Monthly Archives: October 2011

Singing the Blues

     Street Performers: The Puppet Masters    


Author’s note: This article appeared in the Penang Club magazine on November 2004.  An earlier version was published by the Weekend magazine in 1986.

As I was contemplating rehashing a story I wrote about some local performing artists many years ago,  I read the Penang Heritage Trust is conferring the ‘Living Heritage Treasures of Penang’ award to people who have contributed significantly to the cultural heritage of Penang. Serendipity could not have been timelier. The panel of judges is headed by Penang Club member and former Federal Court Judge Tan Sri Datuk Chang Min Tat.

Khoo Kah Kim, 1987, invited me backstage for some ‘kopi o’ (black coffee)

I came across and got to know the Beng Geok Hong – Call of the Jade Phoenix – ”poh theh hee’ (puppet theatre) 17 years ago. Back in the eighties George Town was still a delightful city, vibrant and teaming with street life. As I was walking down the street, with nothing much to do, I was captivated  by some live music coming from the puppet theatre performing from a roadside stage – it was some temple festivities. The sound of erhu, bamboo flute, langtingtang (Chinese lute), lapah (trumpet), percussion of bamboo clappers, gongs and drums and singing came alive, powerful, melodious and unrestrained.

Blues with a feeling, from left: Goh Ah Boon; Tan Peck Leng and Teoh Ah Hwa

It was not often that one hears these ancient instruments played so wonderfully. Curious, I went backstage to look at the musicians and to find out more about them. I was greeted by a smiling face and invited up backstage and even offered a ‘kopi or’ (black coffee) by the musicians.

The happy encounter resulted in a little story in the now defunct Weekend magazine published by the late K S Choong,  founder of the Star newspaper. Last week (Nov 4, 2004), I went back to see them at their home base at 4 Toh Aka Lane and am happy to report that half of them are still alive and the troupe is still performing, albeit at a much reduced scale.

In my mind they are truly “Living Heritage Treasures” of Penang and I will not hesitate to nominate them for the award. But first the story – seventeen years ago – in the Weekend magazine:

One of the most fascinating performing arts that is still surviving in Penang is the ‘poh tay hee’ or glove puppet theatre. It is usually performed during temple festivals. You can also see them during the 7th month ‘Hungry Ghost’ festival though, of late, its popularity has been eclipsed by the ‘kotai’ (Chinese pop music concert).

“In its heyday during the fifties and sixties there were more than 10 puppet theatres in Penang but today (1987) there are only three or four groups left,” said Khoo Kah Kim, 66, a member of the Beng Geok Hong puppet theatre which is the best and most well known through out Malaysia.

“We travel all over the country to perform,” he added. “In fact we’ve just got back from Kota Baru after performing for the ‘Nine Emperor God’ festival.”

“After this show in Penang for the ‘Loh Chia Kong’ birthday, we will go to Anson (Telok Intan) for five days and then off to perform in another town.”

People like our shows because all of us have lived with the theatre most of our lives,” said Khoo with pride. “Our music is especially superb. No other troupe can match our music and singing. The great singer and langtingtang (lute) maestro, Tan Tong Tong of Redifussion-fame, often performed with us,” he said.

 [Tan Tong Tong’s fame went as far as Singapore where he had a great following. Unique and talented as composer and arranger, he looks like Chuck Berry, even as dark in skin-tone and wavy hair. He is from Carnarvon Street where I grew up; my only regret I wasn’t in time to get his photo and story before his passing. He would strolled the streets and back alleys when night falls, literally singing for his super with an oil lamp and oracle sticks hung on his  two-string lute . He would spontaneously compose and sing the oracles of clients. People would gather not only to hear their fortune told but entranced by his music and voice. His regular redifussion programme is keenly followed especially by Hokkien-speaking fans.]

“We have been around for a long time. We grew up with the music and the art is in our blood,” Khoo explained.

The puppet theatre comprises nine members. The oldest is 70-year-old Goh Ah Boon who specialises in the bamboo flute and also blows an assortment of other wind instruments. 

Grandpa Goh heads the orchestra which consists of Khoo Kah Kim on lute, percussion, narration and vocals;  Teoh Ah Hwa, 49, lute, urhu and lapah (trumpet); Tan Pek Leng, 60, also on lute, urhu and lapah; and the youngest
Ooi Ah Cheng, 30, who is the percussion specialist.

