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August 29, 2013

Chinese Puppets have a story to tell (Part II)

After much suspense and waiting, here is Part II and the final installment of the story of Chen Wenlong.

Chen Wenlong left the Su household and thought he could finally escape from the evil clutches of Mr. Su. He was wrong. A mystic character appeared in the next scene. He was highly skilled and this character later turned to be Chen Wenlong's saviour.

         Mystic character appears

Thinking that he had finally escaped from the evil Mr. Su, Chen continued his way to the capital city. He was shocked to see that the servant of the Su household had followed him all these while and was going to take his life. Fortunately, the mystic character appeared in time and had a fight with the servant.

Fight between servant and mystic character

Chen Wenlong thanked the mystic character for saving his life. Before he left, the mystery man even gave him some money for travel. 

Chen thanks mystery man

Chen wanted to ask for the mystery man's name to show his gratitude in future but he was long gone. Meanwhile, in the Su household, Mrs. Su reprimanded her husband for his ill-treatment of Chen Wenlong. She was further angered when Mr. Su decided to arrange another marriage for his daughter. 

Mrs. Su is angered by her husband's actions

Su Bixia was in love with Chen Wenlong and how is she going to escape from the marriage that her father had just arranged? She knew very well that her father would never change his decision about the marriage and decided to come up with an escape plan. She pretended to agree with her father on the marriage but when her maid went to find her, Bixia was nowhere to be found. The anxious Mr. Su did not know what to do since he had already agreed on the marriage. Desperate, he decided to adopt their housemaid as foster daughter who would replace Bixia in this arranged marriage. 

Maid kneels down and agrees to be Su's foster daughter

Su Bixia's escape was an act of courage as it was not acceptable in the olden days for a girl to be out of the household unaccompanied. Moreover, she had left the family and would be regarded as unfilial. But she could turn back no longer. Cold and alone, she was at a loss of what to do next. Fortunately, she met Chen Wenlong on the road. Chen almost could not believe his eyes when he saw his lover out in the cold. 

Chen Wenlong meets Su Bixia again

The lovers had gone through a couple of bad times and could finally meet. However, they were aware that their reunion was short-lived as Mr. Su had not agreed on their marriage. Sadness filled the air. The couple hug each other and cried. 

A teary hug

Chen comforted Su Bixia and told her the good news that he had succeeded in the imperial examinations. However, he wanted Bixia to keep a secret because he wanted to test her father again. 

Chen comforts the teary Bixia

Chen Wenlong made his way to the Su household again. He did not tell the Su family of his new status. Mr. Su did not change his attitude for Chen Wenlong and continued to treat him badly. Chen was angry that Mr. Su still did not repent on his past actions and decided to reveal his identity. Mr. Su immediately beg for mercy. Chen demanded to see his daughter and Mr. Su was at a loss because his daughter Su Bixia had run away from home. Revealing his true identity, Chen thanked Mrs. Su for helping him during his difficult times. At this moment, Su Bixia also returned home. Mr. Su again begged for forgiveness. 

Mr. Su begs for forgiveness

Chen Wenlong forgives Mr. Su and he finally won Su Bixia's hand in marriage. The story ends with a happy reunion of the Chen and Su families! 


June 27, 2013

Chinese puppets have a story to tell (Part I)

Traditional Chinese puppet theatre is typically performed in dialect and in modern day Singapore, it has lost a large part of its audience as many youngsters do not understand their ancestral vernacular. The Henghua community whose ancestors came from Putian (Eastern Fujian) is a minority dialect group in Singapore, making this vernacular comprehensible to only a small group of people. Having the fortune to read through the playscript, I shall try my best to use the photos as a storyboard to tell a classical story of Henghua puppet theatre. The title of the show is the same as the protagonist of this story: Chen Wen Long (陈文龙)

 Main protagonist Chen Wenlong 
Chen Wenlong was born into a rich family but was reduced to rags when his father passed away. In imperial China, one of the ways to escape poverty is to take the imperial examinations which would allow successful candidates to get a post as an official. However, Chen was so poor that he could not afford the money for travelling to the capital to take the examinations. His mother advised him to pay his betrothed family a visit to seek financial assistance. 

Chen faces Su's humiliation
Travelling for miles, Chen eventually arrived at his betrothed family-the Su family. Not only was Chen not welcomed in the Su family, Mr. Su humiliated him. Mr. Su had heard news of Chen Wenlong's  situation and had wanted to call off the engagement. When Chen arrived at his residence, Mr. Su jumped at the chance. He suggested giving Chen some money as compensation for calling off the engagement. Chen refused to call off the engagement and was locked in a cellar by the cold-hearted Su. Chen was even threatened that he would be beaten if he did not succumb to calling off the engagement. 

Maid related the bad news to Su Bixia
Meanwhile, the maid of the Su household overhead news of Chen Wenlong being locked in a cellar by Mr. Su. She immediately told Su Bixia (苏碧霞), the daughter of Mr. Su, who was engaged to Chen Wenlong. Su Bixia was astonished to receive the news and decided to think of a plan to save Chen. 

Servant of Su household threatened Chen Wenlong
As instructed by the cruel Su, a servant arrived at the cellar where Chen was locked in. He threatened to beat Chen to his death if he did not agree to cancel the engagement. 

Su Bixia to the rescue
The servant threw fists and kicks at Chen who tried to escape. Fortunately, Su Bixia and her maid arrived in time to stop the servant from hurting Chen further. 

Mrs. Su helped with the escape
Su Bixia rescued Chen from the cellar and just then, her mother Mrs. Su appeared. She also took pity with Chen's situation and advised him to quickly leave their house to avoid getting beaten up again. She also gave him some money for travel.

What will happen to Chen after he escaped? To be continued in the next post...   

