Gods on strings

13 03 2023

Now rarely encountered, puppet performances were once a common sight here in Singapore. Much like street opera performances, the appearance of puppet stages more often than not, coincided with festivals celebrated at Chinese Taoist temples. While such performances may have provided entertainment to the common folk in days before television invaded our homes, they were often put up for religious purposes, with puppets also playing a part in performing rituals and in performances conducted for the pleasure of visiting gods.

Carried over by the Chinese emigrant community, various forms of Chinese puppetry have been seen in Singapore. String (marionette), rod, or glove puppets are mostly used. String puppets, which can best replicate human-like movement and gestures, carry the highest status and are thought to be most sacred amongst the various types of puppets. Belief was that puppets of deities used in rituals were brought to life by the deities they represented and the skills that the puppeteer demonstrated was imparted by the god of string puppets, also the god of theatre — a deity that is most often represented by a marionette. For this reason, string puppeteers were initially Taoist priests, due to their ability to communicate with the gods.

Over time, puppet troupes have taken over the role played by priests, with the eventual secularisation of the practice as a theatre form. Music used in puppetry has also changed, with a move from the use of nanyin music in Hokkien puppetry towards the more folk-like gezai music form that is associated with opera.

These days, all but a handful of puppet troupes keep the tradition alive. One, a Hokkien string puppet troupe known as Geyi, was founded in 2001 by Doreen Tan. Madam Tan, rather interestingly, was English educated and had no background in the traditional Hokkien theatre. Geyi is currently staging performances at the beautifully restored Temple on Phoenix Hill, Hong San See, during the elaborate commemoration of the feast day of its main deity, Guang Ze Zun Wang (广泽尊王) or Kong Teik Chun Ong (in Hokkien). The deity is widely worshipped in Lam Ann, the origins of the temple’s founders. The festival celebrations run until 16 March 2023.

The troupe during the banxian (impersonating the immortals) ritual.

More photographs taken during the Guang Ze Zun Wang festival at Hong San See:


Singapore’s last traditional puppet stage maker?

3 08 2022

Puppet shows once made appearances around Taoist temples scattered all across Singapore. Like the Chinese street opera and the more modern getai performances, they were usually put up for the pleasure of visiting Taoist deities on their earthly sojourns, or for hungry ghosts who as belief would have it, roam the earth when the gates of the underworld are opened during the Chinese seventh month. Puppet shows also found great appeal with the common, especially amongst the young ones. These days however, the distractions of the modern world hold sway and the appeal of tradition seems to have waned. Just a handful of troupes still perform around today leaving supporting craftsmen such as Mr Leong Fong Wah, whose lifetime’s work has been in painting and putting together puppet stages, a dying breed.

A typical Chinese puppet stage is really an assembly of pieces of plywood on which colourful decorations and backdrops are painted on one side and reinforced on the other. All it takes is a few weeks to add the decorative work before a stage can be put together. This quick turnaround time, the lack of a customer base, and the fact that a stage can be used and reused for as long as ten years, does mean that there is little in terms work in the area for the business that Mr Leong runs, Leong Shin Wah Art Studio. Having been started in the 1940s by Mr Leong’s father, whose name the business is identified with, the workshop must have been involved in putting together a countless number of stages. With nothing in way of puppet show stage orders in sight beyond an order that Mr Leong is currently in the process of fulfilling, this last stage that he is building may be one of the last, if not the last, traditional puppet show stages being made not just at Mr Leong’s workshop, but also in Singapore.

A typical traditional puppet show stage set up:

A puppet stage set up at Telok Ayer Street.
The stage set up also hides puppeteers and musicians behind a backdrop and other decorated plywood panels.

Chinese Puppetry in Singapore:

A lifelong passion pulling strings (Henghwa string puppet troupe)

The last performance of the Sin Sai Poh Hong puppet troupe (Teochew Rod Puppet Troupe)

Spring is in the air

9 02 2016

Every eve of the Lunar New Year, we are reminded of the old Chinatown when the now sanitised streets and the annual festive bazaar that comes up in the lead up to the New Year, comes alive. Chinatown is at its most atmospheric then as crowds throng its streets in search of festive goods being disposed off at a bargain – much like it was in the days of old. The eve also sees Taoist temples getting ready for the crowds – it is customary for Chinese of the Taoist faith to visit the temple in the early hours of the New Year to offer respects to the deities. One temple that gets busy is the oldest Hokkien temple, the Thian Hock Keng, where festivities this year were accompanied by Hokkien marionette puppet shows and stilt walkers – part of a series of events for the Lunar New Year that will also see a getai held on 15 February. The temple is also holding a series of guided tours during the period, more information on which can be found at http://www.thianhockkeng.com.sg/events_2016_cny.html.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.

