Tag Archives: puppetry

Them bones! A Taiwan-French connection

by Dan Bloom
Special to The Wild East

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a finger bone from the body of the late Li Tien-lu, the great puppetmaster of Taiwan, was buried in France under a plum tree outside a private home north of Paris. In addition, a bone from a finger of Li’s son, who passed away this year, was also buried in that rural French garden.

According to the Times reporter on Sept. 8 this year, Roger Cohen, a highly-respected and veteran columnist who has a home in France, a French woman who once studied puppetry with Li in Taiwan in 1975 apparently arranged for someone to exhume Li’s body, take a bone from one of his fingers and airfreight it over to France so she could bury it in her garden.

Master Li
Master Li
This story might be true, but then again, who knows where the truth may have been stretched? It was reported in the New York Times Weekly Edition supplement in the United Daily News here, an English-language supplement that appears as an insert every Tuesday. The article did not appear in the regular edition of the New York Times, and has not been put online at all. However, the print article exists only in the United Daily News files in Taipei.

As some readers may know, Master Li — one of Taiwan’s national treasures — died in 1998 and his son died in 2009. puppetPosterThe film Puppetmaster tells the true story of Li’s life as a master puppeteer faced with demands to turn his skills to propaganda during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in World War II. Li also plays the paterfamilias of the extended Chinese family facing the events surrounding the A City of Sadness (1989). The third film in the trilogy is Good Men, Good Women (1995). [Source: Wikipedia]

As far as is known, both Lis were buried, or cremated, in Taiwan, according to local tradition. Cohen says the story is one of those “East meets West” exotic set pieces, in which a finger bone fragment of a master puppeteer from Taiwan somehow gets later buried beneath a plum tree in a remote village an hour away from Paris. Prayers were said, wine was drunk, New Age beliefs were intoned.

Cohen informed this reporter that he knows about the bones story because he was at the re-burial ceremony in France when it happened last summer. He has a home in the same town.
“We met under the plum tree,” Cohen wrote. “Or rather India and China met, and France too.
As the bells chimed from the 12th century steeple of technologoy. Marrying East and West, past and future, life and death, the global village lives.”

When I pressed if he really believed that finger bone fragments from Li and his son were really buried in France, and if he actually thought that Taiwan was in “China”, Cohen hedged, and replied: “I stand by my story.”

Here is a verbatim excerpt from Cohen’s column: “Back in 1975, Claire studied puppetry in Taiwan with one of the great glove puppeteers, Li Tien-lu. They became friends and, in later years, Li often visited [France]. Such was his attachment to Cherence, France, and such peace he found in this French village, that when Li died in 1998, he requested that part of his anatomy find its final resting place here. At a ceremony in 1999, a piece of bone — believed to be a fragment of the great man’s finger — was buried under the plum tree in France….[In 2009] Li’s son died. Naturally, he wanted to be close to his father. So arrangements were made …as father and son, or rather tiny fragments of each, were united beneath the plum tree.”

When Tom Brady, the editor of the New York Times Weekly Edition, was asked about the veracity of the claims that Cohen made about Li’s finger bone fragment being shipped from Taiwan to France and re-buried there, Brady replied: “I’ve talked to Roger, and the standards editor here at the New York Times, and all I can say at this point is that we stand by the column.”

If Cohen’s tale is true, it is indeed an interesting addition to the history of the Li family in Taiwan. If so, this writer feels the subject deserves front page play here in Taiwan’s Chinese-language newspapers.

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For Cape No. 7 actor, 'taike' means not forgetting history

By Trista di Genova
Exclusive to The Wild East

Pongfong spraypaints a wall at Radio Banciao, leaving his mark. Photo: TdG

Pongfong Wu (吳朋奉) is a complex character to describe. Professionally, he’s an experienced stage and TV actor who describes himself as “something like a performance coach. I train many people who want to do art things,” including acting and voice coaching.

But personally, Pongfong’s most outstanding quality is his “extreme Taiwaneseness.” This is a man who raises the stakes on the traditional definition of “taike” – the “too Taiwanese” nomenclature that translates roughly to flip-flop-wearing farmer who graduates to Mercedes owner.

