Puppet master selling 'babies' to pay bills as live performances remain cancelled amid Covid-19

While Frankie Yeo gave more than 150 performances in 2019, the pandemic has stopped him from performing this year, and he is now selling some of his puppets to pay the bills.
Mr Frankie Yeo, whose stage name is Frankie Malachi, with his puppets in his warehouse space in MacPherson Industrial Complex. With live performances cancelled because of Covid-19, he has made the difficult decision to sell some of his puppets to pay
Mr Frankie Yeo, whose stage name is Frankie Malachi, with his puppets in his warehouse space in MacPherson Industrial Complex. With live performances cancelled because of Covid-19, he has made the difficult decision to sell some of his puppets to pay his bills. ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
JUSTIN, $400
JUSTIN, $400ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
CARMEN, $1,800
CARMEN, $1,800ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
MELODY, $400
MELODY, $400ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
FACE-CHANGING PUPPET, $2,300
FACE-CHANGING PUPPET, $2,300ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
BUNNY PUPPET, $400
BUNNY PUPPET, $400ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Frankie Yeo crafted many of the dolls by hand, working on some for up to two years

For more than 20 years, puppet master Frankie Yeo has performed with his hand puppets and animated marionettes at children's parties, company events and theatre productions.

Calling them his "babies", the 57-year-old crafted many of these dolls by hand, working on some for up to two years.

Now, however, it is time to say goodbye.

Earlier this month, the Singaporean, whose stage name is Frankie Malachi, made the difficult decision to sell some of his puppets to pay his bills.

For months now, live performances have been cancelled to help curb the spread of Covid-19, hitting many in the arts community hard.

On the heartbreaking decision, the creative director of home-grown company Mascots and Puppets Specialists says: "I have no choice. The pandemic is dragging on much longer than I expected and I do not know when I will be able to next put on a puppet show."

When Covid-19 hit, he thought it would come and go quickly like the severe acute respiratory syndrome. "But it has been some time and there are still no events in sight. I will miss my beloved babies, but selling them is the only way I can think of to keep the company afloat."

His costs include the five-figure monthly rental of his 3,300 sq ft warehouse space in MacPherson Industrial Complex, where he has been operating since 2008. There are also the salaries of his three employees, which he was forced to cut by 30 per cent since this month.

Indeed, the last few months have been filled with one difficult decision after another.

He has to furlough one staff member from next month. "I felt really bad because he had been saving up every dollar for his upcoming wedding. Never have I sacked or laid off anybody in my life."

Mr Yeo himself has not drawn an income since April, and neither has his wife, the business' co-owner.

 
 
 
 
  • Handmade puppets for sale

  • 1

    JUSTIN, $400

    He is always blue, just like the colour of his fur. Made in June, this hand puppet is cynicism incarnate, seeing a problem in every solution. Although he is highly critical of everything around him, his weird way of looking at the world strangely makes sense at times.

  • 2

    CARMEN, $1,800

    This skilled cabaret performer is sexy and she knows it. Inspired by the late Brazilian samba singer-actress Carmen Miranda, this dancing marionette can tantalise her audience, swishing her skirt and doing splits and high kicks. With her big, blinking eyes, the flirtatious character has been a regular at Mr Yeo's shows since 2000.

  • MELODY, $400

    A veteran at Mr Yeo's shows, this gullible hand puppet is always making friends. Dressed in Middle Eastern-style garb, she sings a song titled The Camel's Nose, about a camel seeking warmth in her tent on a frosty desert night. She lets the camel in, but, bit by bit, finds herself pushed out of her tent and into the cold. So much for being kind.

  • 4

    FACE-CHANGING PUPPET, $2,300

    Inspired by the magical sub-genre of face-changing in Chinese opera, this mysterious character can whip out seven colourful faces in one performance. His elaborate outfit features real pheasant feathers and he is held up by high-tension fishing lines. Created in 2017, he has not made his debut, although the user will have to master his face-changing secrets before taking the stage.

  • BUNNY PUPPET, $400 

    A magician pulls a bunny out of a hat, but why can't it be the other way around? So asks this curious, questioning rabbit puppet, which has no name. Made in June from foam and velvet, it is controlled by a hand at the back of its neck. Its posable ears allow it a wide range of emotions - from shyness to timidity to wide-eyed excitement.

Government assistance has helped, he acknowledges. "But with no income coming in, things are still very difficult. Apart from cutting costs, there is very little we can do except hope things get better."

For puppeteers like himself, performing online shows is not viable, he says. "Videos just cannot capture the spontaneity and interaction of live performances."

Going online would also mean competing with numerous entertainment options - from Netflix to YouTube.

"Online shows are not commercially sound," he adds. "It is very hard to get netizens to pay for a show streamed online."

What if the pandemic drags on?

"I don't want to think of that," says Mr Yeo, who has heard of artists being forced to move out of their premises. "Thankfully, we have not reached that stage yet. But if this situation is prolonged, the future is very uncertain."

For now, he is pricing his puppets at discounted rates of $300 to $2,300. He is also happy to give buyers a one-to-one tutorial - either in person or online - on how to operate them.

Yet, only two dolls have been sold so far.

"Many potential buyers are themselves facing financial difficulties and tightening their belts. They say they want to buy, but do not have the money."

Nonetheless, Mr Yeo has never regretted his decision to pursue puppet-making as a career.

The former aircraft mechanic, who also did a stint in advertising, started making puppets in 1995, mainly through trial and error.

In 2003, he set up his company and went into making puppets and mascots full time.

Over the years, his puppets have been used in numerous events, such as the 2015 edition of the Singapore Night Festival, and theatre productions such as the 2018 musical Alkesah and 2009 musical comedy H For Hantu.

Mr Yeo has also made giant puppets - which have to be operated by more than one person - for the 2009 and 2011 National Day Parades.

Last year, he did at least 150 performances.

Although times are hard now, he says: "I am an artist and we always believe in hope.

"I have dedicated my whole life to perfecting my craft and I will not stop trying to keep puppetry alive for children and future generations."

Mr Yeo will be glad to know that some live performances might be allowed soon.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) said last Friday that plans to resume such performances are under way.

MCCY and the National Arts Council (NAC) will work closely with key stakeholders to explore commissioning and programming pilots of small-scale performances, it was revealed. More information will be made available by the NAC later.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 23, 2020, with the headline 'Puppet master selling 'babies' to pay bills'. Print Edition | Subscribe