Penang in a Glove

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The young keep traditions alive by adapting and improvising ancient forms of art – such as potehi.

It has been a very fruitful year for potehi, a traditional form of glove-puppet theatre originating from southern China that’s seeing a healthy revival in Penang.

To start with, in the first quarter of 2017 a group of researchers coordinated by Professor Tan Sooi Beng and her OmbakOmbak ARTstudio produced the volume, Potehi: Glove Puppet Theatre of Penang. It is a fully illustrated coffee-table book with two mini flipbooks and a cardboard pop-up stage documenting the work of the last four Penang potehi families who have been preserving the tradition for decades and yet never had the public attention they deserve.

To change all that and bring the art up to speed, Tan helped a group of young students connect and learn from the Beng Geok Hong troupe, one of the four original Penang potehi groups. The young potehi performers are set to perform in Tokyo at the end of the year.

“Potehi is Hokkien traditional puppetry, but we try to make it multicultural by using different characters and languages,” says Marcus Lim Chin Keong, co-director and one of the main puppeteers in the young troupe. “The subtitles we use are particularly important to engage spectators and maintain their interest. Our musicians also use Malay instruments to make potehi more flexible to other elements.” Jasniza Johari is the only Malay in the troupe; she operates the puppets along with Lim and narrates the story.

Lim is excited to travel internationally, but recalls how the Thais were puzzled during their performance in Bangkok in 2015. “I don’t think they really understood what we were playing because it was in a different language and the old story didn’t relate to them.”

The group wishes to perform in Taiwan, where potehi has a long tradition and history, and where many experienced groups have perfected the art in their own way. “To us, going to Taiwan is a dream as they are very professional there,” says Lim, who explains that in Taiwan, potehi is a hard niche to crack for outsiders.

The group has adapted some of potehi’s most famous and lengthy traditional plays into shorter 20-minute versions in order to fit into festival schedules, and they have also scripted their first play, Kisah Pulau Pinang – the Story of Penang. It tells of Chew, a Chinese immigrant businessman who comes to Penang to find his fortune and meets many multi-ethnic friends. They represent the rich tapestry of Penang people, including a beautiful Nyonya lady with whom Chew falls in love.

“Potehi plays must have a love scene,” explains Tan, “so Chew, the rich businessman, falls in love with a local Nyonya lady who wears the baju panjang. As our goal is to appeal to audiences of diverse races, ages and gender, we have also introduced non-Chinese characters, languages and costumes to highlight Penang’s cosmopolitanism. There’s Kahssim, an Indian-Muslim who is Chew’s business partner and friend; and Yi, a rent collector, who is also a close friend. Most scenes are set in Little India, Masjid Lebuh Acheh (also known as the Second Jeddah) and the amusement parks where all and sundry used to go for entertainment at night. And of course, the play’s climax includes the secret society riots of the late-nineteenth century.”

Tan facilitates the group and suggests themes for the plays, and it’s the scriptwriter – in this case, Lim – who does the research to present the different characters in a veritable way. The ensemble’s musicians also have an important role in studying the music of the past in order to adapt it to the needs of a modern play.

“The musicians are awesome because there is no musical script for this new play; they have to come up with it all by themselves, and that’s not an easy task,” says Lim. Ong Chin Siang, who masterfully plays the pipa, says that he “studied since secondary school, and continued playing after graduation because the pipa is my personal interest. Lim invited me to play in the group; I usually practise a couple of hours a day, and on weekends I can play up to six hours.”

The OmbakOmbak ARTStudio potehi group has been fortunate enough to receive some funding from Think City and the Penang state government for the past three years. “Our upcoming Japan tour is partially sponsored by the Japan Foundation,” says Tan, “but to be entirely sustainable, we also need the support of community members who want our young generation to keep our ancient traditions alive.”

The group will present two stories, The Monkey King Adventures and Kisah Pulau Pinang – The Story of Penang, on October 14 at the Penang House of Music to raise funds for their upcoming travel. All others who would like to contribute can contact Tan Sooi Beng at sbtan2@gmail. com.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available in bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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