Potehi puppet show in Penang remembers the lost stories of the Japanese occupation

  • Culture
  • Sunday, 29 Jul 2018

‘With Potehi puppet theatre, we want to recreate the stories of Penang not found in history books. The team did research and interviewed locals who lived through that period to find out what life was like during the Japanese occupation,’ says Tan. Photos: The Star/Chan Boon Kai

Wondering what happened to the quartet of friends who lived in a vibrant 1930s port city as depicted in Penang-based cultural outfit Ombak Potehi’s puppet glove theatre show The Penang Story which debuted last year?

Then mark your calendars, for you would not want to miss Part II of the production – titled The Japanese Occupation – to be staged at the Penang House of Music in Komtar, Penang this Aug 18-19 and Aug 26.

It follows characters Chew and Ah Nya who now have a son named Xiang, Yi who has just returned from a trip to China, and Kassim who settled down with the beautiful Rosmah.

Prof Dr Tan Sooi Beng, the show’s artistic director and producer, says the upcoming shows will feature both Part I and Part II, so audiences can better understand who the characters are and how their lives unfolded.

The first instalment was a tale of love and friendship – with Chinese friends Chew, Yi and Ah Nya, along with the Indian Muslim Kassim, chronicling how their families came to live in the cosmopolitan Penang.

Vintage news reels and reimagined video footage will also be part of the show.

It was the 30s, and the bustling city was alive with many activities – from the spice trade at Little India to colourful street festivals and the arrival of ships bringing valuable cargo from the East and West. Not to forget the Chinese secret societies fighting for control of power in Penang.

At the same time, Muslim pilgrims from the region were stopping by on their way to Mecca.

Part II picks up in late 1941, with the characters meeting in a coffee shop to enjoy food and drinks whilst watching street celebrations outside. This is interrupted by the sight of Japanese war planes flying over the island.

As the occupation begins, the people of once-thriving Penang experience hardships and suffering. Based on accounts of those who lived through this period, the story recalls the Sook Ching massacres.

The Sook Ching (meaning to purge through cleansing) massacres, which happened in the early months of 1942, saw the Japanese military killing thousands of Chinese people, especially in towns and villages in Singapore, Penang and Johor.

Amid the turmoil in Penang, Chew is arrested and disappears. Yi escapes with Nya and Xiang to join Kassim and Rosmah in the Air Itam countryside.

The Penang Story will be playing at Penang House of Music's Black Box space on Aug 18-19 and Aug 26.

The friends survive the war, and the story ends with Xiang later going to England to study medicine and looking forward to the day when Malaya gains independence from the British.

“We want to recreate the stories of Penang not found in history books. The team did research and interviewed locals who lived through that period to find out what life was like during the Japanese occupation,” says Tan, who is an ethnomusicologist, during a recent preview show.

“Many of these stories are not recorded, and few today know about it,” she adds.

Ombak Potehi is collective of multi-ethnic young people who are trying to revitalise the endangered puppet glove theatre in Penang.

Headed by Tan, the team of 10 has spent the last few years studying the art of puppet manipulation, narration and music from the Beng Geok Hong troupe, and have come up with their own productions.

A scene from The Penang Story show. Photo: Ombak Potehi

In an effort to appeal to younger audiences, they not only perform traditional stories, but also newer tales steeped in local culture and history.

Like its previous shows, The Penang Story is told with traditional Potehi puppets sourced from Taiwan. These are clad in handmade costumes of different ethnic groups.

The show features several different local languages and dialects such as Hokkien, Malay and Tamil. Accompanying it are English and Mandarin subtitles, as well as old imagery of Penang.

“We would ultimately like to take The Penang Story to modern times. Puppet theatre takes one into another world and allows us to better bring out human emotions. It is essentially a smaller version of Chinese opera. In the past, when people could not afford that, they would hire a Potehi troupe for entertainment,” concludes Tan.

The Penang Story will show at the Penang House of Music, Level 4, Komtar, George Town on Aug 18, 19 and 26. On Aug 18-19, the show starts at 4pm. On Aug 26, there are two sessions at 2.30pm and 5pm. Tickets: RM40 (adults) and RM25 (students). To purchase or reserve, email: ticketing@­penanghouseofmusic.com, or call 04-370 6675 and 010-864 6699 (between 11am and 7pm). FB: Ombak Potehi or Penang House of Music.

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