Revitalizing Hakka Culture:

The Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe

2019 / November

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Brandon Yen

Hakka Grand Opera, which originated in three-role Tea-Picking Opera, is an authentic form of Taiwanese theatrical entertainment. In the past century it has experienced the vagaries of time, first enjoying huge popularity, then suffering a decline, and now regaining some of its former glory. As the fifth-generation director of the Miaoli Chen Family Beiguan Bayin Troupe, and as a grandson of the 1950s Tea-Picking Opera star Cheng Mei-mei, Cheng Rom-shing has taken up the mantle, vowing to revive Hakka Grand Opera.

Rising from its rural origins to performances at the National Theater and even overseas, the Rom ­Shing Hakka Opera Troupe has given Hakka Grand Opera an enduring fame and popularity. Over the years, it has won the Folk Art Heritage Award, the Award for Successfully Promoting Social Education (group category), and the Social Education Public Service Award (group category) from the Ministry of Education in Taiwan. In addition, for six consecutive years the troupe won Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music, in categories such as Best Performance and Best Traditional Performing Arts Audio and Video Production.

A natural talent for Hakka music

Born into the Miaoli Chen Family Beiguan Bayin Troupe, Cheng Rom-shing has been drawing upon his rich cultural inheritance to revive Hakka Grand Opera. In doing so, he has responded to the Hakka people’s perennial yearnings for home, both in Taiwan and abroad. “I brought out my first album when I was six years old.” Devoted to Hakka music and theater throughout his career, Cheng has kept up his family tradition. Under the rigorous training of his grandfather, Chen Qing-song (recognized as one of the great performers of his day), and his father, Cheng Shui-huo, Cheng’s talent revealed itself at a very young age.

“Hakka music is absolutely unique in terms of its instruments and style.” Cheng is a visionary innovator who was among the first to graduate from the music department at Soochow University and from the Chinese music department at Chinese Culture University before going on to pursue his postgraduate studies in the music department at National Taiwan Normal University and then to study for a diplôme d’études approfondies (DEA—“master of advanced studies”) at New Sorbonne University (Paris III). In 1988, Cheng established the Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe upon the foundations of his grandparents’ Qing-Mei Tea-Picking Theater Troupe. Committed to the revival and promotion of Hakka theatrical art, Cheng’s troupe has won numerous awards over the years and has attracted international accolades.

“Because the singing in traditional Hakka the­at­rical performances is very high-pitched, we use the ­characteristic low tones of the panghu [a two-stringed Chinese fiddle with a large round soundbox] to achieve a balance.” It is this wonderfully rich tonality and charm that make Hakka theater so captivating and unforgettable.

The allure of Hakka Grand Opera

“Traditional three-role tea-picking operas are extremely economical because each actor also has to play the strings or the drums.” Cheng Rom-shing has assumed a vital role in transforming a theatrical art that was originally performed outside village temples into one with complex storylines played out by a full cast. In 2017 alone, Hakka operas were performed in the National ­Theater in Taipei no fewer than ten times.    

“From composing a play to performing it, the process takes at least a year.” The elaborately crafted productions are invariably greeted with enthusiasm when first performed. “The same play, when performed in different locations, has to be carefully readjusted in terms of lighting and ­choreography.” Cheng draws inspiration from innovative ideas in modern performance art to give a richer texture to traditional theater.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle that we’ve been able to revive Hakka Grand Opera in metropolitan Taipei.” In 1987, the Taipei City Government commissioned the Chinese Folk Arts Foundation to host the inaugural Hakka Arts Festival in Taipei New Park (now 228 Peace Memorial Park). Cheng submitted a proposal to his mentor Hsu Tsang-houei (the famous musician who established the CFAF) and returned to Miaoli to reconstitute his family’s theater troupe. The Qing-Mei Tea-Picking Theater Troupe, whose double-barreled name was taken from the names of Cheng’s grandparents, had disbanded when his grandmother died. It seemed preordained that the troupe should be resuscitated for the Hakka Arts Festival, to flourish again under the name of the grandson, Rom-shing.

