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