Sim­ply glov­ing it

Potehi glove pup­pet the­atre in Pe­nang is get­ting a boost through a book project and a se­ries of shows.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By JEREMY TAN star2@thes­

HOKKIEN Potehi shows used be the talk of the town when it at­tracted large crowds in Pe­nang. To­day, apart from tem­ple fes­ti­vals, it is hardly seen any­more as mod­ern au­di­ences grav­i­tate to­wards other forms of en­ter­tain­ment.

A se­ries of shows at the Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val later this month and a new book pub­lished by Ge­orge Town World Her­itage In­cor­po­rated ti­tled Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang: An Evolv­ing Her­itage, writ­ten in both English and Man­darin, seeks to change that.

The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang book, com­plete with mul­ti­me­dia con­tent, gives a his­tor­i­cal ac­count of how Potehi came to Pe­nang and what were its rit­u­al­is­tic roots. Through pho­to­graphs, video, il­lus­tra­tions and in­ter­ac­tive pop-ups, the three-di­men­sional glove pup­pet the­atre’s vis­ual and au­ral ap­peal is brought to life. The book delves into the her­itage, prin­ci­ples and tech­niques of four present-day troupes, ex­plor­ing their per­form­ers, pa­trons and au­di­ences.

The sym­bol­ism be­hind rit­u­als and cel­e­bra­tions are also laid bare, as is the anatomy of the stages and pup­pets them­selves, to­gether with its stories, scripts, mu­sic, and ma­nip­u­la­tion tech­niques.

Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang is au­thored by Kar-wan Potehi (Friends of Potehi), part of a Pe­nang-based col­lec­tive of artists and re­searchers who aim to re­vi­talise the art­form through com­mu­nity en­gage­ment. They are aca­demic Tan Sooi Beng, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary artist Okui Lala (Chew Win Chen), vis­ual artist Liew Kung Yu, com­mu­nity-based re­searcher Ong Ke Shin and pro­gramme man­ager Foo Wei Meng.

The di­verse group, with ages be­tween late 20s and late 50s, is led by Tan, a pro­fes­sor of eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy at Univer­siti Sains Malaysia, who has been re­search­ing Potehi since the 1980s.

“While there was a time when th­ese mo­bile pup­pet troupes were a com­mon fea­ture of the Malaysian land­scape, trav­el­ling through towns and vil­lages to en­ter­tain the young and old, such is not the case to­day,” says Tan in an in­ter­view in Pe­nang.

“It has lost its au­di­ence. The num­ber of peo­ple who can un­der­stand its clas­si­cal Hokkien di­alect or ap­pre­ci­ate the in­tri­ca­cies of the form, is dwin­dling. Also, few young peo­ple want to learn it,” she adds.

Doc­u­ment­ing the Potehi world

Tan re­veals the book chron­i­cles the his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and per­for­mance con­texts of the art­form – show­ing how it has evolved with the times as per­form­ers in­no­vate to stay in tune with the chang­ing tastes of pa­trons.

It de­scribes how Chi­nese the­atre emerged in then Malaya dur­ing the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, when im­mi­grants came in big num­bers from places like Fu­jian and Can­ton in South China, to work in the tin in­dus­try or set up trades.

“Pe­nang was one of the main points of en­try, and those who set­tled on the is­land com­prised Hokkien, Teochew, Can­tonese, Hainan and Hakka speak­ers.

They built tem­ples and set up clan as­so­ci­a­tions, where per­for­mances like lion and dragon dances, as well as opera or pup­pet the­atres, were pre­sented as thanks­giv­ing to the deities and seek bless­ings for a safe and pros­per­ous life in their new home.

In those days, th­ese not only pro­vided in­ex­pen­sive forms of en­ter­tain­ment for the set­tlers, but were also sites for the com­mu­nity to so­cialise, ex­plains Tan in the book’s pref­ace.

She also points out that while the dif­fer­ent di­alect groups shared sim­i­lar cul­tures, there were dif­fer­ences which were ev­i­dent in the the­atre world.

