Stunning Transformation of Faded Taiwanese Opera

Reporters / Pei-chi Chen, Chin-ying Tsai

    The most precious thing in the culture of a country is an art form which is originated in that country. Although Taiwan was influenced by China in many ways, Taiwanese opera has its own history and its own way to show to the world. Ming Hwa Yuan (明華園), the most well-known Taiwanese opera troupe, is committed to explore this beautiful and powerful art and pass it on to the next generation.

Performer of Taiwanese Opera. Source/Ming Hwa Yuan

    Taiwanese opera, also called Ke-Tse opera (歌仔戲), is a form of traditional drama originated in Taiwan. The forerunners of Taiwanese opera are songs that the farmers sing to entertain each other. The plots are drawn from traditional stories in southern Fujian region or Taiwan itself. Taiwanese opera was later exported to other Hokkien-speaking areas, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Fujian, China.

    Ming Hwa Yuan, established by Chen Ming-ji (陳明吉) in 1929, is the biggest and the most famous Taiwanese opera troupe in Taiwan. It is also a family-owned troupe of four generations. In fact, nearly 500 people of the Chen’s family are still working in this industry with the intention of passing down the unique and original culture to the next generation. Thus, UNESCO had chosen Chen’s family to be “The weirdest family in Taiwan” on Global Family Day in 1995.

  In the past, Taiwanese opera was a low-budget outdoor play or a drama played out in front of a temple and perhaps just a diversion to kill time after dinner. However, Ming Hwa Yuan had its very first performance in the National Theater in 1987. This remarkable achievement had totally influenced the industry, broke the long-standing stereotype, and even brought this beautiful art form to a higher level.

    Ming Hwa Yuan is now run by the third son of the founder Chen Sheng-fu (陳勝福), who proactively expanded the business of the troupe in the art industry. Under his leadership, Ming Hwa Yuan has 8 subgroups, performing in over 23 countries and 65 cities, which include Japan, France, US, Singapore, South Africa and other European countries. 

Successful Spin-off

    Chen Zhao-xian (陳昭賢) , CEO of Ming Hwa Yuan, also the second daughter of Chen Sheng-fu (陳勝福), said it is really sad to know the theater is so far away from the people in Taiwan nowadays. Unlike European families, people in Taiwan seldom take their children to watch the show. Therefore, Ming Hwa Yuan strikes to elevate Taiwan’s theater performance to a whole new level by providing its audience with thrilling interplays, visual effects and stunning plays.

    Moreover, Chen Zhao-xian also runs another troupe called “Feng Shen Bao Bao” (風神寶寶), targeting at children of  3-13 years of age as its audience. She said that performers in Taiwanese opera are basically speaking Taiwanese during the show, but for children who don’t understand this dialect, they mixed some Mandarin in it to connect to the kids. However, this has caused a lot of criticisms from experts in Taiwanese opera who thought it is not a real Taiwanese opera. Therefore, Chen described “Feng Shen Bao Bao” as a traditional performance platform which embraces different kinds of art, not just Taiwanese opera. In her opinion, Taiwanese opera has the potential to embrace different kinds of elements. Despite being in business for more than 80 years, it’s fair to say that Ming Hwa Yuan is anything but old fashioned.

Chen Zhao-xian, CEO of Ming Hwa Yuan. Photo/Chin-Ying Tsai
Stunning performance of Taiwanese Opera. Source / Ming Hwa Yuan

Cultivation of Talents

  As for the cultivation of talents in Ming Hwa Yuan, Chen pointed out that the performers in Taiwanese Opera are not the same as those in the stage play. They must have outstanding ability in both singing and dancing. With such high standard, Ming Hwa Yuan has difficulty in recruiting trainees. Since cultivating performers in Taiwanese Opera is difficult, Ming Hwa Yuan offers a stable salary to everyone in this big troupe, including the performers, tailors and those in charge of the stage props. “All of our staff are important to ensure Ming Hwa Yuan’s prominent future,” said Chen.

   Moreover, in traditional operas, young players often have little chance to be in the leading roles, because performers in Taiwanese opera usually do not have a “retirement system,” so fans often adore or idolize a certain actor who is well trained and has a lot of performance experiences. To solve this problem, Ming Hwa Yuan tries to reserve some chances for young talented actors or actresses. Younger generation nowadays can play an important part in a show because of the “20-year program” launched by the troupe. Based on Ming Hwa Yuan’s “20-year program,” seniors can pass on their skills to the trainees for about 20 years. After these trainees’ skills are up to par and get affirmations, they can play big roles on the stage. In the near future, the “20-year program” will eventually be fully implemented. As a matter of fact, the leading performer in the play that Ming Hwa Yuan collaborated with “The Apocalypse of Darkness Warfare” (冥戰錄) is Ming Hwa Yuan’s young performer, Mina Wu, who is only 29 years old. Many young performers like Mina Wu have been practicing this traditional skill in the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts from the 5th to the 12th grade in elementary. It goes without saying that there are now some outstanding performers in Ming Hwa Yuan which encourages the influx of new blood.

Mina wu, a trainee in 20-year program. Source / Ming Hwa Yuan

    To attract audiences with different age groups, Ming Hwa Yuan collaborated with Taiwanese comics, “The Apocalypse of Darkness Warfare,” in 2020. It was the first time that Taiwanese opera was combined with comics. Chen, the CEO, also planner of this project, said, “Plays adapted from TV, movies, and comics have often received a lot of negative feedback for not being sufficiently authentic.” Thus, it is a great challenge to turn something in the second dimension into a real performance on the stage. Fortunately, this pioneering work has attracted audiences of all ages.

Ming Hwa Yuan collaborated with Taiwanese comics. Source / Ming Hwa Yuan

Future of Ming Hwa Yuan

   Taiwanese Opera has not been given due attention in modern society. Thus, Ming Hwa Yuan’s CEO Chen Zhao-xian tried very hard to promote Taiwanese opera in many ways. She used social media such as Facebook, Podcast, Youtube and even went to the most popular Podcast show in Taiwan called Bailingguo and Youtube channel, “The Group” to reach out to the young generation. Without doubt, Taiwanese opera is a cultural treasure in Taiwan. Fortunately, with a group of people who are full of ideas and dreams, Ming Hwa Yuan strives to show case the playful, elaborate, and perfectionist streaks running through Taiwanese culture to create an amazing performance for both the old and the young audience. Their dynamic and colorful performances have indeed brought modern-day sensibilities to the age-old genre of theater, and have won them international recognition.

Special effects and contemporary costumes in Taiwanese Opera. Source / Ming Hwa Yuan
Exquisite clothing of Taiwanese Opera. Source / Ming Hwa Yuan