Penang's Potehi glove puppet theatre is in good hands

Traditional glove puppets from the Beng Geok Hong Potehi troupe in Penang. While facial features and hairstyles indicate the role types and age of each puppet, the colours and designs of the costumes, headgwear and hand-held props reflect the social status, rank and occupations of the different characters. The Beng Geok Hong Potehi troupe is one of the oldest Potehi groups in Penang, dating back to the 1940s. Photo: Chew Win Chen

Hokkien Potehi shows used be the talk of the town when it attracted large crowds in Penang. Today, apart from temple festivals, it is hardly seen anymore as modern audiences gravitate towards other forms of entertainment.

A series of shows at the George Town Festival in July and a new book published by George Town World Heritage Incorporated titled Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang: An Evolving Heritage, written in both English and Mandarin, seeks to change that.

The Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang book, complete with multimedia content, gives a historical account of how Potehi came to Penang and what were its ritualistic roots. Through photographs, video, illustrations and interactive pop-ups, the three-dimensional glove puppet theatre’s visual and aural appeal is brought to life. The book delves into the heritage, principles and techniques of four present-day troupes, exploring their performers, patrons and audiences.

The symbolism behind rituals and celebrations are also laid bare, as is the anatomy of the stages and puppets themselves, together with its stories, scripts, music, and manipulation techniques.

Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang is authored by Kar-wan Potehi (Friends of Potehi), part of a Penang-based collective of artists and researchers who aim to revitalise the artform through community engagement. They are academic Tan Sooi Beng, multidisciplinary artist Okui Lala (Chew Win Chen), visual artist Liew Kung Yu, community-based researcher Ong Ke Shin and programme manager Foo Wei Meng.

The diverse group, with ages between late 20s and late 50s, is led by Tan, a professor of ethnomusicology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, who has been researching Potehi since the 1980s.

potehi glove puppets
The Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang book brings to life the artistry of the magical world of puppets and puppet theatre – and passes it on to a new generation.

“While there was a time when these mobile puppet troupes were a common feature of the Malaysian landscape, travelling through towns and villages to entertain the young and old, such is not the case today,” says Tan in an interview in Penang.

“It has lost its audience. The number of people who can understand its classical Hokkien dialect or appreciate the intricacies of the form, is dwindling. Also, few young people want to learn it,” she adds.

Documenting the Potehi world

Tan reveals the book chronicles the historical development and performance contexts of the artform – showing how it has evolved with the times as performers innovate to stay in tune with the changing tastes of patrons.

It describes how Chinese theatre emerged in then Malaya during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when immigrants came in big numbers from places like Fujian and Canton in South China, to work in the tin industry or set up trades.

“Penang was one of the main points of entry, and those who settled on the island comprised Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainan and Hakka speakers.

They built temples and set up clan associations, where performances like lion and dragon dances, as well as opera or puppet theatres, were presented as thanksgiving to the deities and seek blessings for a safe and prosperous life in their new home.

In those days, these not only provided inexpensive forms of entertainment for the settlers, but were also sites for the community to socialise, explains Tan in the book’s preface.

She also points out that while the different dialect groups shared similar cultures, there were differences which were evident in the theatre world.

“The glove or cloth bag puppet (Potehi) and marionette (Karlay) theatres used Hokkien, the dialect of the majority of the Chinese in Penang.

“The island was one of the first places where Hokkien Potehi (puppets worn over the hands like gloves) was performed. Today, it remains one of the two major centres of the glove puppet theatre in the country, the other being Johor, which also has a big Hokkien population,” adds Tan.

potehi glove puppets
Ooi See Han from the Beng Geok Hong group instructing her puppeteers during a rehearsal. Photo: Tan Sooi Beng

In a dialogue session at the Hin Bus Depot in George Town in late May, the book’s authors highlighted that the information they gathered was based on the observation, photography and videography of performances and rituals, as well as interviews with the main performers of the four main Potehi troupes (Sing Hong Eng, Beng Geok Hong, Guat Poh Hong and Sin Kim Hong) in Penang.

Some members of the research team also spent time learning puppet manipulation, singing, dialogue and music, to gain practical knowledge. They followed the troupes around during shows, to find out more about the performers’ lives.

