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Source: Auckland Council

“Like a geisha, you will train for many years, but perform for only a few minutes.” This is how Max Bu, “Mr Mask”,  describes the ancient art of Bian Lian, also known as Chinese opera face-changing.

Bian Lian is performed alongside dramatic music, in traditional Chinese opera costume and headdress. The performer will swiftly change faces with the turn of their head.

Face-changing is originally a technique used in ancient Chinese opera to show different emotions and characters. It is now considered an art form in its own right.

Max Bu is set to perform the intriguing practice at Waitematā Local Board’s upcoming signature event Parnell Festival of Roses, and says he’s excited to share ancient stories and characters that have been passed down over hundreds of years.

“There are two ways to learn face-changing; you must find a master or inherit it from your family. I learned from my grandfather when I was 8 years old.

“The first thing I learned was to know the meaning behind each mask. Other performers will only know that a mask is yellow; I identify characters from slight differences in mask patterns.

“For example, with the yellow mask, I see the monkey king and the ancient story behind his character.

“After hundreds of years, those characters are no longer here, but the masks that commemorate them still are. If I don’t pass on face-changing down through my family, the art form will disappear,” he said.

The process of putting on his elaborate costume is time consuming and is done in secrecy. Like a magician, the tricks of his trade cannot be revealed.

Before his performances, Max likes to walk around in the crowd so that people can take a photo with him. 

“I always wear the blue mask when I do this, which represents the Chinese sea god, similar to Poseidon. In my culture, this mask will bring people water and wealth.”

Make sure you catch Mr Mask’s performance at Parnell Festival of Roses, Sunday 17 November. Click ‘Going’ on the Facebook event for updates on other performances, stalls and activities happening at the festival.