April 8, 2013

Puppets from Quanzhou

In Singapore, the Hokkien (Minnan) performs mainly 2 types of puppet theatre: string puppet and glove puppet. Even though the performance is staged in the Hokkien dialect, the appearance of the puppets tend to differ, depending on where they are bought. I happened to spot the puppets from the Xiao Feng String Puppet Troupe (筱凤加礼戏班) which was performing at Geylang Lor 27A on 12 March.

The puppets hanging backstage caught my eye. They resembled puppets from Quanzhou, marked by their protruding earlobes and double chin. These characteristics are seen in Buddhist religious figures too (Ruizendaal 2006, 118-119).

Double chin, more obvious for the young male/sheng character seen here

For a good read on Quanzhou puppets, I will recommend Robin Ruizendaal, Marionette Theatre in Quanzhou (Brill, 2006).

The puppet theatre in Quanzhou has received international acclaim for its exquisite string manipulation of 36 strings or more. In the Singapore case, there are only about 10-12 strings. It is believed that the more strings there are, it allows the puppeteer to better present the delicate movements of the puppet. 

According to Ruizendaal, the term "Jia Li" (ka lei in Hokkien) as seen in the troupe name of Xiao Feng, may refer to "excellent rites theatre" or "additional rites theatre" (Ruizendaal 2006, 184). The term "Ka lei" has become commonly associated with string puppet theatre in Singapore.

March 15, 2013

Sweets and puppet show

It was the second day of the second lunar month, also known as "Tou Ya" (头牙). The character "Ya" here refers to every second day and sixteenth day of the lunar month. "Tou Ya" literally means the beginning of the second day (hence second day of the second lunar month) where the Chinese will begin their praying and offering to the deities. For the Henghua (兴化人) in Southern China, "Tou Ya" is an important event to celebrate. This is also seen in the case of Singapore but the celebration is done only on a much smaller scale.

 Gathering of the Henghua community, consisting of the elderly, adults and young

I was told that there will be praying and offering made in the various Henghua temples in Singapore but chanting by the priest (道士) was only conducted at the Xing An Tian Hou Gong (兴安天后宫) which is likened to the "headquarters" of the Henghua community.

There was a puppet show by Sin Hoe Ping (新和平) and of course not forgetting, the famous delicacies like "beaten noodles" (打面 or 'pa mi' in Henghua) and glutinous rice balls prepared for the occasion.

Eating peanut & sesame coated glutinous rice balls and watching puppet show 

These photos may serve as a beautiful memory to those who had visited this temple before and for those who have not, this will be the last time you will see this temple as a new building will replace it soon.

For a brief history of the temple, you can read my earlier post:   

February 9, 2013

May 26, 2012

Beautiful sketches of puppets

Sorry for the much delayed post..shouldnt have let these beautiful puppet sketches go unnoticed

It is done by Edric Hsu who has done a vivid depiction of the puppeteers and performances by Sin Hoe Ping at Empress Place in February this year:

 The sketches framed up and displayed at the ION Gallery:

More sketches done by Edric can be found on his Flickr:

April 25, 2012

Hokkien string puppet and Teochew iron stick puppet performances during Mazu's birthday

Mazu Festival
13 Apr 12 (3M23)
1445H – 1610H
Thian Hock Keng
After the Hainanese Tian Hou Gong, our little party headed for Thian Hock Keng in a taxi. Couldn’t believe that at this time in the day, it was a challenge to grab a taxi from Purvis St. Finally we managed. When we mentioned Thian Hock Keng to the taxi driver, who is probably in his 50s, there were some hesitation in his reaction. The data was probably hidden somewhere deep in his cells? Anyway, he knew his way.

At Thian Hock Keng, the Hokkien String Puppet show was on, with one or two persons watching. But since the puppet shows are for the Gods, there’s little concerns. In the old days, it was probably an attraction for the people who has no other forms of entertainment and a delight for the kids. These days, it was more of a necessity and an obligation to the Gods. We went into the temple. Apart from the side, the main hall had been restored (I was trying to look for the bats .. saw them flying but not hanging from the eaves) and the place was “barricaded”. Two officially looking guards (outsourced security guards) were on duty not allowing people to idle near to the main altar where the Birthday Offerings (ho siu in Hokkien) was being made, led by the Taoist Priests. The Buddhist monks had conducted the Buddhist rituals in the two days before. There were also many tourists trying to take pictures. The new house rule was that they could only take pictures from the courtyard.

Saw some familiar faces in the SHHK volunteers helping out in this event and so got to talk to them. No chance to capture the rituals but I think the official photographer has it. I must try to apply for a “permanent photographer” pass from THK for the next few events. 
In the din of the rituals and the constant flow of devotees and tourists, a few of us were engaged in deep discussions about the rituals, the practices, the beliefs and the consequences of short-cuts in the way we do things in modern times. If only I would tape them discussions and then voice over from the video clip, it would have been a wonderful collection.

It took us a while to re-gather to move to the next stop.
Wak Hai Cheng Beo
A short stroll along Telok Ayer St to Phillip St, we came to a much quieter Teochew Temple. It was already late afternoon and so, the crowd must have thinned out. The temple is under renovation and restoration and so, the activities were focussed on the courtyard which already had a temporary housing where the altar was set up. On the side was the Teochew Rod Puppet. Alas, the show was over by the time we went there and they would only perform at 7.30pm again.

In the small rather confined space, there was also a constant stream of devotees. Many of the devotees were known faces to the temple keepers who must have been managing this temple for generations.
As usual, each of us were in different directions, some in pay respects to Mazu, and others in chatting with the temple helpers and people there.

 We had a tipoff earlier to visit this Mazu temple in a Putian Association. And so, we thought we had better go as it was already 4pm. And so, off to the MRT station we went.