“The glove or cloth bag pup­pet (Potehi) and mar­i­onette (Kar­lay) the­atres used Hokkien, the di­alect of the ma­jor­ity of the Chi­nese in Pe­nang.

“The is­land was one of the first places where Hokkien Potehi (pup­pets worn over the hands like gloves) was per­formed. To­day, it re­mains one of the two ma­jor centres of the glove pup­pet the­atre in the coun­try, the other be­ing Jo­hor, which also has a big Hokkien pop­u­la­tion,” adds Tan.

In a di­a­logue ses­sion at the Hin Bus De­pot in Ge­orge Town in late May, the book’s au­thors high­lighted that the in­for­ma­tion they gath­ered was based on the ob­ser­va­tion, pho­tog­ra­phy and videog­ra­phy of per- for­mances and rit­u­als, as well as in­ter­views with the main per­form­ers of the four main Potehi troupes (Sing Hong Eng, Beng Geok Hong, Guat Poh Hong and Sin Kim Hong) in Pe­nang.

Some mem­bers of the re­search team also spent time learn­ing pup­pet ma­nip­u­la­tion, singing, di­a­logue and mu­sic, to gain prac­ti­cal knowl­edge. They fol­lowed the troupes around dur­ing shows, to find out more about the per­form­ers’ lives.

Foo likened their re­search to de­tec­tive work, for they sifted through old news­pa­pers to find ar­ti­cles and ad­ver­tise­ments on Potehi shows, hunt down (vin­tage) scripts, di­a­logues and lyrics, as well as look for peo­ple who were in­volved with it.

“Most of Potehi’s his­tory is not recorded, and only told orally. We talked to many prac­ti­tion­ers, to go be­hind the scenes and find out what made such shows tick,” says Foo.

“It’s fas­ci­nat­ing that you can glean so much from a cul­tural prac­tice by look­ing at its arte­facts, in this case the pup­pets. We closely ex­am­ined the fea­tures of 80 of them.”

Keep­ing the flame alive

To get close to the troupes, the team had to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with all the tem­ples in Pe­nang, and know the birth­days of their re­spec­tive res­i­dent deities, for that was when the shows were on.

“We were fight­ing against time too, as many Potehi prac­ti­tion­ers are el­derly. A few sadly passed away dur­ing the project,” says Ong.

Two Potehi troupe lead­ers were also present at the shar­ing ses­sion – Cheah Siew Kiew, from Sin Kim Hong and Ooi See Han, from Beng Geok Hong Pup­pet The­atre, both in their 60s. They lamented the lack of new blood that is com­ing in to re­place the older ones.

“Even my son doesn’t want to take up this prac­tice, as the in­come is in­con­sis­tent. I was de­lighted when the group ap­proached us for their re­search, for if we don’t pass on the skills and knowl­edge to the next gen­er­a­tion, some­day it will be no more,” says Ooi.

“My grand­fa­ther, who came over from China, orig­i­nally set up the troupe. As the third gen­er­a­tion to over­see it, I feel a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to my fam­ily, to keep it go­ing,” she adds.

Cheah was an opera per­former, but joined Potehi af­ter mar­ry­ing her hus­band Ang Kim Sai who owned a trio of pup­pet troupes. She sim­i­larly hopes the tra­di­tion will con­tinue, de­spite her own chil­dren show­ing no in­ter­est in it.

“To­day we don’t have much of an au­di­ence. Only the deities are watch­ing. But we still give it our best, as we can fool peo­ple but not the deities,” says Cheah with a laugh.

Ooi fondly re­mem­bers that in the past there were big crowds to fill up a Potehi per­for­mance venue, es­pe­cially chil­dren.

“Most times now, there isn’t a sin­gle per­son watch­ing. The only con­so­la­tion is some peo­ple telling us they were lis­ten­ing from their houses nearby,” says Ooi.

Tan men­tions this year is turn­ing out to be one of the busiest in terms of the Potehi re­search and ar­chiv­ing. The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang book, lim­ited to 1,000 copies, is avail­able now, and there will be more public ac­tiv­i­ties planned to pro­mote it.

