Christmas 2001

Kristin and I spent a tropical (and frugal) Christmas time job hunting in the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. To celebrate the feast proper we visited the shadow puppetry workshop of Suchart Subsin. Suchart is a Thai national treasure, renowned for his skill at crafting the puppets as well as single-handedly carrying off the elaborate performances. He has performed for the King and his workshop attracts Thai and foreign visitors who come to see him carefully hammer the intricate designs out of buffalo hide.

When we arrived a very fastidious man greeted us with a common Thai refrain: "We have no bin Laden here." We thanked him and asked if he was the famed Suchart the Puppet-maker. He laughed away our question, announcing instead that we would enjoy being on Japanese television, have a hearty lunch and go see a very important shadow puppet performance for Thailand. This is before we saw the first puppet.

Soon we were ushered into Suchart's workshop, a open wooden structure lined ceiling to floor with amazing creations of colorful translucent leather. On a low table the man himself noncommittally hammered on a small elephant design. In his early fifties and considered a national treasure, Suchart feels no need to put on airs, or shirts. He smoked like a fiend and smiled at us through bleary, bloodshot eyes. Sourat, the fastidious man, encouraged us to take pictures and handle the puppets, reminding us again and again of the forthcoming festivities. I thought he was completely nuts until the Japanese television crew arrived and started filming. They were delighted we were there; as round-eyed tourists we somehow lent an air of authenticity to the importance of this man's craftsmanship.

Kristin was the star. She spoke at length about the art of puppetry and how it felt to see such an ancient craft so up close and so vital. I just waved around a leather penis, asking foolish questions like if this might make me 'big in Japan, like Tom Cruise.' The TV crew didn't seem to think so.

The puppet I got to play with on Japanese television was called Teng. He's a monkeyish man, a bit of a joker and troublemaker. The reason is obvious; in place of a right hand he had a penis and scrotum that he waved belligerently at the camera men and anyone else in the vicinity. I asked Sourat what it was, but he would only laugh and say, "Impolite thing." I asked for more details but none were forthcoming.

In addition to puppets like those above, Suchart made huge wall hangings and smaller decorative designs. All of the pieces were of very thin and durable leather, cured from buffalo hide, some of which still had hair on it. The desired pattern was stenciled onto the leather and then tapped out very slowly using a hammer and hollow point punch. I think the stencils were spray painted on. No guessing how they did it before aerosol cans.

After a delicious feast of chicken, fried fish, vegetables and Coke, we set off. By showing up at the very right moment, we were included in the festivities to send off the Japanese television crew. They had been in town for a few days filming a segment on Suchart and his puppets for Tokyo TV. The last thing on their filming itinerary was a live performance in front of a crowd of school kids. We piled into a mini van with the unlikely slogan 'HER HEART IS GOLD' emblazoned across the windshield. I don't know who 'she' is, perhaps Thailand.

Before the performance began Suchart spoke briefly about something, the TV crew busily filming. While he did so, his road crew stretched a tight screen of white fabric across a bamboo frame, strung up a single light bulb and set up a sound system. They then took up places behind the screen, each of them holding a different musical instrument. Though Suchrat manipulates all the puppets himself, does all the voices, male and female, and songs by himself, he does bring a backing band. I cannot say whether the performance is scripted or not though it had an improvised feel, the musicians knowing instinctively when to quicken the pace or bring the volume down to suit the mood. Sourat explained that the two hour play was about Buddhists, Christians and Muslims living together in peace.

To make strong, detailed shadows, Suchart would push the puppets firmly against the screen. For more diffuse effects and to stretch the shapes strangely, he would pull them further back. There was a trunk from a banana tree laid lengthwise at the bottom of the screen. Suchart would stake the puppets into the soft and fleshy stem if he wanted them in the scene but didn't have enough hands available. A pair of assistants handed him puppets and cigarettes as needed, the Japanese TV crew filming him all the while. The performance only lacked in that it occurred during the day; the details and vividness of the puppets were lost in the brightness.

There was another performance going on at the same time: us. The school was north of Nakhon Si Thammarat, in a small, poor village that rarely saw round-eyed folks like ourselves. They were delighted that we would show up for their school's 'Thai culture day.' They demanded we take their pictures, handing us snacks and beverages every time we turned around. We exchanged the rudimentary information a thousand times: What's you name? Where you from?

Amongst the other activities of the day- traditional Thai dancing and massage- a table of young men were hard at work making shadow puppets. Instead of leather, they used heavy gauge paper to make their designs. They were incredibly focused on the tedious task.

Though seeing Suchart perform was amazing and being filmed for Japanese TV was cool too, the highlight of my Christmas day was this giggly young fellow. He would regularly accost me, his face strapped this way and that with layers of scotch tape. He would then run away, laughing maniacally, to add more tape to his face. All in a day's work for TAPEBOY.

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