Crowds on the streets of Chinatown late on the eve of Chinese New Year in search of a bargain.


Monkeys were everywhere.




The Sri Mariamman hindu temple.


Stilt walkers outside the Thian Hock Keng.



The Singapore Yu Huang Gong.


The puppet show stage at the Thian Hock Keng.





A puppeteer in action.

The final act

29 09 2015

Except perhaps for the haze and the heavy downpour, the scene at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road last evening would have been one typical of any of the temple’s festival evenings with a stage erected to provide entertainment for the evening’s heavenly guest. It was however the last time the evening’s performers, the Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰) puppet troupe, will be seen on stage. One of only two Teochew rod puppet troupes in Singapore, the Sin Sai Poh Hong has now gone into retirement having played out their final act at last evening’s birthday celebrations for the Monkey King (or Monkey God).

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong's art.

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong’s art.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

Acts such as these put on by street opera and puppet troupes, while intended for the deities, served also to provide entertainment for the masses. They were a means by which cultural and social values were transmitted from one generation to the next in the days of low literacy levels and before television invaded our living rooms.

Last words ....

Last words ….

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Teochew rod puppetry, which has very elaborately made puppets skillfully manipulated by iron rods, are a more recent introduction (early 20th century) to the street theatre scene in Singapore. The tradition is however thought to go back several centuries in southern China. Sadly, it along with other genres of street theatre once common in Singapore, seem now to have little place in a Singapore that wants to know little of its past and it may only be a matter of time, before the last curtain falls on a form of entertainment that once brought entire communities out onto the streets.






The last puppet show

25 07 2015

The distractions of the modern world have seen us lose many of the traditions that once coloured the streets of Singapore. One that struggles to survive is Chinese puppet theatre in its various genres, kept alive only by the passion of those still involved with it.

Words that may no longer be sung.

Words that may no longer be spoken.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Sadly, we would soon see one of Singapore’s two Teochew rod puppet troupes, Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰), exit the scene. Faced with dwindling interest, a lack of willing successors and the pressures of the modern world, the members of the troupes will play out their final act in the month after Singapore celebrates its half century embrace of modernity.

Fading with time ...

Fading with time …


A more recent addition to the street theatre scene – Teochew rod puppetry arrived Singapore in the early part of the 20th century, the form of puppetry does have a long tradition in the land of the Teochew community’s forefathers, serving as a vehicle for the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Strange bedfellows.

Strange bedfellows.

At its height in Singapore, its performances would have attracted many off the streets, although intended primarily as entertainment to the deities. Troupes such as Sin Sai Poh Hong were kept busy through the year and would on the average, be engaged ten days in a month, providing sufficient income for the troupe to be run on a full-time basis. However, pressures of the modern world in which tradition is less valued coupled with the enforced shift away from the use of the vernacular,has seen interest fall in traditional puppetry.

Music accompanies the performance.

Music accompanies the performance.

The photographs accompanying this post, as well as the badly taken and edited video found at the end of this post, were of the troupe recent performance at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road. The temple, where the troupe regularly performs, was commemorating the birthday of its main deity, Huang Lao Xian Shi (黄老仙师). The next performance, the troupe’s last, will be held at the same venue on the evening of the 28 September 2015 (amended from previously reported date of 24 August 2015), the sixteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Birthday of the Monkey King). More information on this, and further updates, can be found at this Facebook post (please click).



The Chee Chung Temple.

The Chee Chung Temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Other forms of puppetry once commonly seen in Singapore:

A lifelong passion pulling strings – the portrait of a master puppeteer

28 02 2012

Living in a world which seems to have little place for practices of a past that it seems to want to forget, it is often comforting to discover that there are some traditions, out-of-place in the modern world as they may seem, that have refused to vanish. One discovery is the Sin Hoe Ping Puppet Troupe (新和平加礼戏班), a very traditional Heng Hwa puppet troupe which dates back to the 1930s which owes its continued existence to the devotion of its troupe leader and master puppeteer, Mr. Yang Lai Hao. The troupe made a recent appearance at the ACM Green with a two evening performance as part of a series of events that are being held as part of the Regenerating Communities @ Empress Place initiative at which Mr. Yang was kind enough to take questions from the audience.

