Yeung Fai will never forget why his father died. He remembers it every time he steps on stage, with a mismatched collection of hand-sized puppets.
“In China, everybody wants to forget about this,” Fai said. "But for me, I never forget."
Fai’s father, Yang Shen, was a puppeteer and victim of China's Cultural Revolution. He plays a central role in Fai's traveling puppet show "Hand Stories," opening Wednesday night at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York. The hourlong performance tells his family's history -- rooted deeply in China's own -- from his father's tumultuous years to Fai's post-China life in France, where he currently resides.
While we've recently seen puppets resurge, and provoke real-life theater, in Western culture, the ancient art form has its roots in storytelling's most basic function -- passing on a story for future generations.
For Fai, the country that gave him this tradition is one he had to leave in order to keep it alive. The five-generation puppeteer, and last one in his family, fled China during Tiananmen, building his trade as a poor street performer in Bolivia to larger stages in France, and now, commanding Lincoln Center.
Fai spoke to The Huffington Post by phone -- along with his occasional translator and colleague, Yohan Pencolé -- about what it's like being an artist in China these days, and dancing with his hands.
What is it about puppets that you appeals to you in telling in story?
I’ve actually work with puppets for many years, and I’m always talking about other people’s stories. And one day I said, hey, my family has stories, too, and I’d like to tell my story. I’m a five-generation puppeteer, and I'm the last one in my family, and this is human knowledge.
Are your puppets considered traditional or more modern?
Between. I learned from masters, and because I’ve been living in France for 10 years, I also take a lot of techniques from European puppeteers. In the show, one part is really traditional puppets, and another part [about his family] is really a more modern style. So it tells two stories -- the story of the transmission of the puppetry, and the story of my family. You have some video of my father in the 50s and you see a solo [person] performing and you see me doing the same performance, and this is a traditional part. Also in the show you have the story of my father who lived in the Cultural Revolution time, hard times, so you change from puppetry and what is transmitted, to the puppeteer’s story.
What is the mood of the show, is it dark, is it funny?
It can be sad, sad beauty, but it can also be funny, like life.
How big are the puppets?
Puppets are like humans, there is no absolute size. Some are more long, some are more little -- it depends what we want. We have some mechanisms inside to adapt to his hands and I have a system inside to make it bigger with just one finger.
I was watching a video of it, and it kind of looks like you’re dancing with your hand.
We need a lot of training, like dance training for your hands. A lot of stretching, also.
Do your hands get tired during the show?
Yes, very tired. People have different ways, and my way is more about movement, so that’s why.
In what country have you had the best show?
Taiwan. In Taipei. Because we have the same language and culture. It’s really a family show. It’s nice to see it with family because we speak a lot about what we transmit. What you receive from that, what you achieve, what you give, and these things are nice to share with different generations.
Why did you have to leave China to tell your story?
I had no choice because it was 1989 -- in China we had big problems. Many people escaped during Tiananmen. I didn’t want to end up like my father. It was fear. After that, I never lived again in China, I lived in Hong Kong, which was different.
What do you think it’s like today for an artist in China?
It depends. In China for me, there’s not really art. Ai Weiwei, he put [himself] in danger. There are two parts -- one part is by the government or communists, and you do what they like you to. And one part is free artists, many artists like me. And it’s very hard. They have a very hard life like Ai Weiwei. And for me, in this moment, I really enjoy everything in Europe. I enjoy the freedom.
Do you think you’d want to go back to China later?
I would like to live in China, but we could never play in China. Because I talk about the Cultural Revolution, about my father. It’s totally wrong. It’s totally wrong. In China, everybody wants to forget about this. But for me, I never forget. My father died, how can I forget? Never forget.
"Hand Stories" runs at the Clark Studio Theater from July 18 to July 25. Go here for ticket information.