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I was on a double-decker bus on the east side of this sunny island. As I was about to take a brief nap, something caught my eye by the roadside. A small brightly-coloured stage with figurines that looked like puppets being manipulated by puppeteers standing backstage. For two-and-a-half decades of my life as a Singaporean, I had never witnessed a puppet show until then. This encounter marked the opening chapter of my journey with traditional Chinese puppetry. Fast forward to the present, and I have already spent 15 years researching this topic.
There are five forms of traditional Chinese puppetry still performed by four regional (dialect) groups in Singapore, namely Hainanese rod puppetry, Henghua string puppetry, Hokkien string puppetry, Hokkien glove puppetry and Teochew iron-stick puppetry. All of which boast a history of more than a century but sadly, they are hardly known to Singaporeans. Among which the least heard of is Hainanese rod puppetry, partly because of the relatively smaller size of the community as compared to the Hokkien and Teochew. Even within the Hainanese community, some of the older folks are not aware of this century-old heritage, making the documentation of this tradition all the more noteworthy.
Information on Hainanese rod puppetry in Singapore is scant. My first source was the oral history interviews conducted by the National Archives of Singapore under the Vanishing Trades project in the 1980s. The main interviewee was Foo Tiang Soon, a veteran musician and one of the founders of Hainanese rod puppet troupe San Chun Long (三春隆). A native of Wenchang on Hainan island, Foo’s recollection was that Xie Yinlin was possibly the first puppeteer to start the transmission of this traditional form from Hainan to Nanyang (present Southeast Asia) in 1921. Before this, puppet troupes from Hainan travelled to perform in this region but were mostly of an itinerant nature. It was not until 1947 that these Hainanese rod puppeteers came together and established San Chun Long, and the middle character “Chun”, spelled “Soon” in Hainanese transliteration, represented Foo’s name.
The puppets of San Chun Long measure approximately 60cm to 70cm in height. Each puppet has a centralised rod connected to the head, and two thinner hand rods for manipulation. The rods are controlled from the bottom of the puppet. The manipulation method of the male puppet differs from the female as this controls the movements with the latter having more delicate moves. The two rods of the male puppet are held upwards above the neck, whereas the rods of the female are clasped downwards below the neck level. As the puppet is moved, you will notice its eyes moving as if it has come to life! This is one special feature of the Hainanese rod puppet, though not all puppets have movable eyes.
Like other forms of puppet theatre as well as Chinese opera, the character roles of Hainanese rod puppetry are categorised according to male (sheng 生), female (dan 旦), painted face (jing 净) and clown (chou 丑). I have not encountered any painted face puppet probably because of the infrequency of martial plays being staged. The rod puppet does not have legs and detachable legs are used whenever a pose like kicking or riding a horse is needed, which are actions usually seen in martial plays.
San Chun Long is the oldest and last surviving Hainanese puppet troupe in Singapore. From 1947 to 1976, it was the only Hainanese troupe on this island and enjoyed its “golden age” as there were numerous performances both in Singapore and the neighbouring region. For example, in 1948, the troupe was invited to stage a 15-day performance in Riau, Indonesia, which drew huge crowds every night. As fondly recalled by veteran performer Long Hian Keng, San Chun Long was invited to stage a ticketed performance in an amusement park in Kuala Lumpur during the 1950s. Many children went to watch the performance. Furthermore, Hainanese temples and associations in Ipoh, Penang and Sabah also invited San Chun Long over and funded their performances.
Various Hainanese puppet troupes emerged after 1976 but they were shortlived. In 1976, “Xinjiapo Muou Yishu Xituan” (新加坡木偶艺术戏团), or “Xin Yi” in short, was established. Feng Chaobo, a Hainanese opera performer, was appointed Xin Yi’s troupe leader and the troupe sold its puppets in 1996. The disbanding of Xin Yi saw the establishment of a new troupe named “Tien Heng Kang Heng Nan Drama Association-Qiong Tune Puppet Troupe” (Xin Xing Gang Qiongnan Jushe Qiongyin Muoutuan 新兴港琼南剧社琼音木偶团). In 1998, Tien Heng Kang was invited to stage its first Hainanese rod puppet performance in the Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan or clan association, which also housed the Kheng Chiu Tin Hou Kong (Goddess of Sea Temple). Tien Heng Kang’s puppets were supposedly bought from the now disbanded Xin Yi troupe. Another troupe named Fu Long (福隆) was established by Mo Lümo in 1993.
A significant presence in Chinese mythology, the Eight Immortals, namely He Xiangu, Cao Guojiu, Li Tieguai, Lan Caihe, Lü Dongbin, Han Xiangzi, Zhang Guolao and Han Zhongli, also exist in the Hainanese rod puppet tradition. The immortals, represented by eight puppets, are part of the ritual prelude portraying the “Praying to the Eight Immortals”. In the past, particularly during the mid-20th century, children were most excited during the staging of puppet shows as they rushed over to pick up coins that were tossed during this ritual. The coins are mixed with rice grains and the tossing of coins symbolise blessings by the Eight Immortals.
The repertoire of Hainanese rod puppet theatre shares similarities with its opera counterpart but is rather unique as compared to puppet theatre of other regional groups. Some of the more frequently performed titles that were transmitted before 1947 include Plum Blossom of Seven Stars 《七星梅》 and Both Father and Son Emerge As Scholars 《父子同科》. Other works performed by San Chun Long include Robe of Pearls 《珍珠衫》 and Borrowing A Marriage Partner 《借亲配》. From my observation of San Chun Long and Tien Heng Kang, both troupes use playscripts during their shows. Like other puppet types, there is live music performed by musicians. Musical instruments include the wind instrument suona (唢呐), drum or gu (鼓), gong or luo (锣), yangqin (扬琴), plucked lute or qinqin (秦琴) and high fiddle or banhu (板胡).
With the passing of ageing puppeteers and musicians, I cannot help but worry for this waning art form as they have difficulty getting the younger generation to be part of this tradition. Through various collaborations, particularly in the secular contexts, we hope to increase public awareness and in turn attract young people to this intangible heritage.
Back in her undergraduate days, Caroline had shown an interest in traditional Chinese opera. With an older existence than its opera counterpart but being lesser known to the public, puppet theatre became her focus and she spent 15 years researching on this valuable heritage. Caroline has published extensively on traditional Chinese theatre and her most recent project can be viewed here.