Teochew Chinese Puppet Troupe


During the Chinese Spirits of the 7th Month (known by the misnomer “the Hungry Ghost) Festival, many Chinese communities in Malaysia & Singapore hold traditional Chinese opera using human actors, but only a few places still put on Chinese puppet shows. 

Like the Chinese opera performances so prevalent during this month, the declared purpose of these performing arts is not to entertain humans; rather everything is done to entertain the spirits temporarily on tour in the land of the living.  The spirits' sojourn will last but a month, & it’s vital to traditional Chinese religionists to keep them occupied & out of trouble each night until they dutifully return to their abode.

At first I was surprised when I discovered that the puppeteer team was holding this Teochew Chinese puppet show in a cramped little space in the old Campbell Street Market in downtown Georgetown, Penang.  There was literally space for only a small handful of people to witness the act.  A warehouse cage actually blocked nearly half of the stage.  Then I remembered that this is not for humans, but for spirits—who presumably can claim seats within or on top of the cage, so it made sense.  Why use prime human real estate for spirits?

Intricately crafted puppets in royal regalia come on the stage.

Puppets heads are installed on their bodies just minutes before the performance & held in place merely by gravity. 

Lady puppeteers control the puppets from backstage making little effort to stay out of the line of sight.

The puppeteers provide voices—singing the characters’ parts to lively traditional Chinese music.

Well out of site behind the stage is the music & the troupe's support team. 

Instruments include a large Chinese gong,

small wooden knockers,

and a traditional Chinese harpsichord played by the puppet troupe’s manager.

Eventually armed characters come onstage, before a fatal fight.

The puppeteer company’s manager tells us that you can notice a marked difference between the quality of the puppets’ ceramic heads. High quality puppet heads are old & expensive. He has some that were old when his mother learned this art decades ago. Now you can’t find quality puppet heads anywhere—including in China where he’s scoured the countryside seeking a quality source.  Puppets are still made there, but of much lower quality than in the past as this ancient art form faces eroding popularity (presumably among humans who have to pay for the performances rather than among the spirit audience).

During this month the team stays busy—sometimes with one or even two performances every day.  Teochew Chinese puppets may be a dying art form, but the youth of this manager & his team imply that they’ll be around in Penang for at least another generation.