A hub for folk culture in Penang

Visitors to the recent open day taking part in a Teochew opera acting class and learning some of the basic moves.

Ancient traditions live on at the Teochew Puppet And Opera House in Penang, where live shows, workshops and demonstrations ensure there is continued appreciation when it comes to the present generation.

Located along Armenian Street in George Town’s core heritage zone, it is the first space in Malaysia solely dedicated to the folk art, which was founded in 2014 by retired opera actress Goh Hooi Ling and a team of volunteers.

On display are an assortment of costumes, puppets, musical instruments, scripts and other related artefacts, which provide visitors both local and foreign, a fascinating insight into the unique type of opera which originated in southern China.

Crowds were certainly enthralled by what they saw at its recent third anniversary open day. It kicked off with a presentation on Teochew opera and puppetry that proved enlightening and informative to the uninitiated.

Visitors then joined in for singing and acting classes, learning simple rhymes and what the different movements and gestures meant in the artform, which is believed to date back some 450 years.

They were then taught how to manipulate the small iron rod puppets and bring various mythical characters to life, with no more than a few twitches of the finger.

Some, like Swiss native Peter Schwer, also took the opportunity to dress up in the elaborate opera costumes and had their faces painted, for photo-taking sessions.

A performer showing off the more elaborate costumes and facial painting that is typical of Teochew opera.

“We take great interest in culture, and this was a good opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes at such shows. It really engages you,” says Schwer, a Malaysia My 2nd Home resident, who has been here for two years.

Joining him was wife Sabina Sutter, and their two young children, Dominic, 10, and Vivienne, seven, who also dressed up and had make-up applied. They went home with some unique family portraits.

Also dropping by was Australian lecturer Jenny Buckworth, and trainee teachers Dominic May and Lea Hellet, who happened to be exploring George Town when they heard the sounds and decided to check things out.

“It was very entertaining. The puppets and costumes are beautiful. Putting on a show like this looks like hard work. But we’re delighted to be able to immerse ourselves in the local culture,” says Buckworth.

Visitors to the recent open day taking part in a Teochew opera acting class and learning some of the basic moves.

According to 36-year-old Goh, better known as Ling, that was the original aim when setting up the place. She is a fourth generation performer, having at the tender age of seven, followed in the footsteps of mother Toh Ai Hua, now 66.

“We wanted to introduce this ancient artform to more people, because otherwise, it would slowly disappear into history once we are gone.

“Even though it’s an integral part of Chinese culture, most people nowadays do not appreciate it anymore, nor understand the symbolism or meanings behind it,” says Ling.

“By having a base where we can teach and share, we hope to revive interest in it. Compared to just having street shows, this allows us to go more in depth,” she adds.

Ling and the many supporters of Teochew opera, who helped set up the centre, are thankful to the Mor Hun Club for letting them use the space.

At the Teochew Puppet and Opera House, Goh demonstrates how a performer’s hair is done up using a solution of water and tree gum.

And they felt that having such interactive experiences is more effective compared to static, museum-like exhibits, so tourists in particular, can fully experience Teochew Opera’s many nuances.

Ling points out that the main difference between Teochew opera and other Chinese opera variants is the dialogue, heavier make-up and more elaborate costumes.

“These are all made by hand and can cost thousands of ringgit. We’ve had to import some from China, because nobody here produces them anymore,” she reveals.

And while traditionally it is not common for the public to touch the costumes and puppets, the Teochew Puppet and Opera House encourages interaction. They are laid out for all to explore, so it stimulates interest.

If anything, the Teochew Puppet and Opera House’s efforts seem to be paying off.

All the workshops, shows and anniversary events – which included a celebration at the Performing Arts Centre of Penang in the second year – has generated some buzz.

“From our conversations with school students, we found that some had an interest in it, but didn’t have a platform to learn about it.

“We’re all proud of this place. There was a point when some felt that Teochew Opera would eventually die off, but now we’re confident it will carry on,” says an optimistic Ling.

Among the younger faces in the crowd were A-level students Sara Chew and Lim De Hu, both 19. Chew heard about the Teochew Puppet and Opera House’s open day from her grandmother, and was keen to check it out.

“I’m a theatre student, and wanted to get some new ideas. It is fascinating. This is the first time I’ve seen a real puppet show,” says Chew.

The classes were conducted by 70-year-old Lee Xin Hwa, an opera instructor, who flew in all the way from Xiamen, China. She had started at the age of 12.

“When I was a child, I watched the opera and was impressed by the beautiful costumes. So when the chance came up, I registered with a government-supported, opera art college,” says Lee.

In China, Lee was an actress for over a decade before turning to teaching.

“I’ve been in this field for all my life. It’s a lovely tradition and we need to pass it down to newer generations,” she concludes.

The Teochew Puppet And Opera House is open from 9am to 4pm on weekdays, up to 6pm on weekends, and is closed on Mondays. For more information, call 04-262 0377 or go to www.teochewpuppet.com or www.facebook.com/TeochewPuppetAndOpera/.

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