Wit­ness the magic of Potehi for your­selves at the Kisah Pu­lau Pi­nang (Story Of Pe­nang) shows dur­ing the up­com­ing Her­itage Cel­e­bra­tions at Ar­me­nian Park in Pe­nang on July 8 (9pm). There will be more Potehi shows on July 29 and 30 as part of the Ge­orge Town Fes­ti­val, start­ing 9pm at the Pe­nang State Mu­seum on Ma­cal­is­ter Road, and on Aug 12 and 13 dur­ing the But­ter­worth Fringe Fes­ti­val, start­ing 8pm at Jalan Jeti Lama.

Th­ese Potehi shows, per­formed by the Om­bak-Om­bak ARTS­tu­dio, fea­ture a tale of love and friend­ship among four friends of dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds, set in Pe­nang in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. They tell the au­di­ence about the lively ac­tiv­i­ties in old Pe­nang that in­clude spice trad­ing, se­cret so­ci­ety fights and jo­get danc­ing, among oth­ers.

“Per­for­mances are vi­tal in sus­tain­ing any form of the­atre or mu­sic. We have tried to re­con­tex­tu­alise Potehi us­ing lo­cal char­ac­ters, cos­tumes and lan­guages, in or­der to make it rel­e­vant to the younger gen­er­a­tion,” says Tan.

“While doc­u­men­ta­tion for the book was be­ing car­ried out over the past three years, I man­aged to get an­other group of young peo­ple from Om­bakOm­bak to learn the art­form from the Beng Geok Hong troupe.

“They went to the Potehi stage and learnt from Ooi and fel­low per­former Cheah Saw Tin in be­tween their af­ter­noon and night shows. The ap­pren­tices have since per­formed two tales in the past two years – The Story of Malek and The Mon­key King Ad­ven­tures,” adds Tan, who is also the Kisah

Pu­lau Pi­nang show’s artis­tic di­rec­tor and pro­ducer.

All Kisah Pu­lau Pi­nang Potehi shows are free of charge. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit FB: Om­bak-Om­bak ArtS­tu­dio. The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang book re­tails for RM188 at se­lected out­lets in Pe­nang. FB: ‘Cel­e­brat­ing The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang.’ Visit: More info, email: sb­tan22g­


The Kisah Pu­lau Pi­nang Potehi show is a tale of love and friend­ship among friends of dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds, set in Pe­nang in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies.

— Filepic

Tra­di­tional glove pup­pets from the Beng Geok Hong Potehi troupe in Pe­nang. While fa­cial fea­tures and hair­styles in­di­cate the role types and age of each pup­pet, the colours and de­signs of the cos­tumes, head­g­wear and hand-held props re­flect the so­cial sta­tus, rank and oc­cu­pa­tions of the dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters.

— Handout

The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang book brings to life the artistry of the mag­i­cal world of pup­pets and pup­pet the­atre – and passes it on to a new gen­er­a­tion.

— Filepic

It’s a strug­gle to re­vive public in­ter­est when it comes to tra­di­tional Potehi shows in Pe­nang, but through the ef­forts of arts groups like Kar-wan Potehi (Friends of Potehi), there is now more ex­po­sure and un­der­stand­ing when it comes to this her­itage art form.

— Filepic

An episode from the Chi­nese clas­sic Jour­ney To The West re­told through pup­pet glove the­atre or Potehi by the Om­bak-Om­bak ARTS­tu­dio in Pe­nang.


Ooi See Han from the Beng Geok Hong group in­struct­ing her pup­peteers dur­ing a re­hearsal.

— Handout

The Potehi Glove Pup­pet The­atre Of Pe­nang box set comes with a pop-up stage per­for­mance. This bilin­gual mul­ti­me­dia deluxe set – con­tain­ing a hard­cover il­lus­trated book, two flip­books, four posters and a per­for­mance DVD - is housed in a box re­sem­bling the chest where potehi per­form­ers store their pup­pets.


The four Potehi groups in Pe­nang con­tinue to use old pup­pets which have been handed down from ear­lier troupe own­ers. How­ever, some new pup­pets have been bought from China and Tai­wan in the last two decades.

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