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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7 responses to “Singing the Blues

  1. Niko

    Hi Kim,
    Thanks for sending us your blog-info. The one on “Singing the blues” really had me on the tip of my chair. Very good info and I am going to find out a lot more about the Penang puppet theatre.
    Still thinking back often to our evening near the World Park in Georgetown.

    best regards,

    Niko de Graaf

  2. ht tan

    I remember when I was about 6 years old, Tan Tong Tong would stroll along the restaurants in Cintra Street and he would place an olive wrapped in red paper on the tables of the diners. He would then sing his song, and, in appreciation, some diners would hand some money to him.
    Do you remember that?

    HT Tan

    • That’s great info man! I vaguely remember because as a kid I seldom venture to Cintra Street – the Cantonese/restaurant strip. He stays at the Teoh/Chang ancestor temple in Carnarvon Street where we see him leaving when the sun goes down and returns in the wee hours strumming his lute’ with an oil lamp and oracle sticks hanging at the headstock. Wow what a picture!

  3. This is a gem of an article. Having grown up in Penang, I’m sad to say I’ve never had the fortunate opportunity to watch one of these puppet shows. It is indeed sad to learn this artform is no more as it can not sustain the lives of the artists. It would have been wonderful if a documentary or book was collated of this art form, detailing the many different puppets and stories…

    How did the nominations go in the end? Who got the award?

    • Happy to say that they got the award, thanks to Loh lim (Mrs Lawrence Loh) who pester me to get them to register and signed up. I got Ong Boon Keong, who lives nearby, to see them. Happier still: OBK later, made an
      award-winning documentary on the harbor ‘Floating Clan Settlements’ based on the narrations and music of the Puppet Theater.

  4. Alanoon

    I got one set of TAN TONG TONG guitar for sale.pls contact me if u r interested.

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