It was not just the story about a little frog trying to find his mother that had the audience captivated. It was the way Chen Chin-ching told it. Pictures on a little wooden stage showed the different parts of old Taiwan the frog visited and when the boy and his mum were finally reunited, Chen took the pictures and placed them on the floor.
All of the sudden, a visual map of Taiwan appeared before the audience. The response: "Wow!"
Chen, a lecturer in the department of child care and family studies at the Asia-Pacific Institute of Creativity in Miaoli, Taiwan, was in Hong Kong last month to conduct workshops for trainers in the charity Bring Me a Book.
It's always wonderful when a child's eyes light up when a parent reads them a story. But the method of storytelling Chen used, called kamishibai, turns the child from passive listener to active participant - and parents and storytellers could hardly be more delighted.
Kamishibai, which is Japanese for "paper theatre", involves making a stage, which serves as the tool for telling the story. Chen and his assistant, Cindy Tsai Hsin-yu, showed the trainers how to make a simple one out of paper. They did the same thing at a performance for children at the Shun Lee Integrated Family Centre in Kwun Tong.
"I had read some books about kamishibai and thought it was a very interesting way of storytelling," says Chen.
He created the story about the little frog with the map of Taiwan in mind. To make it engaging, he involved a group of children to draw the pictures before they were taught how to tell the story. The amount of creativity allowed in the approach is obvious to the trainers.
"The method is new to me, and I'm amazed how intimately it can bring the audience into the story," says Angie Lin, a full-time mother. "I showed my two boys [nine and six years old] how to make the paper stage with the cards as we learned today, and immediately they both jumped in to tell the story with me."
Kamishibai began in Japan in the late 1920s. It was used by priests who conveyed Buddhist doctrine by narrating illustrated scrolls to the audience. Then street performers adapted "paper theatre" to make a living during the economic depression in the 1930s. A small wooden box with two doors was used as the stage, with pictures showing different scenes of the story sliding in and out from the two sides, and at the end, the performers sold candy to the children. Then they strapped the wooden stage onto their bicycles and travelled to the next town. The goal was to get their customers to stay longer and buy more candies.
During the second world war, it became a popular form of entertainment for both children and adults in bomb shelters and poor neighbourhoods.
Today, the "poor man's theatre", which originated in the Edo period of the 17th to the mid-19th century, has remained a traditional and educational resource in children's libraries throughout Japan. Even storytellers in Europe and Asia adopted it. In Taiwan, Chen has helped train a new generation of k amishibai storytellers.
One of them is Joyce Choi Suk-ling, well-known as "Auntie Choi". A self-taught storyteller with more than 15 years of experience, Choi tells stories in kindergartens and primary schools, and is also an author and a columnist for the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao.
"What I find most impressive about kamishibai is its lively presentation, which can fully capture the attention of children, and its interactive nature. From a wooden box in the old days of Japan to a paper model nowadays, together with a few pieces of paper for drawing, you can create an inspiring story and an interactive platform with the audience. It's amazing."
Percie Wong So-ying, another trainer and veteran storyteller, has been conducting regular sessions at various libraries and community centres in Hong Kong. "I can see it being used in a classroom to boost students' confidence in telling stories," she says.
When Chen introduced the storytelling method in 2009, he had to rely on the translated versions of kamishibai stories from Japan to train his students. But then he saw the opportunity and benefit of creating stories that resonate with the local people and culture, like the little frog story.
"There's a great deal of value in creating personal stories. I created this story because I want our children to learn about their own history. I think this is something that has been easily forgotten in our modern society," Chen says.
In 2010, Chen launched the first kamishibai competition for children and received a lot of positive feedback. Since then, his students have performed more than 150 times to children and adults in schools and communities. Recently, he was invited to run a kamishibai workshop in a private primary school in Shenzhen.
Chen became a storyteller for his daughter. "She's now 11, but I still remember looking for children's books so that I can read for her," he says. "One time, my daughter asked me to tell her my stories, not the stories from books. And I thought to myself: 'I grew up listening to my grandfather's stories. Now I'm telling my stories to my daughter.' How touching is that?
"That reminded me of a story I read about an old Japanese storyteller who was sad to see that the traditional way of storytelling had been forgotten by people in modern times. One day, when he described how he missed telling stories to the group of children he used to see in the neighourhood, an adult in the audience stood up and said: 'I was a child you told stories to, and I remember your stories.' Then another adult said the same, and another one followed. He was moved to tears.
"In the same way, when I tell stories to my child, I know I'm planting a happy seed in her life - something she will remember forever."