The other members are Madame Ooi Ah Kan, 45, narrator and singer and owner or towkay of the troupe;

Miss Chua Saw Tin, 32, (right): puppeteer, narrator and singer; Madam Ooi Ah Pee, 48, also puppeteer, narrator and singer; lastly grandma Ch’ng Beng Choo, 63, narrator.

All the members are great artists in their own rights. They are somehow related to one another and the theater has been a part of the family inheritance and culture for many generations.

I don’t know how many years it takes to be a puppeteer but I have been following my mother, since I was very small, all over the country during the performances and I just pick it up, ” said Saw Tin. “It’s natural and runs in the
family. Now I’m considered old already,” she added laughingly, her modesty belies her powerful voice and soulful vocal, one of the finest around.

For septuagenarian Goh Ah Boon it has been half a century with the troupe. He is master of the bamboo flute par excellence.  Listening to the musical ensemble led by him is indeed a surprise and joy. It is ‘Chinese jazz’ played with refinement and spontaneity.

We have been playing music together for a long time and we know each others temperament and style. Whenever one strikes or sings a note, we know intuitively how to adapt with the musical backing and accompaniment,” explained  Teoh Ah Hwa. “We play by feelings and there is a lot of improvisation.  [like something you hear from Miles Davies, the great musician, explaining the spontaneity of jazz]

In the puppet theatre the story and musical forms are there for us to execute but during the performance a lot of ad libbing is done,” he said. “This makes the theatre come alive. The emphasis is getting into the spirit of the story. This makes the difference between a good performance and an amateurish one.

Talking with members of the puppet troupe is an enlightening experience. I am immediately struck by their warmth and friendliness. They are not above inviting photographers up backstage, cluttered with boxes of puppets and musical instruments, for a cup of coffee. In between performance, when the musicians take their breaks, we chatter away for a good many hours.

The skill and expertise of these artists are staggering. There are over 200 puppet characters and more than 150 stories (of Chinese folklore and legends) in their repertoire and they know them all by heart. This is only possible after
many years of living and performing with the puppets

Last month on Nov 4, 2004 I went a calling to look for the remnants of the puppeteers in the heart of Old George Town. Toh Aka Lane must be the narrowest and most picturesque in Penang. It borders on the Malay settlement of Acheen Street mosque, winds and curves for about 200 meters and joins Beach Street which is the seafront in the old days. There is a clan temple in mid lane among the old ‘heritage’ houses.

At house number four, I met Ooi Ah Goh, 88, the father of theatre owner Madam Ooi Ah Kan. Still healthy and sharp-eyed, he remembers all the faces when I showed him the photographs I took 17 years ago.

He said of the original nine members I met in 1987, three has passed away, one in old-folks home, one terminally sick, one quit and found a job. Only three are left – puppeteers,  singers Ooi Ah Kan and Chua Saw Tin; and Teoh Ah Hwa
who now plays the electric organ. The traditional orchestra is now reduced to three instruments – electric guitar, electric organ and percussion. Only the percussion has not been replaced by modern instruments.

I lamented on the disappearance of the traditional and the full orchestra. “Yes it is sad, next generation there will be no more, the whole puppet theatre will in all likelihood disappear,” said Ooi. “No one wants to be in the puppet  show anymore. You can’t make enough money to survive nowadays.”

“In the old days we can get seven months of work in a year. Now we are lucky if we can get four months work,” he added

I commented that it is sad the local people are not interested in cultural arts like this anymore. “But many White Man (Westerners) have come to take pictures, films, recordings and in-dept interviews of us,” said Ooi enthusiastically.

I am quite sure these foreigners are from the musicology departments of Berkeley University and other American and European universities who
value this performing art and music. They know the importance of recording and documenting them before it disappears.

Let us hope the end of the  ‘poh tay hee’ will not come to pass if enough awareness and support  are forth coming. It is oversea Chinese cultural  heritage and uniquely Penang. The Penang Heritage Trust’s initiative is a good start though I feel the RM 1,000 annual award is real cheapskate. They should go and see how Japan or even Thailand honor their living artists. Nevertheless, I shall nominate Madam Ooi Ah Kan – puppeteer / story narrator / singer and owner of the puppet theatre.

Failing this, I hope the state government, clan associations, Chinese cultural and education groups, Chinese guilds and business associations would come forth and give their support.

