While we may be blessed today with an endless stream of entertainment without even leaving the comfort of home, old forms of entertainment face risk of being wiped out of existence. In the case of Hokkien potehi, one of the oldest potehi troupes in Penang is working hard to sustain the colourful heritage.
But first, what is potehi?
According to a book published by George Town World Heritage Incorporated called Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre of Penang: An Evolving Heritage, the artform took its root in Fujian, China. Before the advent of professional troupes, every show was basic, where a performer would place all his puppets and props in a sack, basket or chest when he was moving from one place to another.
Because of the simple set up, potehi was often seen as a smaller version of the opera where they shared the same repertoire, characters, music and costumes, among others. Potehi served as an alternative for temples that could not afford an opera troupe.
There is no exact date when potehi landed in Malaya, the earliest record was from a book written by a British colonial officer J.D. Vaughan in 1879 (Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements), who recounted his experience watching performances of Chinese opera and puppet theatre in the Straits Settlements comprising Penang, Melaka and Singapore.
By the 1940s in Penang, potehi troupes performed for religious practices of the Hokkien descent. Performances usually took place at temple festivals like the Jade Emperor’s birthday, Nine Emperor Gods as well as thanksgiving rituals for deities.
Potehi was also frequently performed at funerals where the family of the deceased would ask for stories that fit the occasion. For example, a happy story if the deceased lived a good life, or a sad story to help relatives grieve.
More than plain entertainment, the performance served as an offering or a form of communication with the gods – blessings, fortune or protection. With it, specific rituals had to be observed before and after each show.
All potehi performances, even the ones performed nowadays, come from a wealth of Chinese literary classics from Romance of the Three Kingdoms to Journey to the West. Most plots are packed with action, love and humorous antics from various characters. Just like your typical TV series today, some long performances back in the day stretched from days to months!
Third-generation Penang potehi master Ooi Siew Kim said in the 1960s, the troupe called Beng Geok Hong, which she inherited from her grandfather Ooi Lay Peng often performed a story called Water Margin that went as far as 60 episodes, taking them two months to complete.
Potehi Glove Puppet Theatre of Penang quoted her saying the long shows drew huge audiences.
“People came to watch every night as they wanted to see the ending of the show,” she said.
“Temples preferred troupes that could perform interesting and complicated stories.”
The longer stories were so popular in the past that troupes would compete for the most interesting story lines.
As one of the oldest potehi troupes in Penang, the Beng Geok Hong troupe — now managed by Siew Kim’s sister Ooi See Han, 66, and friends Khoo Tiong Seng, 74, Chua Saw Tin, 67 as well as Ooi Ah Tin — still performs mostly at temples in Penang, Kedah, Perlis and Perak.
Although their human audience isn’t as big as it used to be, they’re pleased that at least the deities are still closely watching the shows.
Catch a classic performance from these masters at 3, Lorong Toh Aka, George Town, Penang.
In efforts to sustain the art, a group of youngsters called Ombak Potehi are actively performing at cultural festivals highlighting unique tales with modern twists – stories we can all enjoy, told not only in Hokkien, but also a mix of Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin! For details, follow them on Facebook.
GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to Penang. Book your tickets now at airasia.com.