'Puppet Master' Huang dies at 107 years old

Renowned puppeteer Huang Hai-tai is seen at a birthday celebration January 2.

Renowned puppeteer Huang Hai-tai is seen at a birthday celebration January 2.

The "Father of Taiwan's Puppet Show" Huang Hai-tai ( 黃海岱) died yesterday morning in his home in Yunlin County due to pulmonary edema caused by the flu. The 107 year-old centenarian was often credited for preserving the traditional art of Taiwanese puppetry despite political oppression throughout his life. To commemorate his distinguished career and contributions to the art, Yunlin County has declared January 2, Huang's birthday, as the official county "Puppet Show Day." During his lifetime, Huang Hai-tai was highly revered for his skill and artistry in making the hand puppets come alive for the audience. In addition to being a puppet master, Huang was also an accomplished script and song writer for many of his award-winning shows. Huang's most popular creation, Shih Yan-wen, a historical fictitious character, has become a household name in Taiwan. The puppet master was born in 1901. He began as an apprentice in his father's traveling performance troupe. In 1931, Huang Hai-tai and his brothers started their own puppet group called "Five-State Performance Group." The group's puppet shows, mostly based on ancient Chinese martial art and chivalry, were an instant hit. The group was forced to close the curtain in 1937 when the Japanese first invaded the island. Huang Hai-tai and his group members were sent to work as farmers for several years until 1942, when the Japanese government ordered the group to be revived. Under the Japanese colonial rule, all puppets had to be adorned in Japanese traditional attire and the shows were strictly in Japanese. It is said that Huang and his contemporaries such as Lee Tian-lu, another highly respected puppet master, would secretly defy the colonists by holding clandestine puppet shows for the Taiwanese. One of Huang Hai-tai's brothers was reportedly tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers for standing up against a Japanese police. When the Kuomintang took over the island in 1949, Huang Hai-tai and his group were once again permitted to perform their shows in their original style. He also established a puppetry academy to pass on the art. The television boom in the 1950's proved to be a pivotal time of Taiwanese puppet shows. By this time, Huang Hai-tai has already passed the torch to his eldest son, Haung Chun-hsiung, who took his father's art to the small silver screen. According to several Chinese language news cable stations, Huang Chun-hsiung's (黃俊雄) show's rating rose to at least 97 percent at one time. To date, the Huang's family business of traditional puppetry can be seen worldwide on Cartoon Network, a children's cable television station owned by the Disney's Company. Huang Hai-tai has received wide recognition for his work in traditional Taiwanese puppetry, including a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Cultural Affairs in 1999 and a cultural award from the Government Information Office a year later. Two years ago, Huang, donned in cape and gowns, received an honorary doctoral degree in art from Taipei National University of Art, where he taught for several years. Several top government officials such President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Yu Shyi-kun (游錫<方方土>), Kuomintang Secretary-general Wu Den-yih (吳敦義), and some lawmakers all came to Huang Hai-tai's home to pay their respect to the master. President Chen promised to hold a memorial service for the master. GIO officials pointed out that Huang Hai-dai's life will be featured in a Discovery Channel series along with several other famous influential figures in the country.