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Falungong Unmasked

Author’s note: This story was first published in Bangkok by ‘The Nation’ English daily, on May 22, 2001, under the headline China derides the crazy side of Falungong [Some say they are ‘God’ and avoid hospital and TV. They’re mad, but they are very organised]. 

Falungong Unmasked: Daoist Health Arts, Religion and Politics

China morning scene Kunming 1992: young and old, mother with baby on her back dance and sing to live music – wow what a scene… the world can learn about what is grooving to good health man! All for free 7 mornings a week. Photo by Kim Gooi

On April 25, 1999 the world got a jolt and Beijing’s security apparatus suffered severe cracks when 10,000 apparently harmless morning-exercise (health) enthusiasts who called themselves of the ‘Falungong’ demonstrated in Zhongnanhai, the exclusive enclave of China’s top government leaders.

Among other things they demanded Falungong be recognized as a religion. And contrary to their profession of freedom and universal love, they demanded severe punishment for an elderly, soft-spoken and well-mannered physicist named professor He Zuoxiu. Professor He had penned an article critical of the Falungong in an obscure Tianjin weekly. In one of the best-known cases, the same professor He in 1998 had given an interview to Beijing Radio in which he cautioned youngsters against practising Falungong.

The following day the sect demonstrated and obtained a retraction and another programme speaking in favour of Falungong.

Falungong followers were incensed with professor He accusing him of being the voice of the government and mounting a crackdown on the sect.                “Nonsense, if I had the support of the government I wouldn’t  have written in an obscure Tianjin weekly but in the mass circulation People’s Daily,” the
professor retorted.

His motivation were simple: his best student, whom he loved like a son, had gone insane by practising Falungong. He felt a moral obligation to warn other youth and said it had taken months for him to get the article published.

In March 1999 the sect demonstrated in Tianjin, surprisingly the magazine did not give in to the Falungong’s demands but the police stepped in to stop the protest. A scuffle between police and demonstrators ensued in which, for the first time, some Falungong followers were arrested.

This in turn prompted the April 25 protest at Zhongnanhai, when the sect demanded it be recognized as a religion and that professor He be punished.        

What is Falungong, is it a religion?

Kunming 1992, early morning crowd grooving to music, dancing and singing – best of ‘qigong’ and  Chinese culture –  photo by Kim Gooi

Up until that day, and until July that year when the sect was banned, Falungong was free. Every morning, in almost every park and vacant space in Chinese cities, groups of devotees practised their morning rites.

Borrowing from the Daoist ‘daoyin’ health exercise or what is now commonly called Qigong exercises, they added an element of Buddhism in it and named it “art of Buddhist law wheel’. Incorporating Daoist health arts with religious mambo-jumbo, they called it Falungong.

The sect is against modern science, preaches the end of the world, forbids its followers watching TV or being treated in hospital and maintains that diseases do not exist and that ailments are due to sins people commit.

They preached that UFOs had arrived on earth; aliens had taken over human bodies, and were trying to annihilate humanity through the control of TV and radio. It is either pure madness or a clever plan for mass indoctrination.

In China’s mad rush to modernization it has attracted masses of the disillusioned, the left-behinds, and old communist cadres yearning for the simple old Maoist days. Investigation at the end of 1998 revealed there were
40 million adherents. This was lower than the 70 million claimed by its master Li Hongzhi.

What was so important about being a religion rather than just a sport association (which it had been all along) ? The issue is  arguably not about religion but about power.

Previously they had been officially under the state’s sports administration, like many other disciplines of ancient breathing exercises commonly called Qigong. A promotion to one of the official religions of China, would elevate the
sect leadership to the formal Chinese People’s Conference, thus closer to the heart of Chinese power.

A Falungong follower who does not watch TV is not influenced by government propaganda, and by entrusting his own health to the sect rather than to public hospitals, he cedes all his person to the sect.

Many followers have strong reservations about current Chinese politics. They are conservatives, xenophobic old party members, strongly opposed to government’s reforms and opening up. From this analysis came the sudden banning of the sect in July 1999.

Authorities collected more evidence of a plot. The sect’s leader, Li Hongzhi, had been in Baijing briefly to finalize plans for the Zhongnanhai demonstration. The actual organiser, a retired 74-year-old retired general named Yu Changxin was sentenced to 17 years in jail on January 6, 2000.

