Young people can't understand it and don't care to learn." The youngest members in her troupe, for example, are all in their 50s and 60s, while the rest range on up to 81.
Because there is no new blood coming in, these people have performed steadily ever since their youth. Even for those who still have good singing voices, all the makeup in the world won't hide the signs of age. As the saying goes, "Time forgives no one." The number of tea-picking opera troupes has dropped from 40 or 50 to about a dozen today, and some of the remaining ones are as good as defunct, for they can't gather the resources to put on a proper performance. Even the busy Huang Hsiu-man says, "I'm getting pretty old. I'm thinking about closing down the troupe next year and retiring."
Modern tea-picking opera
With the movement in recent years toward a more Taiwan-centered culture, some have thought it time to breathe new life into Hakkanese grand opera. After his famous grandmother's troupe closed down, Cheng Jung-hsing revived it in 1997 under a new name-the Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe. In 1992 Cheng's troupe won the Ministry of Education's Award for Folk Art Preservation. In 1995, the troupe produced and performed a special work at the invitation of the National Theater. In that same year, the Taipei Municipal Government's Traditional Arts Festival invited the troupe to perform a traditional Hakka drama. And in August 1996, they appeared in yet another work at the National Theater.
Traditional three-part tea-picking opera, which had totally disappeared from outdoor stages, is now making a bit of a comeback thanks to the educational efforts of many stage veterans. Besides demonstrating the original look and feel of the fundamental elements of Hakka three-part tea-picking opera, the effort has included an overhaul of the costumes, lighting, and scripts. They have even started putting up screens for running captions so that non-Hakka audiences can following the dialogue. "We added some innovations to make it more interesting," says Cheng Jung-hsing, while emphasizing that the vocal style, language, and overall spirit of the works are all the same as ever. "Stage drama always changes in step with society," says Cheng. "While the fundamentals are passed down from one generation to the next, the art evolves in response to changes in society. That's how drama survives. It couldn't be otherwise."
Although it has dispensed with some of the forms of traditional three-part tea-picking opera, Hakkanese grand opera still retains the unique vocal style that marks it as Hakka opera. The acting techniques, however, have come to resemble those of Peking Opera or Taiwanese opera. In the opinion of Cheng Jung-hsing, among all the different types of Chinese opera, Peking Opera has the best stage acting techniques. All the others are just imitations of Peking Opera, so the acting is quite similar. For the average non-theater buff, apart from the fact that the language is Hakka, the new type of tea-picking opera doesn't appear to be much different from Peking Opera or Taiwanese opera. In fact, there are people who describe tea-picking opera as "Taiwanese opera performed in Hakka." But the true connoisseur can pick out subtle differences in melodies, vocal style, and acting techniques. Cheng Jung-hsing, for example, points out that the young jesters and young female characters in tea-picking opera walk differently than they do in Peking Opera, because tea-picking opera drew most heavily in its early days on a different type of opera called luo di sao.
Passing on Hakka culture
If tea-picking opera is to be revived, the most important task is to train a new generation of performers, which is why Cheng Jung Hsing's troupe began recruiting new blood three years ago. In July 1997, the Executive Yuan's Council for Cultural Affairs hired the Miaoli Academy of Hakka Theater to take part in the council's Folk Arts Preservation and Training Program. The troupe's role in the program is to train young performers of tea-picking opera. According to executive secretary Fan Yang-kun, all of the 20 or more students enrolled are about 20 years old. They're still students, and thus only have time to study tea-picking opera during vacations.
In addition, Cheng Jung-hsing also states that the National Taiwan Junior College of Performing Arts is planning to establish a Hakka drama department this year, which will certainly play an important role in cultivating a new generation of performers. It may not be easy to bring back the tea-picking opera of yesteryear, but as long as there are people willing to take up the torch, there is a good chance that the art will continue to live on.
Tea-picking opera is only performed these days at an occasional temple function. Apart from the language, probably most people in Taiwan can't tell the difference between tea-picking opera and the ubiquitous Taiwanese opera.
When people organize stage performances to honor the gods, the first item on the agenda is always a "propitiatory drama" in which the actors play the parts of various spirits (sometimes three, and at others eight) who act as a sort of go-between the people and the gods. The performer here is playing the part of the god of wealth.
Although the melodies, vocal style, and acting techniques in tea-picking opera are not quite as refined as those in Peking Opera, tea-picking opera has evolved to a similar level of artistic achievement within its own parameters.
With tea-picking opera, the musical accompaniment is lighter and cheerier than the dirges generally heard in Taiwanese opera.
Veteran performers have every move down pat as they prepare costumes and makeup. But both on stage and down in the audience, you find only old folks. One cannot help but worry whether the humorous antics of tea-picking opera will soon become a thing of the past.
(facing page) Late last year, Fu-te Temple in Taoyuan County celebrated the 15th anniversary of the temple's complete renovation. They hired a tea-picking opera troupe and lion dancers to mark the occasion. (above) In addition to the stage performances, the event also included a contest to see who could show the most obese rooster. The winning rooster weighed in at close to 12 kilos!
A temporary outdoor stage has been set up immediately opposite an Earth God temple. The purpose of hiring a drama troupe is to thank the gods for their benevolence and supplicate them for their continued good graces, but the audience is sparse, and the performers look rather uninspired.
Tea-picking opera is only performed these days at an occasional temple function. Apart from the language, probably most people in Taiwan can't tell the difference between tea-picking opera and the ubiquitous Taiwanese opera.