Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Unseen | Backstage of a Hokkien Opera

The Unseen is a gallery of monochrome photographs made backstage of a Hokkien Opera troupe during Penang's Hungry Ghosts Festival. 

Chinese opera - in all its various types - is known for the saturated colors of the actors/performers make-up and flamboyant costumes, but I chose to process my photographs in monochrome/black and white to avoid the facile seduction of color, and to accentuate the facial and body characters of the individuals depicted in them. 

The title of the gallery 'The Unseen' obviously refers to the backstage activities of this particular Hokkien opera troupe. It was obvious to me whilst photographing that there was a strong cohesiveness amongst its members who -in essence - live and work cheek to jowl. The Hokkien opera troupe hails from the Chinese south-western province of Fujian, and some live in Zhangzhou city which is about 450 kilometers from Hong Kong. 

The formal name of the troupe is “Southern Fujian Opera”. The members flew in from China to Penang on July 20 and will return in December, spending almost 5 months away from their families. Annually, during the seventh lunar month, makeshift stages made of old wood planks and bamboo scaffolding appear all in certain locations in Penang. It is on these stages that Chinese opera performances are held every night. 

Two types of operas are held in Penang; in the Hokkien and Teochew (aka Chiu Chow) dialects. The Hungry Ghost Festival, known as Yu Lan, is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in a number of Asian countries; many of which have large Chinese communities. 

According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. It is believed the gates of hell are open throughout the Hungry Ghost Month. It is believed many hungry and wayward ghosts come to visit the living. Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors. As entertainment for these ghosts, Chinese operas are performed in public places and alongside temples. 

The annual observance of the festival stems from the tale of Maudgalyâyâna, a disciple of the Buddha said to have saved his mother from the harrows of hell with ritual chants. The story spread rapidly through local opera performances under the outward-looking Tang dynasty (618-907), when Buddhism peaked in the Middle Kingdom thanks to imperial patronage and deepening cultural and trade links with South Asia. 

The Hungry Ghost Festival is officially listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage.