Miniature world of make-believe: Captivating tales come to life through wooden puppets

At a temple on Pulau Ubin, captivating tales come to life through wooden puppets

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Twenty years ago, two different things happened to two people that they never imagined would result in them becoming good friends today.

Madam Doreen Tan quit her job as a shipping executive to be a traditional Chinese puppeteer.

At the same time, Madam Ong Siew Fong's house on Pulau Ubin was hit by a huge granite rock that fell from the sky after an explosion at a nearby quarry and she was inspired to build a temple around the fallen boulder.

Madam Tan, 61, and Madam Ong, 74, now meet twice a year at Madam Ong's Wei To Temple in a remote part of the island to celebrate the birth or reincarnation of Taoist deities.

No festivity at a temple is complete without a traditional Chinese theatre performance, so Madam Tan and a few other puppeteers and musicians from the 15-member Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi troupe make the arduous trip from Singapore's mainland to the temple to put up the show to entertain, not only the devotees but more importantly, the gods as well.

On this occasion, the devotees were celebrating the reincarnation of Ne Zha, the prodigious child deity who could walk and talk at birth, on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which fell on May 3.

The troupe's performance was titled Hangzhou Revenge. It tells of a married man from Hangzhouwho falls in love with another woman on his journeys and marries her without either woman knowing about the other.

When it is time for him to go home, he abandons his second wife to prevent his first wife from finding out. The second wife hangs herself, and her ghost enlists the help of a traveller to kill the unfaithful husband and his colluding brother.

In the end, the ghost arranges the happy marriage between the traveller and the first wife.

Simple as the plot sounds, the show ran on for a few hours - almost as long as a Wagner opera.

Although devotees were sometimes too busy with prayers to pay attention to the performance, the atmosphere created by the puppets' colourful costumes and graceful movements, accompanied by the lively singing in Hokkien and the music, made the spirits come alive.

Temple devotee Joseph Liew, 45, said traditional puppet shows such as this are made possible through the financial support of the temple's worshippers.

Mr Liew, who directs a construction company and visits the temple a few times a month, added: "It is a good place to meditate - there's no traffic and it's quiet. The temple has a kampung atmosphere and a spiritual presence that is hard to explain."

Meanwhile, Madam Tan said the challenge was performing in the proximity of giant candles and burning incense. This makes singing difficult as performers need to inhale large amounts of air to continuously project the undulating voices typical of Chinese opera singing.

The puppets, which are dressed in exquisite robes, are made of wood that comes from Zhangzhou in Fujian province in China, a country where puppetry dates back to a few thousand years.

About five years ago, the puppets cost $100 apiece, but now each puppet is about $300, said Madam Tan.

Troupe member Madam Tan Poh Hong, 63, said she got interested in Chinese opera and puppetry as a "curious and playful" 10-year-old.

The pay was low but food and lodging were provided, and she loved the way of life, she said.

"We had freedom, the boss was caring and taught us the trade. We were like family and went everywhere together," she added.


Members of the Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi wooden puppet troupe give a performance at Wei To Temple on Pulau Ubin.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline Miniature world of make-believe: Captivating tales come to life through wooden puppets. Subscribe