Chinese New Year seemed the perfect time to treat myself to this performance by Perth Festival 2018 Artist-In-Residence Yeung Fai. A fifth-generation Chinese puppeteer and the last in his family, Fai created Hand Stories in 2009 inspired by his family story. There are no subtitles and little dialogue so a spirit of openness, patience and a basic awareness of twentieth-century Chinese history are recommended.
The glove style of puppetry is a traditional Chinese art form that dates back centuries. Says Fai, “The traditional hallmarks remain the same, but each generation adds its own touches… Traditional puppetry is too often disassociated from contemporary puppetry, and this piece shows how the ancient techniques are constantly changing.”
Fai is joined onstage by several handcrafted puppets – some symbolising the puppeteer himself along with his family members and others representing more traditional or contemporary characters. Assistant director and performer Yoann Pencolé plays the part of the puppetry student eager to follow in his master’s footsteps.
The delicacy of Fai’s hands is evident from the opening scenes in which his bare hands appear to dance and take on puppet-like characteristics. His level of skill is truly marvellous. The audience delights in his ability to deftly swap the clothes of two puppets in motion.
In a kind of puppetry ‘inception’, we are shown behind the scenes not only to witness stretching and examples of ‘dance training for hands’ but also to see the puppets from the puppeteers’ point of view. An onstage screen conveniently displays the reverse side of the action.
Fai’s father Yang Sheng, a master puppeteer, was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (hauntingly represented by a dragon puppet in the show) and forced to undertake backbreaking labour. Tragically, he was one of many who died as a result.
The heart-breaking scene that depicts the loss of Yang Sheng will strike a chord with anyone who has lost a loved one. The scent of incense filling the theatre and beauty of the smoke curling up into the air are particularly poignant and the smoke seems to take on a life of its own.
The Little Red Book is an icon of Chinese communism which was mandatory to own and carry during the Cultural Revolution. In Hand Stories, it is further miniaturised but no less powerful, as Fai enters the narrative to hide behind a copy in his jail cell.
The story follows the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still one of the most widely censored topics in China. Fai fled China at this time in fear of ending up like his father, first working as a poor street performer in Bolivia and finally moving to Paris where he is now based.
A long narrow multimedia screen is used to great effect to further deepen the storytelling experience. It goes from showing black and white footage of Fai’s father to representing the great ocean over which Fai fled China and then giving the audience a view of onstage puppetry in real time.
Hand Stories mixes high and low brow puppetry styles to highlight the talents of a true master with the utmost respect for tradition, craft and family.
While in Perth Fai has also been touring his new solo show The Puppet-Show Man, co-commissioned by Perth Festival, to hospitals and community organisations.