The very organisation of the sect was structured on the model of the Chinese Communist  Party, with cells and an underground central committee, local stations in every province and three lines of cadres ready to replace those who would be arrested in case of a crackdown. Authorities believed the involvement of the general, the political agenda, and the organisation of the sect showed it had ambitions of attaining real power.

On 23 January 2001, the eve of Chinese New Year, five followers of Falungong in a move reminiscent of  Vietnamese Buddhist monks, set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. In the shocking immolations, one died with four hospitalised. Moderate sect followers were stunned and hurried to claim that their master, Li Hongzhi, self-exiled in America expressly forbids suicide.

Finally after months of stalemate, the suicide has convinced more common people that Falungong is indeed a cult as the government claims. Indeed a few days before the suicide, the government had scored a significant victory over the sect. China’s most popular TV programme, “Focus”,  interviewed some sect followers detained after a wave of protests this year. On camera the Falungong members said they had no names because they had become gods.

“I’m god, does god have a name? The name of god is god, I have no name,” said a follower who looked as if he had gone bonkers.

In China’s long history and civilization, one peculiar trait stands out. There has never been an organised  or institutionalized religion. Those that were are all foreign imports – Islam, Buddhism, Christianity.

Laozi and Confucius talk about the Heavenly Dao – The Supreme Spirit, the Taiji  – seeking harmony within heaven, earth and man. Self cultivation, to acquire virtue, humility, selflessness, and universal humanitarianism became the mark of the superior man. The truly educated man has a deep sense of shame, this is enough to deter him from cheating and sinful acts.

The ‘Dao Li’ (moral/humanistic code/ being reasonable) constitutes the guiding principles of all human intercourse and activities since ancient times [interestingly not the law courts].

They believe knowledge is one (like God). The master is doctor, calligrapher, painter, poet, martial artist, fengsui master and spiritual counselor all rolled into one. Collectively it (Supreme Ultimate) is represented by the ‘Bagua’ or the eight trigrams of the Ying Yang Taiji.

It is the mother of all Chinese thought, science, art and culture. In light of this, the claim of Falungong as a religion seems insignificant and ludicrous.

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Unkindest Cut

Picking up the Pieces
[A spate of spousal attacks has made Thai surgeons experts in a gruesome field – penis reattachment]
Time Magazine July 7, 1997

Author’s note: It is believed Thailand has the most nightmarish cases of males having their manhood severed by their jealous spouse. In 1997 Time magazine sent photographer Peter Charlesworth and me to look for the latest victim. Below is the unedited version of my original dispatch.

The Unkindest Cut – Man’s Crying Shame

Prayoon Eklang, finally at peace      Photo by Kim Gooi

Chaiyaphum, Northeast Thailand: – It appears like a denuded forest with bushes and shrubs. In an open shade with high corrugated zinc roof, we found Prayoon Eklang, 47, sitting on the concrete floor with half a dozen monks, resting and getting away from the hot afternoon sun. In a corner are two life-size bronze statues of the Buddha, its half closed gaze and lips frozen in perpetual serenity.
We are told this is the village temple, Wat Samakhitham. It is here that Prayoon finally found solace and got back his sanity. Sitting like a Buddha, a saffron robe hanging half across his shoulder, he smiles and laughs, mocking at his misfortune. His chubby and sun-tanned face becomes severe as he breaks into serious thoughts and caution us:
“Please do not ridicule me or make a bad name of Buddhism. If my misfortune is going to benefit society then it is OK for you to write about it.”      

This is Prayoon’s story as he tells us on that afternoon in the little village temple where he found refuge.

