The tradition of Chinese opera performances is fading in Thailand as the descendants of Chinese immigrants, many of whom don’t speak Chinese, lose interest in this art form. Audiences are growing smaller and older but the shows remain as colourful and dramatic as ever. Photographer Yvan Cohen captures the detailed preparation behind the scenes of this temporary setting and relates the moving stories of the performers.

Words & Photos: Yvan Cohen

 

“The performers are like itinerant players from a medieval era – erecting temporary stages for a few days, then dismantling them and moving on,” explains Cohen. Chinese opera is performed in Thailand by travelling troupes of players, most of whom are from the northeastern region of Thailand known as Isaan.

While some of the actors are ethnic Chinese, surprisingly many are rural Thais who do not speak the language and memorise their words phonetically to sing the operas.

The images are part of a multi-year project that had the photographer covering many different troupes in different locations around Bangkok. Cohen explains that it’s a very photographic project, exploring the visual universe – which is so atmospheric of Chinese opera.

“This is a parallel world where you can experience a Bangkok of yesteryear and you almost have the show to yourself. It’s just you and the ‘gods’ – partly because very few people understand what is being said.” It’s usually an outdoor stage, done in the cool of the evening in local Thai neighbourhoods.

There’s a wonderful quote from one of the actors, Cohen points out as he recites the poignant statement: “We eat like pigs, sleep like dogs and dress like angels.”

It’s a window into an art form that comes from way back but may not be around for much longer. “It’s a story about the shadow of a traditional culture that still lingers in the city despite rapid changes, but for how long?”