A Banciao native, Pongfong is a true Taiwanese — the guy who will show up on your doorstep in the middle of the night, wielding bootleg rice liquor and Taiwan whiskey (“I buy only Taiwan things,” he says), and who is most likely to revel all night long, like a true Taiwanese, singing old worker songs animatedly until the police come.

Pongfong models some Taiwan beer at a Treasure Hill art opening in Taipei. Photo: TdG

From childhood he’s been steeped in Taiwan’s Taoist-Buddhist temple customs, countryside folklore and “street theatre for the gods.”

“I can teach you very old Taiwanese songs. Not for business, but for love,” he says. “I didn’t study performance in school, no drama class. I go to learn in the countryside, something they would dance. Or the temple. I’d go to learn with these people — folk dancing, puppet shows.” And with deep-bodied voice, he slips into a Taoist incantation, that translates:

A drop of water
from the sky
God put these drops
into the land
This drop will
bring everybody
health and peacefulness
bless everything.

“I think Taiwan doesn’t have this problem: We don’t reject another religion. This is very noble. The problem is very political — you’re from China, I’m Taiwanese. 2-28 (Feb. 28 Incident); I think this affected us a lot.”

“It’s really crazy, they fight like brothers,” he says of tensions between “new” and “old” Taiwanese immigrants — those who have been here for generations, and the “waishangren,” (“outside the province), those who came when Chiang Kai-shek fled here with his armies in 1949.

Pongfong’s also written many scripts for plays and comedies in Taiwanese, or Hoklo language, for FM98.5 New Formosa Island Radio, the local stage — the famed Red Theatre in Taipei’s Hsimen District and others — “with dance, a little magic, big gay clothes.”

“But it’s true, I am a theatre person,” he insists. “I’m from the theater, where movements are bigger, more motion, you have to concentrate more. It’s not like acting. You don’t need to do that for the camera — it’s too much. I always say, ‘You don’t act, you do nothing.’ It’s like not acting.”

However, “I hate this job,” he says. “It’s a grind. I prefer to act. Also, I can do directing.” He insists he’s “a cooker” — a concepteur, an ideas person who puts together theater shows and shows everybody how it can be done.

He directed his first of two films at age 18, and was asked to do more film acting. Since then, he’s played in ten or more other Australian, Hong Kong and American films, such as Columbia Pictures’ “Double Vision.”

Lately, Pongfong’s been extremely busy. He spent the summer in France with the world-famous Guignolles. “My arms are really broken, because these [traditional Taiwanese] puppets are like a bottle of red wine. You can see the puppet and player, so I had to dance also,” he says of the experience.

Recently, he worked with the Taipei Arts Festival and has been acting in TV dramas. He won two Golden Bell awards this year– best actor and best male supporting role in a TV drama for his work in “Mu mian de ying.”

Pongfong picks up two Golden Bell awards this year for his roles in TV drama.

He also won a fair bit of international notoriety recently after playing the comedic character of a scooter mechanic shopowner and “the triplets’ boss” — in the made-in-Taiwan smash hit “Cape No. 7.”

“The movie, I watch it. I feel it’s so-so,” he says candidly of “Cape No. 7,” — the most successful Taiwan-made film, ever. “But we must talk about why people love this film so much in Taiwan. Now, because there are really big problems, with the economy and politics, everybody goes to hide in the theater, to escape,” he says. “In a bad economy, people always go to see movies. With all this bad news, only this film is a good thing.”

“You can say it’s a Taiwan movie,” he adds, “southern, southeast Taiwanese culture.”

Politics have greatly influenced modern Taiwan films, he claims. “It’s really crazy, they fight like brothers,” he says of tensions between “new” and “old” Taiwanese immigrants. “In the 1970s, the government gave money toward this [localized Taiwan films], and this time it’s come back. With the DPP, they would support Taiwanese (language) films; but with the KMT [Kuomintang], now you must speak Chinese in your film. ‘You, you, you, you don’t speak Chinese,'” he mimed.

And as for Taiwan’s attempt to establish a localized culture and literature, “I feel the education is a problem; the brainwashing sucks,” he says of growing up in Taiwan. “For Taiwan people, especially young people, it’s very easy to forget our history. ‘Wild history’ [folklore based loosely on history] — we’re not allowed to read about that in class. It’s self-controlling; the teachers’ brain is empty and they don’t know how to teach our children about how to take care of the land, and about our future.”

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