Chinese shadow theater fights against dying of the light

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Falling audiences mean troupes are having to be creative to stay on the stage. (AFP)
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Members of the Flying Dragon Troupe create shadow puppets at the troupe’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. (AFP)
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Shadow puppets flitting across screens and reliving age old stories have fascinated Chinese people for some 2,000 years. (AFP)
Updated 08 July 2019
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Chinese shadow theater fights against dying of the light

  • Shadow theater was celebrated up until the 1960s when it was targeted as part of the Cultural Revolution
  • For the Chinese, the show is the forerunner of cinema

BEIJING: Shadow puppets flitting across screens and reliving age old stories have fascinated Chinese people for some 2,000 years, but falling audiences mean troupes are having to be creative to stay on the stage.
On a translucent screen in a Beijing classroom, a child with a cosmic ring takes on the son of the dragon king, attacking him with huge thrusts of his lance.
Behind the screen, puppeteers use rods to move the figures, to the joy of the schoolchildren watching.
The legends of the past are the bedrock of shadow theater — a tradition still popular in the countryside, though it has lost much ground in large cities over the last few decades.
Shadow theater was celebrated up until the 1960s when it was targeted as part of the Cultural Revolution. It had something of a renaissance in the 1980s and in 2011 was included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
For the Chinese, the show is the forerunner of cinema — in the Chinese language the word “cinema” literally means “electric shadow.”
With video games, film and TV now vying for viewers glued to their smartphones, shadow theater is slowly losing its audience, and performers are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Wiping his forehead after his furious on-stage battle, Lu Baobang — one of the last puppeteers of the old generation — is worried there is no one to replace him when he retires.
“We can’t offer reasonable living standards to young apprentices,” said Lu, who descends from a large family that developed one of the main schools of shadow theater in Beijing.
While the theater struggles to attract young peoples’ interest, a troupe in a Beijing suburb — whose performers have an average age of 22 — has managed to survive.
It is made up of 60 or so puppeteers with dwarfism, who present themselves as having an average height of 1.26 meters.
Jin Xinchun is one of them. He was struggling to find work several years ago, before he discovered the troupe online and moved to Beijing to join it where he was employed as a puppet maker.
“I am always happy to cut old leather to make beautiful puppets. They are my babies!,” Jin told AFP.
Wang Xi, a puppeteer founded the troupe with her husband in 2008 after meeting with the national association of dwarves.
“They had trouble finding work. And it was hard for us to find successors. Our collaboration is like two drawbacks that turned out to a be a plus!“
The puppeteers now perform regularly in schools.
But Wang Xi said she is nervous about the future: “Our masters are all older than 80 and they obviously won’t be able to go on stage in 10 years.”
State support is key to keeping shadow theater alive, Lu said.
“The government is aware of the importance of traditional culture, what we need now are concrete measures,” he said.
“This art will have no future if we don’t give young people hope.”


Fast cash from slimy pests: Thai farmers on the money trail with snail mucus

Updated 20 July 2019
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Fast cash from slimy pests: Thai farmers on the money trail with snail mucus

  • The snails were once the scourge of Thai rice farmers, loathed for eating the buds of new crop
  • But now fetch between 25 baht and 30 baht — about $1 — a kilo

NAKHON NAYOK, Thailand: Giant snails inch across a plate of pumpkin and cucumber in central Thailand, an “organic” diet to tease the prized collagen-rich mucus from the mollusks, which to some cosmetic firms are now more valuable than gold.
The snails at Phatinisiri Thangkeaw’s farm were once the scourge of rice farmers, loathed for eating the buds of new crops.
“Farmers used to throw them on the road or in the rivers,” Phatinisiri said. “But now they sell them to me to earn extra money.”
With her 1,000 snails, the teacher makes an extra $320 to $650 a month.
It is one of more than 80 farms in Nakhon Nayok province, two hours from the capital Bangkok, cashing in on the global snail beauty market, estimated at $314 million, according to research group Coherent Market Insights.
The precious slime is patiently “milked” from the glands of the snail by dripping water over it using a pipette.
Its raw form is sold to Aden International, a Thai-based cosmetics company that primarily ships its products to Korea and the US.
The sole snail slime producer in Thailand, Aden was started three years ago as a business-savvy solution to the snail infestation in Nakhon Nayok, said founder Kitpong Puttarathuvanun.
And his bet paid off — Kitpong sells the serum under the Acha brand, but also supplies Korean and American cosmetic companies with a dried powder at 1.8 million baht ($58,200) per kilogram, he said.
Gold is currently worth $46,300 a kilogram.
Compared to Aden’s snail slime, the mucus produced in China — milked daily instead of once every three weeks in Thailand — is valued at about 80,000 baht ($2,600) per kilogram, Kitpong said.
“We found that our slime was very intense because the snails eat everything, including vegetables, grains and even mushrooms ... producing good quality slime,” he said, explaining that the mucus can be used to heal sunburn and “heal wounds.”
Somkamol Manchun, the doctor in charge of the purification process, said snail mucus contains collagen and elastin — ingredients that “can make skin firm with less wrinkles.”
It “triggers the skin cells... and helps heal the skin.”
At the moment, no scientific studies have been done on the curative qualities of snail serum and slime, but snail farmer Phatinisiri is already feeling the market heat up.
Two years ago, she was the first in the area to try farming the slime, she said, and villagers readily gave her what they considered pests.
“Now I buy snails at about 25 baht to 30 baht (about $1) per kilogram,” she said. “But many people are doing snail farms now so the competition is high.”