World of make­be­lieve

Cap­ti­vat­ing tales come to life through wooden pup­pets at a tem­ple in Sin­ga­pore.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By LIN YANGCHEN

AT a tem­ple on Pu­lau Ubin, Sin­ga­pore, cap­ti­vat­ing tales come to life through wooden pup­pets.

Twenty years ago, two dif­fer­ent things hap­pened to two peo­ple that they never imag­ined would re­sult in them be­com­ing good friends to­day.

Doreen Tan quit her job as a ship­ping ex­ec­u­tive to be a tra­di­tional Chi­nese pup­peteer.

At the same time, Ong Siew Fong’s house on Pu­lau Ubin was hit by a huge gran­ite rock that fell from the sky af­ter an ex­plo­sion at a nearby quarry and she was in­spired to build a tem­ple around the fallen boulder.

Tan, 61, and Ong, 74, now meet twice a year at Ong’s Wei To Tem­ple in a re­mote part of the is­land to cel­e­brate the birth or rein­car­na­tion of Taoist deities.

No fes­tiv­ity at a tem­ple is com­plete with­out a tra­di­tional Chi­nese the­atre per­for­mance, so Tan and a few other pup­peteers and mu­si­cians from the 15-mem­ber Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi troupe make the ar­du­ous trip from Sin­ga­pore’s main­land to the tem­ple to put up the show to en­ter­tain, not only the devo­tees but more im­por­tantly, the gods as well.

On this oc­ca­sion, the devo­tees were cel­e­brat­ing the rein­car­na­tion of Ne Zha, the prodi­gious child de­ity who could walk and talk at birth, on the eighth day of the fourth lu­nar month, which fell on May 3.

The troupe’s per­for­mance was ti­tled Hangzhou Re­venge. It tells of a mar­ried man from Hangzhouwho falls in love with an­other woman on his jour­neys and mar­ries her with­out ei­ther woman know­ing about the other.

When it is time for him to go home, he aban­dons his se­cond wife to pre­vent his first wife from find­ing out. The se­cond wife hangs her­self, and her ghost en­lists the help of a trav­eller to kill the un­faith­ful hus­band and his col­lud­ing brother.

In the end, the ghost ar­ranges the happy mar­riage be­tween the trav­eller and the first wife.

Sim­ple as the plot sounds, the show ran on for a few hours – almost as long as a Wag­ner opera.

Although devo­tees were some­times too busy with prayers to pay at­ten­tion to the per­for­mance, the at­mos­phere cre­ated by the pup­pets’ colour­ful cos­tumes and grace­ful move­ments, ac­com­pa­nied by the lively singing in Hokkien and the mu­sic, made the spir­its come alive.

Tem­ple devo­tee Joseph Liew, 45, said tra­di­tional pup­pet shows such as this are made pos­si­ble through the fi­nan­cial sup­port of the tem­ple’s wor­ship­pers.

Liew, who di­rects a con­struc­tion com­pany and vis­its the tem­ple a few times a month, added: “It is a good place to med­i­tate – there’s no traf­fic and it’s quiet.

“The tem­ple has a kam­pung at­mos­phere and a spir­i­tual pres­ence that is hard to ex­plain.”

Mean­while, Tan said the challenge was per­form­ing in the prox­im­ity of gi­ant can­dles and burn­ing in­cense. This makes singing dif­fi­cult as per­form­ers need to in­hale large amounts of air to con­tin­u­ously project the un­du­lat­ing voices typ­i­cal of Chi­nese opera singing.

The pup­pets, which are dressed in ex­quis­ite robes, are made of wood that comes from Zhangzhou in Fu­jian prov­ince in China, a coun­try where pup­petry dates back to a few thou­sand years.

About five years ago, the pup­pets cost S$100 (RM311) apiece, but now each pup­pet is about S$300 (RM933), said Tan.

Troupe mem­ber Tan Poh Hong, 63, said she got in­ter­ested in Chi­nese opera and pup­petry as a “cu­ri­ous and play­ful” 10-year-old.

The pay was low but food and lodg­ing were pro­vided, and she loved the way of life, she said.

“We had free­dom, the boss was car­ing and taught us the trade. We were like fam­ily and went ev­ery­where to­gether,” she added. – The Straits Times/Asia News Net­work

Tan Poh Hong ar­rang­ing pup­pets in a row, as well as un­tan­gling the strings con­nected to their arm and leg joints be­fore the start of a per­for­mance. — ANN

Elec­tri­cian Lee Kian Hwa fil­ing down the newly re­placed front plate of a banhu, a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment sim­i­lar to an erhu. The process is done by trial and er­ror, with al­ter­nat­ing bouts of fil­ing and play­ing to get the de­sired sound.

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