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Monday January 19, 2009

Ancient art unmasked

The magic of maskchanging has enthralled audiences for centuries.

DRESSED in an elaborately designed costume, a colourful mask on his face which is topped by a beautiful headdress, mask-changer Bian Jiang steps off the stage and walks among the audience.

He stops in front of a gentleman, shakes his hand and points to his own face. He turns his face away for a split second, and the mask has changed.

How does he do it?

A mask-changing magician can change masks in just a split-second, faster than the eye can see. – Pics by UU BAN and CHAN TAK KONG / The Star

Well, that’s a secret, and a well-kept one for the last three centuries since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In China, it is still considered a high-level secret, and some even consider it a national treasure. It is said that there are only about 200 true masters of the art in China. But today, mask-changing artistes can be found even in Malaysia and Singapore.

Bian is just one of the mask-changing artistes from China who believes that the art should be made more widely available to the rest of the world. Bian, 42, together with his wife Du Li Min, 37, are currently teaching a mask-changing course at Asia Pacific Circus & Acrobatics in Pandan Jaya, Kuala Lumpur.

It is still being debated in China today, whether the art of mask-changing, or bian lian, should be taught to “outsiders”.

“Now, China has opened up and things have changed a lot,” explains Bian. “People’s way of thinking has also changed. While in China they are still very strict about the teaching of mask-changing, it is different elsewhere. I think it is good to let the rest of the world know about this aspect of Chinese culture.”

Behind the masks are Low Yit Boon (left), 23, and Angeline Kuan, 10, who are currently learning mask-changing

Some years ago, Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau caused an uproar when it was alleged that he wanted to pay master Peng Denghuai US$360,000 for lessons in mask-changing. Lau did eventually learn the art from Peng, but both have denied that any exchange of money took place.

According to Bian, the secret art is passed down from one generation to another within families. Bian himself was taught by his grandfather when he was 11. He remembers being holed up in a small, dark room for lessons, because his grandfather was afraid people might try to peep into the room.

“When my grandfather was teaching me, even my grandmother didn’t know about it. That’s how big a secret it was,” says Bian.

He comes from a family of performers, a lineage that goes back to the famous Sichuan opera from which mask-changing originated. He says his great-grandfather was a Sichuan opera performer, while his grandfather was a magician. Somewhere along the way the two arts merged, and now Bian performs both magic and mask-changing, which his father also does.

“It’s very difficult to say how far back it goes,” says Bian. He acknowledges that every family has their own method of changing masks. All of them are top secret – some use their hands to change the masks while others even use electronic devices where the masks change at the press of a button.

Bian Jiang and his wife Du Li Min both learned the art when they were 11. Bian was taught by his grandfather, and Du, by a master of the art.

Bian would only say that he uses a spring mechanism.

But mask-changing, like any other performance of illusion, involves distractions and sleight-of-hand. The body movements of the performer have their functions, and every move has to be memorised and practised. Everything is directly linked to the act of mask-changing, down to the costume which conceals the secret mechanisms and devices.

“In China, it is up to the masters whether they want to teach anyone or not,” says Bian. “If they wish to teach, then they would. Otherwise, no matter how much money you offer them, they would not share their secret. But in places outside of China, I guess you just have to pay some money and people will teach you.”

Asia Pacific Circus & Acrobatics charges RM500 for its mask-changing course. However, a costume which is hand-made in China can cost anything from RM3,400 to RM6,300.

Asked about the fee of RM500, Asia Pacific Circus & Acrobatics director Ho Kam Foo says: “It is a cost that is reasonable. We want to encourage more people to learn, and join a competition we hope to organise. Performers will be judged on how quickly they change masks, how many masks they are able to change, and their overall style of performance.”

Mask-changing isn’t just about changing masks; it’s about how interesting the overall performance is, how a mask-changer moves and acts on stage – creating excitement, suspense and fun.

“A performer like Bian Jiang is also able to do magic tricks, so his is a two-in-one performance,” says Ho.

Some of the students at Asia-Pacific Circus and Acrobatics in their resplendent costumes and elaborate masks.

Bian is the third among five siblings, all of whom are acrobats. But he was the only one his grandfather chose to impart the secrets of mask-changing, because he was the outstanding performer. But today, he says, his elder brother and his wife, his sister and his younger brother all know how to perform it.

Previously, women were prohibited from learning the art, and it was passed down to only the male family members.

Bian’s wife, Du, explains: “The old way of thinking was that women do not stay within their families, and would eventually marry into another family. As such, women weren’t allowed to learn the secret of mask-changing, as there would be a risk of the secret being passed on to another family. But now, mindsets have changed.”

Du, who was born in Shanghai, learned mask-changing when she was 22, and has spent the last 12 years performing it. She started as a magician’s assistant, then became interested in learning mask-changing. At one of the events where the magician and she performed, she met mask-changing master Wang Feng Ming, and learnt the art from him.

Today, Du and her husband are able to change up to 30 masks in a performance.

Says Bian: “When I was young, I was forced to learn it, but I knew it would be one of the skills that would help me earn a living. Life was difficult back then. Now I’m glad that I have this skill, because it has taken me around the world; I get to see the world and also earn a living.”

For enquiries on Asia Pacific Circus & Acrobatics’ mask-changing course, call 03-9285 8837 (www.asia8.jimdo.com).

Related stories:
Facial expression
Behind the mask

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