Singapore – It is 1.30pm on a rainy, humid December afternoon and the Sin Hoe Ping puppet troupe is busy making sure that everything is in place before they perform for Da Er Ye Bo, the two Taoist gods of the underworld.
It is the first feast day at the shentan or shrine festival for these deities, and the troupe wants the celebrations to begin smoothly.
Knowing that they will be singing for two hours without a break, the grey-haired puppeteers are clad in loose, comfortable clothing and slippers.
Two life-sized figures of Da Er Ye Bo glower at them from behind, macabre guardians of a dark curtained area where a spirit medium will be offering consultations to devotees in the evening. The medium, along with the getai singers whose traditional performance dates back to the era of the Japanese occupation, will be the star of the event.
But the members of Sin Hoe Ping don’t mind being out of the limelight. As they begin to sing a high-pitched, mournful sounding song while manoeuvring the puppet characters around the makeshift stage, Yeo Lye Hoe, the 67-year-old troupe leader, shuffles off to an open area outside the tent where the festival is taking place. The only people in the audience are a little boy in a uniform, presumably on his way home from school, and his grandfather.
“I’m going to do this for as long as I can,” Yeo says gruffly. “After all, if I don’t, who will?”
Vestiges of the past
Sin Hoe Ping is one of the last Chinese puppet troupes active in Singapore, and the very last troupe performing in the Henghua language, spoken by those with ancestral roots in Putian, a part of Fujian Province in China.
Frequently sidelined for the more flamboyant sensibilities of Chinese opera, these puppet troupes are something of an anomaly in cosmopolitan Singapore. Rooted in ancient folk religion, they appear almost to be vestiges of the past that have stubbornly survived to challenge the modern skyscrapers and apartment blocks that are crammed across the tiny island country.
The Chinese diaspora in Singapore, who arrived as immigrants from the southern Chinese provinces during the late 19th century, ironically preserved many elements of Chinese puppet theatre that have become almost extinct in their country of origin due to the brutal effects of the Cultural Revolution.
Many of the performers are hired on an ad hoc basis, whenever feast days are held to commemorate Taoist deities.
Yeo, who makes and repairs his collection of up to a 100 puppets from his apartment, says that demand for puppet shows has declined in recent years.
He attributes this to the lack of interest in temple rituals, which are often elaborate, time-consuming and costly.
“We now have five or six regular performers left. One died recently, and after the rest of us go, nobody will know the art of Chinese puppetry in Singapore any more.”
Numbering approximately 20 in total, though this figure is also dwindling steadily with Singapore’s ageing population, these troupes faithfully represent traditions that emerged from southern China as early as the Song dynasty in the AD 1000s.
The Chinese diaspora in Singapore, who arrived as immigrants from the southern Chinese provinces during the late 19th century, ironically preserved many elements of Chinese puppet theatre that have become almost extinct in their country of origin due to the brutal effects of the Cultural Revolution. These elements include handwritten theatre scripts used for puppet shows, which have been passed down for generations and can today cost up to $1,000.
Fading art form
We now have five or six regular performers left. One died recently, and after the rest of us go, nobody will know the art of Chinese puppetry in Singapore anymore.
Yeo is a laconic and stout man who does not romanticise the work he does.
“I don’t feel that I’m doing something noble. My grandfather taught me the scripts, the songs and how to move the puppets when I was seven. I have known everything by heart for my entire life, and I keep doing it now because it’s what I know.”
He studied with a puppet master until his 20s. Then, upon the latter’s retirement, he bought the puppet collection for approximately $1,500 and continued running the show with other troupe members.
In good months, puppet troupes such as Sin Hoe Ping can earn between $5,000 to $7,000, performing at a number of temple festivals every week, but for the most of the year, income is much harder to come by. The money is mostly redistributed among performers, who are all older people or retirees, with the rest going back into the maintenance of the puppets.
“It’s not something you do to make money,” he says with a slight smile. He has three children, all of whom are English-educated. Two are in their 30s and one is a teenager. None of them is interested in continuing his trade.
One of his performers, Chua Mui Hua, 76, agrees.
