'Monkey King' actor's absence from big gala riles public

Updated: 2016-01-28 12:00

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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'Monkey King' actor's absence from big gala riles public

Zhang Jinlai, 57, better known as Liu Xiao Ling Tong, mimics a monkey's facial expressions. Zhang is a fourth-generation monkey opera performer in his family.[Photo by Jiang Dong/ China Daily]

To be fair, many actors have played the famed monkey, including Donnie Yen, who starred in 2014's The Monkey, Aaron Kwok in the upcoming The Monkey King 2, and Huang Bo in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The features starring Yen and Huang grossed one billion yuan or more at the box office, and The Monkey King 2 is expected to earn just as much. Kwok, who spent seven to eight hours a day putting on the monkey makeup, said: "There will be no regret for a Chinese actor if he can play the Monkey King at least once in his career."

Despite the personal imprint put on the beloved character by diverse actors (There was an African-American Broadway actor who played the monkey in a Beijing-based musical two years ago), the Zhang family has had a firm lock on the role. As many as four generations of the family’s men have specialized in it. The family is originally from Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, and practices the local version of opera. Decades ago they caught the attention of top leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and, with the 1986 hit TV series, their monopoly on the public’s imagination was pretty much complete.

Granted, actors from other forms of traditional Chinese opera also excelled in the role, now informally called "the Monkey Repertory". Ghaffar Pourazar, an Englishman of Iranian descent, has done more than many to promote Peking Opera – and the Monkey Repertory in particular – to an overseas audience. He gave up his job as a computer animator and came to Beijing in the mid-1990s to study the art form. His turn as the Monkey King is customized for a Western audience, sprinkling crucial dialogue with English words for easy accessibility.

Some surmised that Zhang was not invited by the CCTV gala because at, 57, he is considered too old. That is unusual for a show that resorts to "Thanks for the memory" appearances as a hallmark. Zhang’s image as the monkey king will linger long in people’s memory – with or without the hoopla of a TV gala.