A few months ago, Chris Fray saw a New York Times story about shadow puppets.
Chris — who teaches Chinese at Staples High School — has long been intrigued by the ancient craft. It takes weeks to make one puppet; learning how to manipulate one so that it moves, slithers, acts, sings and plays musical instruments — all in shadows projected on a thin sheet — takes years.
Every year, Chris’ Chinese 2 Honors students watch “To Live” — a sweeping epic about life in China from the 1940s through the ’70s. In it, a village chief advises the protagonist’s family to burn their shadow puppets — as happened in real life. Mao deemed the traditional cultural elements “counter-revolutionary.”
In March — before introducing the film — Chris showed the Times story to his students. It described the travails of Cui Yongping and Wang Shuqin, a husband and wife who spent 50 years pursuing shadow puppets throughout China.
They amassed 130,000 of them, and opened a museum dedicated to the art. But Chinese authorities were uninterested, and finally — worn down — Yongping and Shuqin decided to try to move to America. With their puppets.
According to the Times, they hoped to join their son Cui Jun, “a New Yorker since 2000 and the owner of a Manhattan restaurant.”
That’s all the paper said about him. There were no follow-up stories about whether the couple had emigrated.
Chris challenged his classes: Find out what happened. If Yongping and Shuqin were in the US, invite them to Staples — and ask them to perform.
Emily Troelstra rose to the challenge. The puppeteers were indeed in New York — and Emily found a shadow puppet website they’d already established.
Chris and Yan Yan — the Chinese exchange teacher who has spent this year at Staples — called the couple. Though Yongping’s health is not good — a stroke has slowed him down, and hampered his speech — they were eager to come to Westport.
Chris contacted the PTA Cultural Arts Committee to ask for funds. He thought he’d have to spend time describing shadow puppets, and their value to the curriculum — but member Carla Schine-Dener knew all about them. In fact, she said, she’d loved them ever since high school, when she saw a performance.
The committee is funding most of the event — set for today, in the Staples auditorium. The rest of the funds come from Chris’ students themselves. Directed by Yan Yan, they created traditional “lucky knots,” and sold them throughout school.
Yongping and Shuqin will perform. They’ll answer questions from students. Then they’ll invite them on stage, to play with the shadow puppets themselves.
And, hopefully, pass along a love for a millenniums-old art form that both Mao and the present Chinese government had no interest in preserving.