Thai performers caked in make-up belt out the piercing notes of Chinese opera - an art form under threat by changing cultural habits and demographics in a kingdom reshaped by centuries of immigration from the north.

With Chinese New Year kicking off next week, the nomadic ‘Lau San Chia Soon’ troupe, who pitch their stage wherever they are invited, are expecting a particularly busy few days. But this eye-catching form of musical theatre is struggling as younger generations of Thais look for entertainment elsewhere, something performers desperately want to change.

‘The history of Chinese opera is getting forgotten and is vanishing as new generations don’t really know much about it,’ 25-year-old Natnicha Saeung, who began performing with this troupe at the age of 13, tells AFP from a recent performance in Nakhon Pathom, a province to the west of Bangkok.

Her colleague Chukiat Thippan, 23, agrees.

‘There are not many people watching Chinese operas now,’ he tells AFP behind a hastily erected temporary stage. ‘Some of the older Thai-Chinese people passed away and the new generations don’t really continue the tradition.’ About 14 percent of the Thai population is ethnic Chinese following centuries of immigration and assimilation. Many more have Chinese roots among their forebears.

But the number of Thais of Chinese descent who understand the ‘Teochew’ dialect used by this group of singers is dwindling. There was a time when nomadic Chinese opera troupes like this were a common feature of the Thai landscape, travelling from village to village bringing the entertaining sights and sounds of a tradition that dates back centuries. Mangkorn Supongpan, 62, whose parents founded Lau San Chia Soon, says there are now fewer than 20 mobile groups like his travelling across Thailand.

He admits it’s hard to attract people to the lifestyle. Performers raise their children, eat and sleep beneath the stage, packing it up and all their belongings every few days to move to a new venue. ‘It’s a hard life because we barely go back home, we perform all year long, non-stop,’ he says. Few will see riches either. The average monthly wage for a performer is between 10-20,000 baht ($280-$560) depending on their role.

Most communities that invite operas to perform do it more as a way to honour ancestors than to entertain the masses. But some among the largely elderly crowd watching the troupe’s performance that night hope younger generations might be inspired to give Chinese opera a try. ‘People now stay home and watch TV,’ says Prasit Puthiprapa, a sprightly 81-year-old.

‘But watching Chinese opera is like watching movies and soap operas, it’s good fun especially when you pay attention to it,’ he adds, somewhat admonishingly. At the start of the show shortly after dusk, dozens sit on plastic chairs watching the drama unfold. But by the time it wraps up around midnight, just a solitary audience member and a street dog remain. The troupe aren’t bothered though. By morning, the stage will be gone and they’ll be off to the next village.