“My grandchildren have never come to see me perform, but even if they did, I doubt they would understand anything I am singing,” she says.
She is making a salient point about the Chinese languages that are gradually becoming extinct in Singapore. In 1979, the government became convinced that the use of southern Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka – which were the lingua franca of the very first Chinese immigrants in Singapore – was preventing Singaporeans from achieving full bilingualism in English and standard Mandarin Chinese.
For more than 30 years, the Speak Mandarin Campaign heavily discouraged the use of these southern Chinese languages in the popular media, particularly on television and radio. Today, few young people can claim to understand simple phrases in their grandparents’ language, let alone comprehend complex narratives sung over two hours.
Children in the business
Not all the stalwarts of the Chinese puppet trade are pessimistic about its future.
Tina Quek, 47, is the leader of the last puppet troupe in Singapore that performs in the Teochew language, but she is sanguine about her prospects. Much like Yeo, she has spent the bulk of her life immersed in these vanishing traditions, and her repertoire includes not just puppet performances but also opera and Qing Chang, singing events staged by an all-female group. But unlike Yeo, all three of her children are heavily involved in her business and learning the ropes.
“My youngest son is 13 and is already learning to play the suona to accompany my performances,” she says. Her speaking voice is soft and gravelly, but transforms completely into a nasal soprano when she sings.
“It’s practice,” she grins. “I’ve been doing this since I was eight, that’s how I was confident that my children would be able to pick up these skills quickly as well.” Still, her cheeriness is tempered by slight anxiety.
“I would like my children to continue the business, but I’m especially worried about my son. His studies suffer each time he leaves school early for a performance. And more importantly, with younger people becoming less interested in these traditions, will he be able to make enough money to survive in Singapore?”
Her daughter, Christine Ang, 19, shares her mother’s ambivalence. She has just finished at a vocational school and reveals that she juggles a string of part-time jobs alongside her impressive credentials as one of Singapore’s youngest puppet performers and opera singers.
Getting ready to perform and putting on make-up are among her favourite parts of the job.
“I don’t think it’s true that there’s no interest amongst young people my age,” she muses. “Whenever I invite my friends, they always turn up. In fact, the last time they came, I made them put on make-up too!”
However, she acknowledges that “off-peak” seasons are a cause of concern.
“The Seventh Lunar Month is a good time for us, because that’s when many people worship at the temples to appease the spirits of wandering ghosts. But the rest of the year, not so much,” she says.
She admits that she sometimes wonders, although fleetingly, if continuing her education or getting a full-time job might be a better option. “It would be sad if I stopped performing. I guess there’s some pressure, because I don’t want to be the one who let a tradition die.”
Some are eager to help this small community survive the onslaught of modernisation.
Caroline Chia, 33, is a researcher specialising in Chinese puppet traditions who has single-handedly documented the performances of almost all the troupes still active over the past few years. Yeo fondly refers to her as “xiao mei”, a Chinese term that means “little girl”.
“I have tried to help in some ways by liaising with event organisers and theatre personnel so that the troupes get to perform outside of the temple context,” she says. Her hard work means that some of the troupes have had the opportunity to bring their work to wider audiences, including public road shows and cultural events at museums.
Her late grandmother, who loved Teochew opera and music originating from eastern Guangdong Province in China, encouraged her interest in Chinese puppetry.
“Troupes come and go … it is something that’s beyond our control sometimes. But I guess more has to be done to revitalise puppetry before it is gone altogether.”
On a sweltering day, Yeo’s troupe holds a performance in a shrine in eastern Singapore.
Yeo is in a bad mood, barking expletives down the phone.
“The performer who was scheduled to sing with us today forgot to turn up,” sighs his wife, Li Shui Mei, who is from Putian and has been working with him for years. “I guess I will have to sing both the female parts by myself, then.”
I help them carry the puppets into the shrine to make them “kneel” before the deities prior to the performance, since there aren’t enough people around to do it. The puppets are surprisingly heavy.
For the next two hours, Li and Yeo sing, play the keyboard, cymbals and drums, and manipulate the puppets across the small stage. There might be only five people in the audience today, and in a few years there may be none, but, just getting to perform today is enough for the two puppeteers.