In the performance room of Penang House of Music, a museum dedicated to the musical history of this Unesco-listed Malaysian island, a crowd claps excitedly. They are cheering the group of young performers who get up from behind the stage, fatigued and sweaty, holding colourful puppets high above their heads. Their performance tells the story of Chew, the clever migrant from China who arrived on Penang to start a business and ended up falling in love with Ah Nya, a beautiful nyonya (Malay-Chinese) girl. And there is Kassim, the boisterous Indian Muslim trader who got rich working in the local spice business. Their lives are perfect until the 1967 Penang riots break out, filling the streets of George Town with Chinese secret societies battling in the street.
On the side of the stage, four musicians, still electrified from the performance, place their instruments in their cases. But today’s job is not over: spectators young and old step forward to have a go at manipulating the traditional wood and cloth figurines of potehi, a traditional puppet theatre with themes and characters from Chinese opera, and performed in the Penang Hokkien language. “People can join us after a show to play with the puppets. We do that to localise and explain the form, as we need to keep attracting new audiences,” said Professor Tan Sooi Beng, manager of the Ombak Potehi group, a puppetry project of the Penang-based Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio.
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