A hub for folk cul­ture

The Teochew Pup­pet and Opera house in Ge­orge Town is find­ing new ways to keep the tra­di­tional arts alive.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Arts - By JEREMY TAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

AN­CIENT tra­di­tions live on at the Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House in Pe­nang, where live shows, work­shops and demon­stra­tions en­sure there is con­tin­ued ap­pre­ci­a­tion when it comes to the present gen­er­a­tion.

Lo­cated along Ar­me­nian Street in Ge­orge Town’s core her­itage zone, it is the first space in Malaysia solely ded­i­cated to the folk art, which was founded in 2014 by re­tired opera ac­tress Goh Hooi Ling and a team of vol­un­teers.

On dis­play are an as­sort­ment of cos­tumes, pup­pets, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, scripts and other re­lated arte­facts, which pro­vide vis­i­tors both lo­cal and for­eign, a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the unique type of opera which orig­i­nated in south­ern China.

Crowds were cer­tainly en­thralled by what they saw at its re­cent third an­niver­sary open day. It kicked off with a pre­sen­ta­tion on Teochew opera and pup­petry that proved en­light­en­ing and in­for­ma­tive to the unini­ti­ated.

Vis­i­tors then joined in for singing and act­ing classes, learn­ing sim­ple rhymes and what the dif­fer­ent move­ments and ges­tures meant in the art­form, which is be­lieved to date back some 450 years.

They were then taught how to ma­nip­u­late the small iron rod pup­pets and bring var­i­ous myth­i­cal char­ac­ters to life, with no more than a few twitches of the fin­ger.

Some, like Swiss na­tive Peter Sch­wer, also took the op­por­tu­nity to dress up in the elab­o­rate opera cos­tumes and had their faces painted, for photo-tak­ing ses­sions.

“We take great in­ter­est in cul­ture, and this was a good op­por­tu­nity to see what goes on be­hind the scenes at such shows. It re­ally en­gages you,” says Sch­wer, a Malaysia My 2nd Home res­i­dent, who has been here for two years.

Join­ing him was wife Sabina Sut­ter, and their two young chil­dren, Do­minic, 10, and Vivi­enne, seven, who also dressed up and had makeup ap­plied. They went home with some unique fam­ily por­traits.

Also drop­ping by was Aus­tralian lec­turer Jenny Buck­worth, and trainee teach­ers Do­minic May and Lea Hel­let, who hap­pened to be ex­plor­ing Ge­orge Town when they heard the sounds and de­cided to check things out.

“It was very en­ter­tain­ing. The pup­pets and cos­tumes are beau­ti­ful. Putting on a show like this looks like hard work. But we’re de­lighted to be able to im­merse our­selves in the lo­cal cul­ture,” says Buck­worth.

Ac­cord­ing to 36-year-old Goh, bet­ter known as Ling, that was the orig­i­nal aim when set­ting up the place. She is a fourth gen­er­a­tion per­former, hav­ing at the ten­der age of seven, fol­lowed in the foot­steps of mother Toh Ai Hua, now 66.

“We wanted to in­tro­duce this an­cient art­form to more peo­ple, be­cause oth­er­wise, it would slowly dis­ap­pear into his­tory once we are gone.

“Even though it’s an in­te­gral part of Chi­nese cul­ture, most peo­ple nowa­days do not ap­pre­ci­ate it any­more, nor un­der­stand the sym­bol­ism or mean­ings be­hind it,” says Ling.

“By hav­ing a base where we can teach and share, we hope to re­vive in­ter­est in it. Com­pared to just hav­ing street shows, this al­lows us to go more in depth,” she adds.

Ling and the many sup­port­ers of Teochew opera, who helped set up the cen­tre, are thank­ful to the Mor Hun Club for let­ting them use the space.

And they felt that hav­ing such in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences is more ef­fec­tive com­pared to static, mu­seum-like ex­hibits, so tourists in par­tic­u­lar, can fully ex­pe­ri­ence Teochew Opera’s many nu­ances.

Ling points out that the main dif­fer­ence be­tween Teochew opera and other Chi­nese opera vari­ants is the di­a­logue, heav­ier make-up and more elab­o­rate cos­tumes.

“These are all made by hand and can cost thou­sands of ring­git. We’ve had to im­port some from China, be­cause no­body here pro­duces them any­more,” she re­veals.

And while tra­di­tion­ally it is not com­mon for the public to touch the cos­tumes and pup­pets, the Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House en­cour­ages in­ter­ac­tion. They are laid out for all to ex­plore, so it stim­u­lates in­ter­est.

If any­thing, the Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House’s ef­forts seem to be pay­ing off.

All the work­shops, shows and an­niver­sary events – which in­cluded a cel­e­bra­tion at the Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre of Pe­nang in the sec­ond year – has gen­er­ated some buzz.

“From our con­ver­sa­tions with school stu­dents, we found that some had an in­ter­est in it, but didn’t have a plat­form to learn about it.

“We’re all proud of this place. There was a point when some felt that Teochew Opera would even­tu­ally die off, but now we’re con­fi­dent it will carry on,” says an op­ti­mistic Ling.

Among the younger faces in the crowd were A-level stu­dents Sara Chew and Lim De Hu, both 19. Chew heard about the Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House’s open day from her grand­mother, and was keen to check it out.

“I’m a theatre stu­dent, and wanted to get some new ideas. It is fas­ci­nat­ing. This is the first time I’ve seen a real pup­pet show,” says Chew.

The classes were con­ducted by 70-year-old Lee Xin Hwa, an opera in­struc­tor, who flew in all the way from Xi­a­men, China. She had started at the age of 12.

“When I was a child, I watched the opera and was im­pressed by the beau­ti­ful cos­tumes. So when the chance came up, I reg­is­tered with a govern­ment-sup­ported, opera art col­lege,” says Lee.

In China, Lee was an ac­tress for over a decade be­fore turn­ing to teach­ing.

“I’ve been in this field for all my life. It’s a lovely tra­di­tion and we need to pass it down to newer gen­er­a­tions,” she con­cludes.

The Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House is lo­cated at No.122 Ar­me­nian Street, Ge­orge Town in Pe­nang. It opens from 9am to 4pm on week­days, up to 6pm on week­ends, and is closed on Mon­days. En­try fees are RM5 (Malaysians) and RM10 (for­eign­ers). Free ad­mis­sion for chil­dren aged six be­low. For more in­for­ma­tion, call 04-2620377 or log on to www.teochew­pup­pet.com or www.face­book.com/ TeochewPup­petAndOpera/.

A per­former show­ing off the more elab­o­rate cos­tumes and fa­cial paint­ing that is typ­i­cal of Teochew opera. — Pho­tos: LIM BENG TATT/ The Star

At the Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House, Goh demon­strates how a per­former’s hair is done up us­ing a so­lu­tion of wa­ter and tree gum.

‘By hav­ing a base where we can teach and share, we hope to re­vive in­ter­est in this tra­di­tional theatre art form. Com­pared to just hav­ing street shows, this al­lows us to go more in depth,’ says Goh, Teochew Pup­pet and Opera House founder.

Vis­i­tors to the re­cent open day tak­ing part in a Teochew opera act­ing class and learn­ing some of the ba­sic moves.

A Teochew pup­petry per­for­mance is part of the Teochew Opera and Pup­pet House’s pro­gram­ming sched­ule.

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