Foo likened their research to detective work, for they sifted through old newspapers to find articles and advertisements on Potehi shows, hunt down (vintage) scripts, dialogues and lyrics, as well as look for people who were involved with it.

potehi glove puppets
It’s a struggle to revive public interest when it comes to traditional Potehi shows in Penang, but through the efforts of arts groups like Kar-wan Potehi (Friends of Potehi), there is now more exposure and understanding when it comes to this heritage art form. Photo: Filepic

“Most of Potehi’s history is not recorded, and only told orally. We talked to many practitioners, to go behind the scenes and find out what made such shows tick,” says Foo.

“It’s fascinating that you can glean so much from a cultural practice by looking at its artefacts, in this case the puppets. We closely examined the features of 80 of them.”

Keeping the flame alive

To get close to the troupes, the team had to familiarise themselves with all the temples in Penang, and know the birthdays of their respective resident deities, for that was when the shows were on.

“We were fighting against time too, as many Potehi practitioners are elderly. A few sadly passed away during the project,” says Ong.

potehi glove puppets
The attention to detail is most important in a Potehi show as illustrated by these lion dancing puppets. Photo: Ch'ng Shi P'ng.

Two Potehi troupe leaders were also present at the sharing session – Cheah Siew Kiew, from Sin Kim Hong and Ooi See Han, from Beng Geok Hong Puppet Theatre, both in their 60s. They lamented the lack of new blood that is coming in to replace the older ones.

“Even my son doesn’t want to take up this practice, as the income is inconsistent. I was delighted when the group approached us for their research, for if we don’t pass on the skills and knowledge to the next generation, someday it will be no more,” says Ooi.

“My grandfather, who came over from China, originally set up the troupe. As the third generation to oversee it, I feel a sense of responsibility to my family, to keep it going,” she adds.

Cheah was an opera performer, but joined Potehi after marrying her husband Ang Kim Sai who owned a trio of puppet troupes. She similarly hopes the tradition will continue, despite her own children showing no interest in it.

“Today we don’t have much of an audience. Only the deities are watching. But we still give it our best, as we can fool people but not the deities,” says Cheah with a laugh.

potehi glove puppets
An episode from the Chinese classic Journey To The West retold through puppet glove theatre or Potehi by the Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio in Penang. Photo: Filepic

Ooi fondly remembers that in the past there were big crowds to fill up a Potehi performance venue, especially children.

“Most times now, there isn’t a single person watching. The only consolation is some people telling us they were listening from their houses nearby,” says Ooi.

Tan mentions this year is turning out to be one of the busiest in terms of the Potehi research and archiving. The Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang book, limited to 1,000 copies, is available now, and there will be more public activities planned to promote it.

Witness the magic of Potehi for yourselves at the Kisah Pulau Pinang (Story Of Penang) shows during the upcoming Heritage Celebrations at Armenian Park in Penang on July 8 (9pm). There will be more Potehi shows on July 29 and 30 as part of the George Town Festival, starting at 9pm at the Penang State Museum on Macalister Road, and on Aug 12 and 13 during the Butterworth Fringe Festival, starting 8pm at Jalan Jeti Lama.

These Potehi shows, performed by the Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio, feature a tale of love and friendship among four friends of different ethnic backgrounds, set in Penang in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They tell the audience about the lively activities in old Penang that include spice trading, secret society fights and joget dancing, among others.

potehi glove puppets
Traditional glove puppets from the Beng Geok Hong Potehi troupe in Penang. While facial features and hairstyles indicate the role types and age of each puppet, the colours and designs of the costumes, headgwear and hand-held props reflect the social status, rank and occupations of the different characters. Photo: Filepic

“Performances are vital in sustaining any form of theatre or music. We have tried to recontextualise Potehi using local characters, costumes and languages, in order to make it relevant to the younger generation,” says Tan.

“While documentation for the book was being carried out over the past three years, I managed to get another group of young people from Ombak-Ombak to learn the artform from the Beng Geok Hong troupe.

“They went to the Potehi stage and learnt from Ooi and fellow performer Cheah Saw Tin in between their afternoon and night shows. The apprentices have since performed two tales in the past two years – The Story of Malek and The Monkey King Adventures,” adds Tan, who is also the Kisah Pulau Pinang show’s artistic director and producer.

All Kisah Pulau Pinang Potehi shows are free of charge. For more information, visit FB: Ombak-Ombak ArtStudio. The Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang book retails for RM188 at selected outlets in Penang. FB: ‘Celebrating The Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre Of Penang.’ Visit: More info, email:

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