Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Since returning from South-East Asia, I've realized how little of Taiwan I've actually experienced. I have vowed to take the opportunity to explore different parts of the island and to learn more about Taiwan's culture and customs.

So it was very serendipitous today, that my Mother saw an ad in a Chinese language newspaper, for a one day performance of Taiwanese opera (aka Gwa Hee) at the cultural center tonight. Sometimes there's definitely a gap in information around here. Things are not uniformly advertised in English and Chinese language papers. Once I read about an upcoming film festival of Taiwanese documentary films in an English language paper, but when I mentioned it to my parents- because I knew they'd be interested- they hadn't read about it in the Chinese language paper. So we try to keep each other abreast of interesting events and happening around town. Besides, my mother is often my unofficial interpreter in such situations- when there is no proper subtitling or when she explains the historical or mythical context and gives insight into the nuances of the language that I may have missed.

Taiwanese opera or "Gwa Hee", as it's known in Holo Taiwanese, has always seemed to have somewhat of an esoteric cult following, but that's been changing with the democratization of Taiwan. It seems to have a broad entertainment value that appeals to various generations. It is perfomed in Holo Taiwanese, and was banned during the Japanese occupation period of Taiwan and also later by KMT Nationalist government. Because of this, it has come to be regarded as a unique part of Taiwanese culture. This is somewhat ironic since Gwa Hee seems very stylistically similar to Bejing opera. It's not clear whether Taiwanese opera descended from Bejing opera and later became "Taiwanized" or if it originated in Taiwan and later copied certain aspects from Bejing opera. Taiwanese opera distinguishes itself from Beijing opera by being sung exculsively in Holo, featuring more singing than speaking than Beijing opera and most interestingly of all- the characters, most notably, male roles, are almost exclusively played by women. With Beijing opera the opposite is true; the majority of roles are played by men, who also portray the female characters. When, how or why female actors/signers dominate the cast in Taiwanese opera is unclear, but significant and worthy of some investigation. Has this always been the case for Gwa Hee? Is it indicative of Taiwan's comparatively liberal society or was it simply an artistic choice or preference for the female voice? What other practicalities or factors might have prompted this departure from common practice?

By banning Taiwanese opera it came to symbolize a vehicle to preserve the Holo language. When granchildren and grandparents found a common interest in watching Taiwanese opera, it bridged the language gap between the generations... A bridge that was severed when the various foreign regimes prohibited the teaching or speaking of Holo language by strict education reforms and censorship.

As I listened, I reflected on how Holo lends itself so beautifully to song. It has 8 tones, some of which vary by half an octave or so- making the language rather melodic... syllables and sounds take on different meanings and become homonymns facilitating a play on words and witty rhymes. I always find it curious when I hear Japanese words that have been adopted as part of the Holo language and also the English words that have been adopted after being Japanesized.

The storyline was of a playwright and his struggle between managing his artistic expression and the substance of his message while trying to cater the superficial preferences of mass audiences for special effects and flashy sets. So the story goes- the playwright keeps going back to the drawing board in his efforts to meet the demands of the theater owner to boost ticket sales. The experience was of watching several plays within a play. Many of the play themes were based on Chinese mythology or folk tales.

One of the scenes portrayed the birthday celebration for Chinese mythical god, which was attended by 8 mythical fairies. It was light-hearted scene at first celebratory and joyful and ending in comedic drunkenness! Just by coindence, that day I was wearing a handmade necklace with 8 antique jade pieces, each of which had been carved into the likeness of each of the 8 fairies. I never quite knew the exact significance or story of these 8 mythical fairies so it was a most happy coincidence that I learned a little more about each of these mythical beings.

Not only was this a great introduction to Taiwanese opera, but a sampling some of Taiwan's other performance arts, such as ribbon dancing and fan dancing.

In the final scene, the playwright dreamed of Taiwanese opera becoming internationally recognized and portions of the songs were sung in both Holo and English. It was an interesting concept, but rather strange sounding to hear English sung in the Taiwanese opera style. Perhaps this was because the translations were awkward and the syllables of the words didn't seem well matched to the rhythm or melody of the music.

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