Mr. Yang Lai Hao of the Sin Hoe Ping Puppet Troupe.

Various forms of puppetry were once commonplace all over much of the Far East and in the Indian Sub-continent, performing an important social function in the passing down of social and religious values through the retelling of traditional tales and folklore, besides providing the evening’s entertainment. This is seen throughout much of the Hindu influenced world where many different forms of puppetry have been effective in passing down the stories from the Hindu epics through the ages and is still relatively commonplace in many parts of South East Asia. Even in Singapore, which does by itself not much of tradition in puppetry, puppet shows were once a common sight – with several troupes entertaining those on the streets with forms of puppetry which had been imported by the many immigrants from Southern China arriving at her shores. Puppet shows in Singapore served to entertain the young, in the same way various forms of Chinese Opera entertained the older folks and they made an appearance during temple festivals and were also sometimes seen at Chinese weddings. At their height, which was before the war, a newspaper report had as many as 25 troupes that were active – the same report in the Straits Times in 1957 also touched on the decline of the tradition – even then. Today, there are but a few of these that have survived the onslaught of modern society – with Sin Hoe Ping being the only surviving Heng Hwa puppet troupe in Singapore.

The retelling of the Journey to the West by the Sin Hoe Ping Puppet Troupe at ACM Green.

Different forms of puppetry has existed in much of Asia and has performed an important social function.

It was in fact in 1957 that the dedicated Mr. Yang, began his active involvement in the art which he had developed a fascination for watching his grandfather, who brought the troupe over from Putian in Fujian Province in China in the 1930s, perform. He started first with playing the luo – the Chinese gong before learning the ropes first from his grandfather, and with his grandfather’s passing, from the other members of the troupe learning most of what was needed by the time he turned 15. Mr. Yang put his continued interest in the art form in the early years to the monetary rewards it offered – he recalled being paid 50 cents for a performance – what he felt was a handsome sum then as all it took was 5 to 10 cents to feed a person. Mr. Yang reckons that it was only at 25 that he eventually mastered all the elements of puppetry including what was needed to support performances front and back stage and also in the setting up of the stage.

Mr. Yang's active involvement with the art form started with him playing the gong in his grandfather's troupe at the age of 7.

Mr. Yang describing the beginnings of his involvement in puppetry as a child, as Mr. Jeremiah Choy - Creative Director of Regenerating Communities @ Empress Place, looks on.

Mr Yang, who is currently 62, is one who exudes passion for the art, having the boundless energy required to keep the troupe running. Although he has had thoughts of leaving puppetry, he says that it is something he can’t really contemplate until he is able to find a successor to continue with the tradition and says he asks of his god to allow him to live to 88 to enable him the time to find and train a successor. He is still actively involved in every aspect of running the troupe – from recruiting and training new members, making new puppets to replace old and worn ones, scriptwriting and even in setting up the stage. Finding it difficult to find willing accomplices locally – especially with the Heng Hwa dialect which the performances are in fast dying out, the troupe now features three puppeteers who have been recruited from Putian. The complexity of puppetry – especially in the manipulation of the string puppets or marionettes whilst singing or speaking at the same time makes it difficult to master the art and Mr. Yang feels it takes up to 10 years to master this. Learning to make the puppets is also necessary to support the art and this is also difficult to master.

Mr. Yang - who at 62, still exudes passion for the art, hopes to find a successor to lead the troupe and continue the tradition.

The three puppeteers performing with Mr. Yang have been recruited from Putian, China.

The art of manipulating the puppet and singing at the same time is one that is difficult to master.

It takes up to 10 years to master manipulating the strings of the puppets.

While the odds are certainly stacked against Mr. Yang in his quest to find a successor, especially where continued interest in the art form is threatened not just by the modern society’s lack of desire to keep traditions alive and by the advent of the multimedia age, but also in a society that has abandoned the linguistic traditions of our forefathers for a common language, there is hope. Mr. Yang may find this in his closer to home – his daughter, Ms. Yang Shi Qin, has shown some interest in the art form – although Mr. Yang is yet sure whether that will be enough for her to take over from him. With that there is hope – hope that a tradition that may otherwise be forgotten do not go the way of many others we have lost and a hope that there still are a few reminders of who we are and where we had come from.

The Sin Hoe Ping Troupe's stage at ACM Green dwarfed by the towering edifices of modern Singapore in the background. The role of traditional practices and art forms have been minimised by the arrival of the modern world to Singapore.

Portraits of Sin Hoe Ping’s Puppeteers