        It was the 15th of March (1997) and it happened around eleven to midnight. I was a ‘tuk tuk’ (3 wheeler taxi) driver in Korat (Nakorn
Rajasima) for the past six years. I had many girlfriends and I like going to bars drinking with friends. My wife Laorng Phengthong, 40, was a very jealous woman. She would cook and wait for me to come home and eat together with me every day.
         If I am late or stay away overnight she would go and search for me. Sometimes she finds me drinking with friends, men and women together in a bar or coffee shop. She would create havoc, throw the drinks away and even
beat me.
        One week before the incident a woman friend came to see me and ask me to help her find work. I took her on my tuk tuk and she got a job with a security company as a guard. And every morning I would fetch her to her work place and fetch her back in the evening.
        My wife had a stall in the market place. On that fateful day a guy who is a friend of my girlfriend came to the market and asked my wife where is the driver of my tuk tuk parked nearby. He told her the driver is supposed to fetch this woman working in the security company. My wife became suspicious and started asking the guy more questions.  She found out my relationship with the woman.    
        Later she confronted me and went hysterical. She said she wants to find the woman and settle the matter with the three of us. It was around noon. She asked me to pack all her goods from her stall into the tuk tuk and take them home. I remained calm and asked her not to do that. She asks for 200 Baht saying she wants to see a doctor about her allergy. I gave her the money but felt strange because she owns a stall and always have money on her.        
        I went home about six in the evening. My wife came back about eight. She was very drunk. She starts abusing me and calling me names. She says she went to see the woman but could not find her. She met only her daughter. Tomorrow she will look for her and settles the score. I remained quiet not to provoke her.
        It was a Saturday and I was looking forward to watch the boxing telecast at 10 pm. Just before the boxing programme my wife suddenly become very calm and nice. She asks me to take off my shorts and underwear and put on a sarong. I was pleased and flattered. I thought maybe she is sensible now and she wants to have sex.
        She takes out two white pills and says the doctor prescribed for her allergy. Since I also had the allergy she persuaded me to take them. I swallowed them and within five minutes I passed out.
        It was like an electric spark; I felt great pain. I woke up and looked down, my penis was gone and there were blood everywhere. My wife was sitting four feet away holding a knife. I got up and she ran away out through the backyard – one hand holding a knife and the other my penis. That was the last I saw of her.
       I was in great anger and shock and chased after her. My only thought was to get my penis back. I could only go ten meters, I was bleeding profusely and in great pain. She got away through the bushes and wasteland. It was dark and there were rats and other small creatures in the backyard.
        I got back to the house, my next thought was the hospital. I put on my shorts and managed to get on the tuk tuk and drive to the hospital. When I arrived I passed out through loss of blood.
        When I woke up I was surrounded by scores of reporters. The doctor called the police but the officer ordered me to go to the station and lodge a report. The reporters were furious and told the police to get cracking and come to the hospital to investigate.
       The police arrived and left immediately with a group of social welfare volunteers to search for my penis. They combed through my backyard but in vain. I was devastated. They gave me an injection and treated the wound. I slept until noon the next day. The doctor told me the penis could not be found ( for reattachment), there was no more hope. They transferred me to the general hospital and I was brought to the surgery room for treatment.
        Neighbors told me that my wife came back the next morning and searched the backyard for my penis. When she failed to find it, she packed her belongings and left. I had not seen her since.
        I stayed in the hospital for a total of five days. I never thought that I would end up like this. How she could be so cruel? I was very sad and angry. I nearly went mad. All day long I think of nothing but revenge and I have nothing inside me but anger.
        Each one of us is only born with one, now it’s gone! I might as well be dead. I felt like this for months. It only changed when I became a monk.
        When I came out of hospital, I came to this village to rest for a month. My wound healed but the orifice became small and I had difficulty urinating. I had to go back to the doctor to fix the urine passage to normal.
        I went back to Korat to drive the tuk tuk but my life was a mess. Before I had a wife to take care of my food, washing and a place to go back to. Now I have nothing. I slept in the tuk tuk and I got drunk every night. I could not work and my mind just went crazy. Sometimes in the middle of the street I chased my customer off my vehicle and yelled at them to get lost.
       Life had no meaning and I was mad all the time. I was looking for an M16 or a bomb to blow up my wife if I see her. All my friends mocked and ridiculed me even the woman friends looked at me with contempt. They had nothing to say to me. It lasted eight days in Korat.
      I came back to the village and on the second day I decided to end it all. I took a rope to hang myself but the beam broke. My neck was red and sore. Then I thought of monk-hood as salvation. Until then life was meaningless. I had no family…nothing left. I had a 23-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter but they never come to see me.
      I became a monk after Songkran (water festival). And now bit by bit my sorrows go away, the urge for revenge disappears too. If I kill someone I gain nothing; unlike going to collect a debt of say 10,000 Baht, even if I recover half the amount, it is still something to gain.
        However, coming to terms with the impermanence of all living things, as taught by the Buddha, I have found peace in my heart and life for me has become better.

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