“Our performance was a great success.” Hakka Grand Opera had not been performed for many years and was sorely missed by many Hakka people. The news of its revival spread fast, causing a sensation. “After we played at the festival, invitations came pouring in.” As early as 1992, three years prior to their first appearance at the National Theater, the Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe began to perform overseas, winning admiring responses wherever they went.

“The traditional virtues of loyalty, filial piety, honor and justice are the core feature of Hakka theater.” In those times when very few people were formally educated, theater had an important didactic function. From the Hakka-language libretti to the musical arrangements, from props to costumes and makeup, Cheng considers every detail carefully. “Every time we perform abroad, we offer an entirely new production.” 

Breathing new life into the troupe

“My grandmother started learning to play in three-role operas when she was five or six, and she began to perform in grand operas when she was ten.” It was only natural that Cheng became an expert in theater, for he grew up with the family troupe, absorbing its sounds and scenes from an early age. He is well versed in the Hakka, Mandarin and Hokkien languages, all of which are used in the operas. In Hegemon-King of Western Chu and Consort Yu, a grand opera based on the Chu-Han Contention and written by Tseng Yong-yih, Cheng experimented with a “three-in-one” approach, bringing together operatic conventions from Taiwanese Opera, Hakka Opera and Peking Opera. This innovative masterpiece won the Best Traditional Performing Arts Audio and Video Production Award at the 25th Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music in 2014. In addition to performing traditional Chinese historical dramas, Cheng’s troupe goes so far as to adapt Shakespeare’s plays. “We aim to pursue innovations within a traditional framework.”

Actors are the backbone of theater, and Cheng has always endeavored to nurture the next generation. In­evit­ably, traditional theater will have to confront the challenges posed by the aging of its performers. “Regarding training young actors, we have been doing tolerably well.” Thanks to a program that teaches all theatrical forms in a gradual way, we now see many young faces on stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience; they are breathing new life into Hakka Grand Opera. Valuable experiences are being shared among people of different generations, who make up an all-round team of nearly 50 members, including the orchestra, the actors and the administrators. Their achievements are remarkable. Additionally, Cheng is devoted to outreach courses designed for the general public and for students at large, helping more people to understand and appreciate the cultural content of Taiwanese Hakka theater.

“Our actors have been winning awards year after year.” Chiang Yen Li, performing in Hegemon-King of Western Chu and Consort Yu (2014), Chen Chih-hou in Betrayal (2015), Chen Yi-ting in Stories Between the Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law (2016), Su Kuo-ching in Su Qin (2017) and Chen Szu-peng in Hunchback Man and Flower Girl (2018) all won Best New Artist awards at the Golden Melody Awards for Traditional Arts and Music. In 2019, A Lovely Fairy Tale was shortlisted for Best Traditional Performing Arts Audio and Video Production, and Cheng, as artistic director, won Best Album Producer and Best Music Design, dazzling everyone.

Cheng has an inborn sense of purpose. All the accolades only serve to motivate him to work harder to preserve and build upon the groundwork laid by his forebears. From founding the Taiwanese Opera department at the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy in 1994 to serving as president of the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts and establishing the Hakka Opera School in Miaoli County, Cheng has unstintingly dedicated his life to the revival and preservation of folk music and theater.

“Performing overseas is always a headache.” The travel expenses, which often amount to several million NT dollars, cannot be entirely met from ticket sales. “The enthusiastic responses of our Taiwanese friends are our biggest support; they keep us going.” Those passionate members of their audience have long since become the troupe’s close friends. Without Cheng asking, they make generous donations to alleviate his financial difficulties. The list of patrons is deeply etched into Cheng’s heart. Always grateful to his supporters, Cheng is determined never to disappoint them.

Once again, the curtain rises slowly amid the orchestral fanfare. Bright lights suddenly blaze upon the scene. To this as to their other performances, the Rom Shing Hakka Opera Troupe aims to give an everlasting life.  

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