GEORGE TOWN: As the George Town Festival comes alive again this month, Team ITO from Japan will collaborate with Penang’s Ombak Potehi to stage a puppet show on a localised sequel to the literary classic, Journey to the West, at the Majestic Theatre here on July 29 and 30.
Potehi is a type of Hokkien glove puppet theatre that originated in Quanzhou, China. It was brought to Malaya by the Chinese in the early 20th century.
Penang was an important base for the potehi. There were about 10 troupes on the island in the post-war era.
They performed to honour deities at temple festivals and during the Hungry Ghost festival. The troupes commanded large audiences as a form of entertainment as well.
Today there are just four troupes left. Although the temples still hire groups to perform during the birthdays of the deities, there is hardly any audience of late.
Ombak Potehi was started by Tan Sooi Beng in 2015 to rejuvenate the potehi glove puppet theatre in Penang. She recruited a group of young people who learnt the art of puppet manipulation, narration, and music from the masters of the Beng Geok Hong Puppet Troupe of Penang.
Led by Marcus Lim, the main puppeteer and scriptwriter, Ombak Potehi is known for its creative stories that use local multiethnic characters, costumes and languages but are based on the manipulation techniques, character role types and music of the traditional potehi.
Through localisation and performances at festivals, Ombak Potehi has made the form and music accessible to people of different races, genders, ages and income levels in Penang.
As in the original story, Tang Sam Tsong, the legendary Tang dynasty Buddhist monk, travels to India to look for sacred scriptures. He is accompanied by Sun Ngoo-khong (Monkey King), Tu Pat Kai (Pigsy), and Sua Tseng (Friar Sandy).
However, on their return journey from India, they are tricked by Onibaba, a female supernatural monster in Japanese folklore, to disembark at Penang Island. Disguised as a beautiful lady, Onibaba dances and sings about how she has fallen in love with Tang in her dream. She orders her yokai (supernatural monsters) to kidnap Tang.
The Monkey King and his friends frantically look for Tang and fight with the yokai monsters in a series of spectacular battles.
Who wins? Is Onibaba’s love for Tang ever returned? See the show to find out the answers. Be captivated by the thrilling fighting scenes featuring string puppets that split into two, and flying potehi glove puppets!
The play will be staged in Hokkien, Japanese and Malay, with Mandarin and English subtitles
About Team ITO (Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo)
Team ITO was established in 2014 by SHIOKAWA Kyoko, a puppet maker/puppeteer of Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo, a traditional Japanese marionette puppet theatre. Edo refers to the old name of Tokyo, Ito to the string, Ayatsuri to its manipulation techniques and Ningyo to the puppet.
It is believed that this type of string puppet theatre emerged as folk entertainment in seventeenth-century Japan, one of which is the Youkiza puppet theatre troupe established in Tokyo in 1635. During the Edo period, a permanent theatre for this form of marionette puppet was built in the entertainment quarter in Tokyo, together with theatres for Kabuki.
A special feature of the Japanese Edo Ito Ayatsuri is the manipulation board called te-ita (te: hands, ita: board).
While European marionettes use sticks for manipulation, the te-ita is connected to a dozen strings and various parts of the puppet are about 60-80 cm high. This enables the puppeteer to generate puppet movements and emotions by manipulating these strings.
It is said that several years of training is required for the puppeteer to walk puppets in a normal manner. The Edo Ito Ayatsuri Ningyo is listed as one of the ‘intangible folk-cultural properties for which records should be prepared’ (Tokyo Prefecture).
(Ombak Potehi photo credits: Yew Kok Hong)