The cloth and wooden figures are just 18 inches tall, but in the hands of Chinese puppet master Yang Feng they become giants of beguilement.
Clad in eye-catching brocade costumes, wielding miniature swords and fishing poles, blinking their eyes and sticking out their tongues, Yang's ebullient puppets cavort through popular Chinese myths. They incite much laughter and amazement.
The little actors often seem to do the impossible. A ravenous, laconic tiger swallows an entire man - who later escapes. Two warriors manage to trade jackets in the heat of combat. A diminutive juggler spins plates atop sticks, with the skill of real-life acrobats in Chinese circuses.
Yang, the affable 40-year-old purveyor of all this charm, is one of the world's foremost practitioners of Fujian hand puppetry, and the only one residing in the United States. His show - suitable for all ages - was a smash at the Seattle Children's Theatre Festival last spring, and this week he opens the new season at the Northwest Puppet Center. The two-weekend run begins tommorrow at 7:30 p.m. at the center, 6615 Dayton Ave. N. (Tickets: $4 children, $6 adults. Information: 782-3955.)
Yang learned the 1,000-year-old art of hand puppetry in his native Fujian province in southern China, where his ancestors have been virtuoso puppeteers for five generations. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he began playing with his father's puppets when he was 4, and began formal training at 11.
Lifting one of his small, squarish hands, Yang showed how he animates a puppet: his second finger controls the head, his thumb handles one of the figure's arms, and the remaining three fingers control the other arm and hand. To keep his motions strong and dexterous, Yang does isometric finger exercises daily.
In the city of Zhangzhou, Yang headed a famous puppet theater and school, and he also made numerous films, with up to 1,000 puppets in elaborate, full-scale settings. Yet his fortunes changed in 1989, when China's pro-democracy movement was crushed in Tiananmen Square. After speaking out against the government, Yang became a wanted man.
Yang fled to Bolivia on a tourist visa, but when it ran out authorities offered him one choice: a flight back to China. Yang took it, but defected during a stop in Alaska and was sent to Denver. Fellow puppeteers came to his aid after seeing the internationally known performer's photo in a Denver newspaper. Since then, Yang has received political asylum and performed in 18 states.
"Last year he was at a festival in Oklahoma where we were, and he just amazed everybody," says Chris Carter, of the Carter Family Marionettes and the Northwest Puppet Center. "No one in America can manipulate puppets the way he can."
Though friendly and upbeat, Yang shoulders the heavy burdens of exile. Because the Chinese government refused them passports, his wife and daughter have been unable to join him. And without the fame, institutional support and financial subsidies he enjoyed in China, his professional life has suffered.
"Right now I'm being supported by friends," Yang said through the interpreter, "and I'm still struggling to learn a new language and culture." He added that he hopes to move soon from Denver to Washington state.
The appeal of Yang's vibrant puppetry transcends linguistic and cultural barriers. It would be a great thing indeed if he were embraced by his adoptive land as a new national treasure.