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January 8, 2017

Teochew iron-stick puppet performance

After a long pause, I was eventually able to watch Teochew iron-stick puppet performance again. The show was performed by the last active Teochew iron-stick troupe, Sin Ee Lye Heng (新怡梨兴) at Hoon Sian Keng Temple (云仙宫).

The Teochew iron-stick performance is usually marked with a rather long music prelude, for about 25-30 minutes. The main puppeteer arrived early to set up the puppets, here's a snapshot.

                     Preparing for performance, note that the puppeteers are seated on the stage

Musicians backstage
Yes, you are not dreaming. The suona is played by a 12-year old :) 

The first part of the performance comprised various ritual preludes that lasted from 11.30am to 12.40pm. Performers and musicians paused for an hour break before starting the actual performance at 2.30pm (half hour music prelude before).

The performance is titled "Story of Lianxiang" (莲香戏鞋). I have decided to translate without taking into consideration of the 'shoe' in the Chinese version because I did not chance upon any shoe in the show (for Teochew opera fans, please correct me if I am wrong). This is a classic supposedly performed since the 1960s and was adapted from Liaozhai (聊斋) or Tales of the Strange. The protagonist Lianxiang is a thousand-year old fox spirit who arrived to the mortal world and not long after, she fell in love with a mortal named Sangsheng (桑生). 

Lianxiang, the fox spirit and her lover Sangsheng

While you may expect a happily ever after story for this pair, the story has not ended. It turns out that Sangsheng has a marital engagement with Li Wan (李纨) but the latter passed away before they could have the formal wedding. Even as a ghost, Li Wan was still very much in love with Sangsheng. She decided to come to the mortal world to see Sangsheng, disguising as a friend of Lianxiang. 

Li Wan wept as she could not believe her fiance already had a new lover

The furious Lianxiang charging at Li Wan

Even though I had difficulty understanding the singing and dialogue at times, I could sense the rapport between the puppeteers and musicians to create a spectacular scene. Sangsheng fell very ill, and although Lianxiang was angry, she decided to request help from the various deities, including Guanyin

Lianxiang begs Guanyin to help her lover Sangsheng 

Guess what will happen next? This will be continued in my next post, I promise it won't take too long.     

November 14, 2016

Tradition needs to be continued and revitalized, this will be the first traditional puppetry workshop to be held in Singapore. We have invited traditional puppeteer and carver Mr. Lai Yong Ting from Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum of Taiwan to mentor and share his rich experience. Puppeteers, members of the public including children, are welcome to join! Hope to see you there!

Please refer to this link for event registration 報名詳情請參閱:

December 15, 2014

Singapore puppeteer goes to Brunei!

I am very proud to announce our very own Hainanese rod puppeteer's recent trip to Brunei! It was a wonderful exchange  (7-12 December 2014) with students in Brunei. Looks like the students had fun! The puppeteer is Mr. Pang Tong Teng from the Xin Xing Gang Qiong Nan Drama Society (新兴港琼南剧社) which has been established since 1997. Till the present day, they have performed regularly. Do refer to my past posts for the performances of this troupe (keyword search: Hainan). Thanks to Jodi and Terence from Artsolute for the photos and information!

The students look happy holding the rod puppets! 

Mr Pang with the puppet

Group shot

Newspaper feature (got to slowly use translator to read..hee)

April 23, 2014

Singapore: A myriad of puppet shows in different regional vernaculars

This shall be the 1st post in 2014, my apologies for the delay. Been travelling around the globe, watching puppet performances and interacting with puppeteers but it takes effort to sit in front of the computer and put up a proper post. I shall start off with Chinese puppet theatre in Singapore where this site is based.

Singapore can be considered one of the few places that you can find a myriad of puppet and opera performances sung in different regional vernaculars within a small geographical distance. As had been introduced in the earlier posts, the current puppet types that are still being performed are:

1. Hainanese rod puppet (海南杖头木偶)
2. Henghua string puppet (兴化提线木偶)
3. Hokkien glove puppet (sung in the Gezaixi/Gezai opera style 福建/闽南布袋戏)
4. Teochew/Chaozhou iron-stick puppet (潮州铁枝木偶)

Although you may not be able to see such performances everyday, they will perform on an important occasion such as the celebration of the birthday of Mazu, also known as the Goddess of the Sea. It was her birthday yesterday which is the 23rd day of the third lunar month.

Hainanese rod puppet performance which starts off with a prelude of sending blessings to Goddess of Sea (who is also popularly known as Heavenly Empress/Tian Hou 天后) by the Eight Immortals (八仙) represented by eight puppets. 

Close up of the rod puppets (some puppets have movable parts at the eyes and mouth)

Hokkien string puppet performance at Thian Hock Keng (天福宫)

Teochew rod puppet at Wak Hai Cheng Beo (粤海清庙)

In Chinese/Taoist religious belief, specific deities may sometimes be worshipped only by some dialect groups. However, Mazu, a native from Meizhou Island, Putian (where Henghua or Xinghua people come from) is popularly worshipped by sojourners coming from different regions in Southern China, hence bringing together the various types of performances, opera and puppet theatre on this occasion. They are performed at different locations but it will not be too difficult to spot if you notice close enough.

Lastly, not forgetting to thank Chinatownboy who also blogs here for the pictures and videos!

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.