Singaporean

A Dying Art Captured On An iPhone 7 Plus - An Intimate Look At Hokkien String Puppet Chinese Opera

The creature comforts of today has made entertainment very accessible and convenient, especially on smartphones like the iPhone.

Entertainment today will usually consist of Netflix and the occasional trip to the cinemas to catch the latest blockbusters, but for our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, their source of entertainment were a totally different affair.

If your family is of Hokkien descent, you probably would have heard stories of how the older generation used to watch string puppet Chinese operas.

They soon may be just that – stories that you tell to your kids.

While they are still very much alive today, but for how much longer, nobody knows.

歌藝歌仔戲 Hokkien String Puppet Chinese Opera

chinese opera
Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

Recently, we followed the trail of one of these operas.

Visiting the 歌藝歌仔戏 Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi Opera, renowned Singaporean street photographer Aik Beng Chia, armed with his trusty Apple iPhone 7 Plus, provided us a glimpse into what happens backstage at one of their shows.

Hokkien, being of the most common Chinese dialects in Singapore, their string puppet shows were once a hugely common sight along the streets of Singapore.

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

Hokkien String Puppet Opera was brought into the country by none other than the Hokkien people of Southern China who immigrated here.

It is an art form that was almost lost to China’s Cultural Revolution.

It somehow survived among the Chinese diaspora and at one time even flourished. The string puppet opera, however. was mainly targeted at the young, while Chinese Opera (performed by human stage actors) was for adults.

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

The shows were prominent fixtures during Chinese festivals and temple ceremonies where crowds of spectators would throng large open spaces where these shows were held to watch age old stories from mythology being re-enacted by skilled puppet masters.

Today, though, these shows by longtime masters of the craft that used to command crowds in the hundreds have been reduced to a mere handful in the audience who are mostly of the older generation.

Mastering The Art Takes A Long Time

Doreen Tan (extreme left) / Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

During his visit, Aik Beng spoke to Doreen Tan, 61, who shared her experiences in being a master puppeteer for the last 18 years, including some insights into the craft.

Putting on a show with a puppet is not as easy as it seems. For one, every one of the master puppeteers must learn both how to manipulate the string puppets, and sing or speak at the same time.

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

We’re talking about nailing down both actions to a split-second accuracy here, on top of memorising hundreds of lyrics, stories and scripts, and voice modulation to breathe life into the puppets.

These are skills that take both time and effort to perfect.

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

Lastly, she talked about the puppets itself – each of them is handcrafted in China and they can cost a pretty penny.

Depending on the level of intricacy of detailing required on the puppets, each of them can cost anywhere in between S$250 to S$500.

 A Traditional Craft On The Verge Of Extinction

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

Time and modernisation has helped little in helping them stay alive, and now they risk being resigned to the pages of history along with many other traditional art forms.

The master puppeteers currently plying the trade are mostly in their twilight years (many of them are over 60), and once they are gone, there will likely be no one from the next generation taking over.

Image Credit: Aik Beng Chia

A fading future seems to be the only one that these master puppeteers will be facing as the only ones who are still practicing this ancient craft.

We would like to thank the Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi Opera for sharing their insights and Aik Beng Chia for the photos taken with his Apple iPhone 7 Plus.

The next time you pass by a puppet opera, or even a Chinese opera, stop by for a show.

It could just be something that you might just enjoy watching.

At the very least, while technology cannot really help to continue this art, at least it is helping preserve its memory through pictures like those above.

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