A New Lease of Life for Traditional Puppet Theatre


Learning Potehi puppet manipulation from Madame Ooi See Han of the Beng Geok Hong Puppet Theatre Troupe.

Across Asia, traditional performing arts struggle to survive. But some troupes have found new relevance – and therefore new audiences.

In a lean-to wedged between a temple and a cafe, the audience sits on plastic chairs, waiting. Plucked strings and wooden clappers ring out against the falling rain. Gradually, a cast of colourful characters emerges from behind the cardboard screen: doting parents with their beautiful daughter, the lecherous man who spots the beauty at the market, a brilliant young scholar who also happens to be skilled at kung fu.

The Love Story of Warrior Ma Lek unfolds predictably, drawing much laughter from the audience. As the play continues, people drift in from both the temple and the cafe to catch a glimpse of the action. Unlike most plays at Penang’s arts festivals, this one is performed in Hokkien. Its cast consists entirely of glove puppets. This is Potehi – a traditional theatre that is trying to find a foothold in 21st-century George Town.

“There is no audience; it’s only performed for the gods in the temples,” says Prof Tan Sooi Beng, artistic collaborator with Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, who put on the play at last December’s In-Between Arts Festival. Unlike many traditional troupes, this one is noticeably young. The performers come from a range of backgrounds: “Some are working in the factories in the free trade zone; some are MA (Music) students from Universiti Sains Malaysia or from Disted College; and some are freelance artists,” says Tan. They have been learning Potehi from the masters of the Beng Geok Hong Potehi Troupe.

The troupe is one of Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio’s activities, sponsored by Think City, to revitalise traditional arts in Penang. They are trying to attract new audiences for Potehi and have pioneered some innovative techniques to do so.

“We’re presenting shows outside of the temple, making the stories and music more dramatic, shortening the presentations, and adding translations so that people can understand.” The group has also been conducting workshops for children and “whoever wants to play with the puppets after the shows.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio has had considerable success. “We’ve been able to attract 300-400 people each time we perform. The troupe has performed in Lebuh Armenian, Balik Pulau, Butterworth Fringe Festival, In-Between Festival… It was also invited to perform in the Bangkok Festival.”

All this is impressive for a group that’s only about a year old. The trick, according to Tan, is getting young people interested in the first place: “From experience, young people usually say they do not like traditional music or theatre as they do not know anything about the tradition. However, once they start learning, they begin to appreciate the intricacies and beauty of the forms.”

Is Potehi at risk of dying out in Penang? Not yet, says Tan, but it is stagnating. “The temples still need performances, but because there is no audience, the performers do not feel the urgency to improvise, create new works or put on shows that can attract audiences. There are also no young people who want to become apprentices. Young people prefer to join the ko-tai (song stage) and sing pop songs during festivals.”

A group like this is significant because it brings new energy to this traditional art. “The masters have been happy with the progress of the young people. They are invigorated by the interest shown. International performances will add to the process of revitalisation and perhaps raise the status of the form,” says Tan.

While new works may be on the agenda one day, for now, the troupe is focused on mastering the classics. “We need to know the traditional form before we can create new works.”

Future of Potehi

Already at the George Town Literary Festival last year, I got a glimpse of what the future might hold, courtesy of one of Taiwan’s most inventive Potehi librettists.

Karen Lai

Dr Robin Ruizendaal.

“I use the puppeteer as a window on Asian society, to see how that society is changing,” says Dr Robin Ruizendaal. Tall and blue-eyed, the Dutchman is an unlikely champion of traditional Taiwanese Potehi. Yet Ruizendaal has become something of an ambassador for the art form, and has written some 30 plays – many in Classical Hokkien – and toured the world with the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre. The troupe puts on about 300 performances a year and has played in major venues such as London’s Festival Hall. Ruizendaal’s interest in puppet theatre developed when he was studying about China at Leiden University. “I was interested in modern theatre but wanted to choose something that could be a window on Chinese society. And I saw puppets used to be everywhere, related to religion, music. It’s also a very local culture for the people – it’s not an elite culture.

“In 1993 I went to Taiwan. Then I was approached by a foundation that wanted to establish a puppet museum and they needed a specialist, someone who could do international promotion, so I was just the right person for the job.”

Unlike in Penang, Potehi is very much part of the cultural mainstream in Taiwan. In an online poll to select an image symbolising Taiwan, Potehi puppets were the handsdown winner.

“There is a 24-hour television channel for puppets. The biggest puppet film studio in the world is in Taiwan. And this company is so successful it is noted on the stock exchange – you can buy puppet stocks. So it’s really big,” says Ruizendaal.

This has made it much easier for Taiwanese Potehi to thrive where other traditional arts have not. “There is quite a lot of government investment in education and promotion. All elementary students in their second year go to the puppet museum and see a performance.”

According to Ruizendaal, this top-down support is absolutely necessary to keep traditional arts alive: “The government has the means to make these things happen through educational organisations and the Ministry of Culture. There’s a lot happening at the grassroots level, but you’re up against organisations with amazing promotional budgets. So it’s education, promotion.”

In Taipei itself, there are many venues where you can see traditional puppetry shows and join teaching sessions.

Puppets for Ruizendaal's first show, Marco Polo.

The majority of Potehi performances in Taiwan are still part of temple festivals, but while these keep puppet troupes afloat, they draw meagre audiences. For that, innovation – and entertainment value – is necessary.

“It needs to be entertaining. Performers have a responsibility, because if their plays are not exciting enough, well, they’re dead.”

For Ruizendaal, this is where reinvention is crucial. ‘Tradition is not a static thing. Theatre is related to society, so you need to adapt your performance to that society. If all your shows are about imperial China and the struggles of people in a traditional society, it’s going to be difficult to find an audience.

“In every culture there are stories that are relevant or could be made relevant, and that’s the duty of theatre-makers, both modern and traditional.”

Creating new repertoire has been one of Ruizendaal’s main roles at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre. His first show, Marco Polo, was in both Italian and Taiwanese. “I asked an Italian composer and a Chinese composer to make the music because I thought they’re both opera cultures, and I tried to integrate these. That worked very well – we performed the show in 20 countries.”

The Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre’s latest production is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese play. “This time it’s performed and sung completely in English.” This allows the theatre to reach new, international audiences.

Ruizendaal’s philosophy is simple: “I just do things I like, but also which I think work well in an international market. We’re a business; it’s not only for art – it also needs to sell.”

For Potehi to thrive in Penang, both performers and audiences will need to find a balance between tradition and innovation, history and entertainment. “Coca-Cola is easy, tea is complex,” says Ruizendaal. “We often choose the easiest way out for entertainment. But it’s good to make choices that take us out of our own comfort zone – it makes life more interesting.”

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Both Ruizendaal and Tan have contributed to a new book entitled Potehi: Glove Puppet Theatre in Southeast Asia and Taiwan (Taipei: Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company, 2015), which is available at Gerakbudaya Bookshop at 78, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.


KL-born and Melbourne-educated, Soon-Tzu Speechley is a freelance writer, editor and historian. His work has appeared in a number of magazines in Australia and Malaysia. He tweets @speechleyish

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