By Akanksha Raja
(620 words, four-minute read)
Ombak Potehi is Ombak Ombak Art Studio’s glove puppet theatre group established in 2015, consisting of young people – all under 30 – producing and performing puppet theatre, having been trained by experts from Penang’s Beng Geok Hong Puppet Troupe. To date, they’ve written and produced three works: The Story of Malek (2015), The Monkey King Adventures (2016) and Kisah Pulau Pinang – The Story of Penang (2017). The George Town Festival 2018 saw the group restaging Kisah Pulau Pinang at the Penang House of Music.
Potehi puppet theatre is a traditional Hokkien art form brought to Southeast Asia by immigrants from southern China several centuries ago. Despite originally being performed in Hokkien, potehi came to be performed in the different languages of the region, and Kisah Pulau Pinang is performed in a seamless mix of languages – Hokkien, Malay, and a smattering of Tamil – to bring to life the multi-cultural, multi-lingual milieu of Penang in the late 19th to early 20th century, at the brink of and slightly after the Japanese invasion of the Malayan archipelago. The performance is supported by a musical ensemble – the performance box is flanked by three percussionists on the left and erhu and pipa players on the right, and they play Chinese music as well as Malay folk songs. The subtitles screening underneath the action in Mandarin and English are not verbatim, but provide a general gist of each conversation taking place.
The simple and straightforward plot scans like a very engaging and well-executed dramatisation of a school history or social studies textbook: it follows the lives of a cast of four diverse characters – Chew, Nya, Lim and Kassim – experiencing some of the major historical highlights of the era: secret society fights; the Penang Riots of 1967, the booming spice trade (Kassim is an Indian spice trader); Operation Sook Ching as it spread from Singapore to the rest of Malaya. The production was a result of research and interviews conducted with individuals – including some of the performers’ relatives – who lived through some of these events.
The performance begins with an introduction of the characters and their backgrounds, and subsequently follows an episodic unfolding of their lives set against the socio-political atmosphere of the times. The more light-hearted first part of the story sees Chew falling in love and marrying Nya, and the couple visiting amusement parks, the Chingay parade and public lion dance performances together with Kassim and Lim. The audience around me at the 4pm show on Sunday comprised of people of all ages but significantly of teenagers, who were kept entertained throughout. Chew and Nya’s meet-cute tickled the audience, as did the skilful tossing of red Chingay banners between different characters. It was especially impressive to watch the puppets which Jasniza Johari voiced and controlled, as she switched easily between characters of different genders, accents and languages, from Hokkien to Malay to Tamil.
After the intermission, things take a turn for the darker as Chew is captured and taken away by a pair of menacing Japanese soldiers, shortly after the couple’s son Xiang is born. Lim, Nya and Kassim escape to the countryside, and the performance concludes with Xiang as a young adult returning home with a degree in medicine from the UK.
Although it leans toward a schoolbook-like retelling of the major historical milestones of Penang and 20th century Malaya, Kisah Pulau Pinang is a well-crafted work exemplifying how even in the age of Instagram, Netflix and YouTube webseries, an ancient traditional art form continues to be practised by young millennials, and can be used to tell compelling stories. Ombak Potehi is still a nascent group, and one looks forward to discover how they will continue to use the form to engage with contemporary times and capture the imaginations of younger audiences.
First performed in 2017, Kisah Pulau Pinang: The Penang Story was restaged at the George Town Festival 2018 on 18, 19 and 26 August, at the Penang House of Music.
Check out our interview with Ombak Ombak ARTStudio’s Artistic Director Professor Tan Sooi Beng here!