WHETHER it is a sword fighting, dancing or bickering scene, the fluid life-like movements of the one-foot tall wooden figures enthrall the audience of the Teochew puppet show.
Donning intricately sewn tra-ditional Chinese costumes, the puppets rule the stage in a spellbinding portrayal of love and betrayal.
Based on a Teochew tale called Pai Hua's Sword Gift, it centres around a brave Chinese warrior who became disillusioned with the emperor's cruel acts and decided to stop serving him.
Settling down in a small village, he later became its leader and started forming rebel troops to fight the royal army.
Getting wind of this, the em-peror sent a general to spy on the warrior. However, the general, disguised as a peasant, and the warrior's daughter, Pai Hua, ended up falling in love. Unbeknownst to her that the general was a spy, she gave him a sword to symbolise their love.
Caught between his love for Pai Hua and loyalty to the emperor, the general chose the latter and murdered the warrior. When she found out about his betrayal, Pai Hua avenged her father's death by killing the general with the sword she gave him.
The puppet show was held recently at the Jiu Wei Shen Zu Temple in Tanjung Tokong, Penang.
It was non-stop action for puppeteer Goh Hooi Ling the minute the frilly red curtains were raised and the spotlight fell on the puppets.
Goh, 24, said she was used to suffering from backaches as manipulating puppets weighing 4kg each and squatting behind the tiny stage had become a routine.
“Sometimes we stage three or four two-hour shows a day. As a full-time Teochew puppet and singing troupe, we perform an average of 180 days a year,” she said, adding that there were between 30 and 40 Teochew folktales to choose from.
She said that although her family was Hokkien, performing Teochew shows seemed to be in their blood.
“My great grandfather and grandmother in China were also such performers. My mother joined a troupe at the age of 13.
“When she was pregnant with me, I think I already started hearing the distinctive sounds of the Teochew opera coming from outside her belly,” she quipped.
She said that when the troupe's owner died in 1989, her mother bought the theatre rights from his family.
Since then, the Kim Gaik Low Choon Puppet Show has been a family business for the Gohs who perform mostly during the birthdays of Chinese deities.
“My nieces and nephews, who have yet to start schooling, have already started showing interest in our work,” she said, adding that she joined the troupe when she was eight.
Goh said most of the 40 pup- pets in their theatre were im- ported from China, adding that they came with detachable heads to enable them to switch cos-tumes.
Her brother, Lih Shan, 30, who sings and plays music during the shows, said their performances had taken them to Singapore, Bangkok, Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Pahang, Sabah and Sarawak.
“Apart from puppet shows, we also sing Teochew folksongs in a choir,” he added.
With the audience was Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) secretary Jack Ong who commented that heritage conservation should not be limited to preserving buildings and monuments.
“Intangible heritage like this puppet show is also equally im-portant. Instead of inviting singers in mini skirts and a-go-go boots for religious celebrations, skilled artisans like the puppeteers are more suitable,” he said.
He added that 40 PHT members were present at the puppet show as part of the trust’s monthly educational programmes.
Ong urged the troupe to provide a big screen to flash English subtitles for the non-Teochew speaking audience.
“As they are speaking in classical Teochew, even some Teochew-born are not able to understand the story,” he added.
American tourist Elizabeth Scmidt, 60, said despite the language barrier, she enjoyed the performance because she was a fan of puppet shows.
“I was so happy when a staff member in our hotel told me about this one. I have also watched wayang kulit (shadow play) and Balinese puppet shows before,” she said.