Ensuring Teochew Opera Has A Future


Ling Goh was born into a family of Teochew puppet and opera performers. Descended from an unbroken line of opera performers dating back to the nineteenth century, her greatgrandparents, Yang Bing Jin and Li Yu Feng, were performers in China who came to Penang to continue the trade with their son, Yang Qing Ying, Goh’s grandfather.

In 1951 Goh’s mother, Toh Ai Hwa, was born. “It was not until the age of 12 that my mother entered the rich operatic world of Teochew puppetry and opera. She was making a living selling chicken eggs before a friend asked her to join the Lao Yong Siew Choon, a Teochew puppet opera troupe, as a gong player. Her daily wage was four dollars. Back then, one bowl of noodles was only selling for one cent. It was a lucrative business,” Goh says.

Over time, her mother became an indispensable part of the troupe. “When the troupe master passed away in 1989, he bequeathed his troupe to my mother because none of his offspring wanted to continue the business.

Ling Goh.

“My mother renamed the troupe Kim Giak Low Choon. The troupe also includes my father and four siblings who can play instruments and control puppet movement behind the scenes.

“In 2008 my mother was recognised as a Living Heritage Treasure by the Penang Heritage Trust. It was a feather in her cap, for an exquisite career spanning half a century,” says Goh.

As a child, Goh remembers watching her mother putting on grand dresses, headgear and elaborate make-up, and stepping onstage before an eager crowd. The backstage was her playground and classroom – it was where she learned and mastered the intricacies of iron-rod puppet manipulation as well as the nuances of each character in Teochew opera.

“I did not stumble into this business; I was born into it. Teochew music can be jarring and loud to some people but to me, it is beautiful and very symbolic.

“My mother’s troupe mainly does Teochew puppetry. In 2009 I established a lifesized Teochew opera troupe, also named Kim Giak Low Choon. Under my direction, this branch of Kim Giak Low Choon grew to over 30 local, Thai and mainland Chinese performers and musicians.”

However, due to financial constraints, the troupe disbanded after four years. In their final two nights, they put on triumphant shows at penangpac.

It may seem that Goh’s life-sized Teochew opera troupe has sung its swan song, but she refuses to fade into the background. Goh continues to perform at cultural festivals in Penang, China, Singapore and London. In 2014 she founded the Teochew Puppet & Opera House at Lebuh Armenian – the first of its kind in Malaysia.

Goh’s mother, Toh Ai Hwa.

The old-style Penang house with its long, narrow architecture and a central atrium contains exhibits of Teochew iron-rod puppets as well as costumes and props from life-size Teochew opera performances. Visitors are allowed to don authentic opera costumes and try their hand at manipulating the unique iron-rod puppets.

There are old manuscripts of operas as well as puppets, musical instruments, assorted puppet accessories and costumes used in life-size operas. It is a glimpse into an ancient art that is fast fading.

While it is primarily an exhibition space, the Teochew Puppet & Opera House still occasionally holds opera performances, talks and workshops within the premises after hours. But mostly, it serves to tell the story of a remarkable family of opera performers over five generations.1

Keeping the Art Alive

Interest in this classical Chinese performing art has waned in recent years. Once a widely staged performance during the Hungry Ghost Festival, it is slowly being abandoned in favour of modern-day song and dance.

“People somehow think that Teochew opera is performed for the gods and ghosts. That’s not true – it has always been for a human audience. I believe people today are more interested in Western, Korean and Japanese entertainment. They think Teochew opera is lau beh (outdated); they have no patience to learn and understand the cultural values in Teochew opera,” she says.

Moreover, she says temples hiring contemporary singers have not helped matters. “Most temples in Penang prefer to hire modern singers to attract more audiences. More audiences mean more devotees, and more devotees mean more money for the temple,” she says.

Performed mainly in Teochew, language is a main contributing factor to the decline of the Teochew opera industry. “Not many people speak Teochew here,” laments Goh.

Strangely enough, the number of performing troupes has increased. According to Goh, before 2000 there were only two performing troupes in Malaysia. “Currently there are eight groups nationwide. But whether or not the number will stay or increase, I am not certain. It’s a tough trade that requires an insane amount of commitment and years of training. As Reigniting public interest in Teochew puppetry and opera is Goh’s mission in 2019. “Breaking down the language barrier and making the show relatable to common people are high on my to-do list,” she says.

Goh is most excited about an upcoming, ground-breaking project – a Malay puppet and opera show. “As part of an art exchange programme, I am working with Malay artists and performers to come up with a Malay version of Teochew puppet and opera show. I am learning pantun and Malay folklore. Now, it doesn’t mean that if you want to learn about Teochew opera, you must learn Teochew. You can speak any language!”

Teochew Puppet & Opera House is located at 122 Lebuh Armenian. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm and can be contacted at +604 262 0377 or teochewoperahouse@gmail.com.

1 https://mypenang.gov.my/culture-heritage/my-stories/120/

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