Teochew puppetry is an increasingly rare form of theatre that narrates folk tales and legends, writes Pauline Fan
THE tradition of Teochew puppetry evolved from the Chinese shadow puppetry tradition of the central plains of China. The art form was brought to the Chaoshan region in Guandong, homeland of the Teochew people, by northern refugees during the Song Dynasty (8th to 12th century).
The Teochews had rich and varied cultural practices such as opera, puppetry, music, tea ceremonies and embroidery. The Teochew dialect, which belongs to the Min Nan dialect group, preserves many elements of old Chinese that are no longer found in other dialects.
During the 19th century, the economic hardship in Chaoshan, as well as new opportunities for trade in the newly-colonised free port of Singapore, led to them leaving to seek greener pastures. Many migrated to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, the Riau Islands, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. To these new lands, they brought their age-old cultural traditions, including opera and puppetry.
In Malaysia, Teochew puppetry is only found in Penang. There used to be only two Teochew puppet troupes here, but the art form has experienced a revival of sorts in the past 15 years. There are now at least five active troupes in Penang.
FAMILY OF PERFORMERS
Among the most prominent exponents of Teochew puppetry in Malaysia is the Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppetry Troupe, led by master puppeteer and opera actress Ling Goh. A fourth-generation traditional Chinese opera performer, Ling Goh learnt the art form as a young girl, and could not resist the idea of having her own opera and puppet troupe. Her grandfather once owned an opera troupe in China, and her parents ran puppet shows.
“My mother had been performing Teochew puppet opera from a very young age. So have my siblings,” says Ling. “You could say I was exposed to and learning this art form from the womb. I first started performing puppet opera at 7.”
Ling and her brother, Goh Lih Shan, soon began to acquire musical instruments, backdrops, stage props, exotic costumes and professional actors from China and Thailand. And the Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppetry Troupe was born. After some years of financial difficulty, Ling garnered enough support to establish the Teochew Puppet and Opera House in Penang, located on Armenian Street, and holds regular performances and workshops.
Traditionally, Teochew puppetry troupes consist of nine members divided into groups of three to handle puppets, sing and play musical instruments. The musical ensemble uses the same instruments as a regular Teochew opera troupe — gongs, drums, and cymbals, yanqing (dulcimer), er hu (fiddle) and yehu (a southern Chinese variant with a coconut shell body).
Each puppet takes about two to three weeks to make. These are hand-crafted from wood, clay and paper, weighing several kilograms each. Older puppets are made of tightly-packed bundles of hay. Each character has its own costume, richly detailed, just like that of a regular Chinese opera performer. The puppets are manipulated using three iron-rods attached to the back and limbs. One of Ling’s favourite puppets is a huadan (female) puppet that she helped to craft and detail.
She says one of the most unique features of Teochew puppetry is the method of control. “While other puppets use string or are hand puppets, Teochew puppets have thin iron rods for control, much like wayang kulit; indeed, it is a legacy of its own shadow puppet antecedents,” she explains. “These iron-rods give it unparalleled range of motion as well as a unique style of movement.”
The stories are drawn from the vast repository of Chinese history and folklore. Although certain well-known stories are included in a canon that all troupes know how to perform, the exact repertoire varies from troupe to troupe. Kim Giak Low Choon has a repertoire of about 60 plays.
“There are tragedies and comedies, sweeping war epics and private laments, from mystical stories of fox spirits and dragon princesses to cynical, hard-nosed ones more grounded in reality, such as court cases or political intrigue. Then there are stories based on legendary myths, classic literature, or historical accounts,” she says.
Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppet Troupe has even performed overseas, in Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan. Audiences are always delighted and intrigued to encounter this relatively rare art form.
Ling is also passionate about passing down the knowledge of Teochew Puppetry to the next generation. Since establishing Teochew Puppet and Opera House, she has been approached by amateur enthusiasts of Teochew opera who are eager to study under her. Several of the troupe’s more recent shows have featured some of her students in both supporting and main roles.
“I’ve always stressed that the most important thing for the continuation of this art form is engagement with the public, particularly with the young. One of the problems facing traditional art as a whole is an ageing fan base,” explains Ling. “As long as there are young people interested, Teochew puppet opera will continue to prosper. To this end, I have tried to expose the younger generation to this art form through social media as well as broaden our appeal by providing English and Chinese subtitles for my shows.”
CELESTIAL FOX SPIRITS AND MELANCHOLY GHOSTS
This evening, Pusaka Evenings at Publika presents Teochew Puppetry performance for the public, featuring the Kim Giak Low Choon Teochew Puppetry Troupe. The performance will be preceded by a talk by Ling.
Tonight’s show is The Love Of The Celestial Fox, which has its origins in Pu Songling’s 17th century collection of stories, Strange Tales From Liaozhai. These stories are replete with fox spirits and melancholy ghosts, both of which are present in the story that will be performed.
The Love Of The Celestial Fox is about a thousand-year-old fox spirit named Lotus, who descends to the human realm and meets a mortal man named Sangsheng. The two fall in love.
Sangsheng had been betrothed before, but his betrothed, Li Wan, had passed away before the wedding. Returning to Sangsheng under another guise, Li Wan’s spirit inhabits an embroidered slipper. There, she competes with Lotus for Sangsheng’s affections in a series of escalating antics. It all comes to a head when Lotus’ true form is revealed.
Lotus agrees to leave, but when Sangsheng falls gravely ill, Li Wan begs Lotus for help. Seeing Li Wan’s love for Sangsheng, Lotus appeals to the Divine High Sage of Virtue and Guanyin Bodhisattva
to save Sangsheng, as
well as to reincarnate the spirit of Li Wan in a new body, so that the two can be together again. After her noble deed, Lotus leaves the mortal realm for good to continue
her ascension of full divinity.
For all those interested in the art of puppetry and storytelling, and in the diverse cultural heritage of Malaysia, this is a performance not to be missed.