An Interview with Taiwanese Glove Puppetry Master Chen Hsi-huang

Taiwanese glove puppetry master Chen Hsi-huang is in a race against time. Chen is on a mission to revitalize the budaixi (glove puppetry) art form, impart his knowledge to hand-picked disciples, and ensure the future survival of this traditional practice. Now 92 years old and a living legend, Chen shows no signs of slowing down. Watch his interview below or on Youtube. Words by Ron HansonVideo directed by Damien Owen Trainor.

We visited Master Chen at his home to interview him for this video. Chen has lived most of his life in a historic compound built in 1807 during the Qing Dynasty. Situated in Taipei’s Dalong Dong District, Chen Yue-ji Residence, or Teacher’s Mansion, was a hotbed of art and literature in the 19th century.

In 2018, the building was designated by Taiwan’s government as a historical site. Chen still teaches his apprentices on the premises. Musicians can be heard practicing drums and gongs that will accompany Master Chen’s shows.

Budaixi is believed to have first emerged in China’s Fujian Province sometime in the 18th century. From there, it spread to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But the art form’s development reached its apex in Taiwan, where it became a national form of entertainment.

Master Chen holds one of his elaborately dressed and delicate dolls up.

Master Chen demonstrating puppet techniques. Image: Mark Hanson

The golden age of budaixi in Taiwan was in the 1960s and 1970s. In those years, when TV sets were not yet common, there were few forms of popular entertainment in Taiwan. Crowds would throng outside temples to watch epic glove puppetry shows. Chen, the son of legendary puppeteer Li Tien-lu (1919-1988), was one of the key figures who ushered in the peak of budaixi in Taiwan.

During those years, Chen would give two performances a day. There was never-ending demand. On top of the grueling schedule, programs would often be determined on the spot. Divination, or moon, blocks would be cast on the site of temples to determine which show the gods wished to watch. Chen had to be prepared to present whatever was divined.

In 2008, fearing the eventual extinction of budaixi in Taiwan, Chen, then age 77, re-emerged from relative obscurity to form a new group, Chen Hsi-huang Traditional Puppet Troupe. Today, his profile continues to expand. In 2020, Chen was awarded Taiwan’s National Cultural Award for his life-long dedication to the art of budaixi.

- Asia Media Centre