Hokkien Glove Puppet Theatre – A Show for the Gods
These days, Hokkien glove puppet theatres are rare but even more unheard of, is a female theatre master. Here in Penang, where the traditional art form is struggling to keep its audience, Ooi Siew Kim, 68, says she is happy just performing for the Gods and deities.
“These days, people are glued to the television. They don’t want to watch us anymore. We only stage shows for the Gods, spirits and deities because it is the temples that engage us. Sometimes, we get an audience of seniors citizens who come to the temple celebrations,” she says, explaining that young talents are hard to groom because a lot of dedication and discipline is required to master the art.
“It is not that I don’t want to teach but I am very strict so youngsters don’t like working for me. It takes at least five years to learn everything and the good ones will usually leave once they've mastered the art. My two daughters and son are also not interested in puppeteering,” she says.
Having been in the business for more than 40 years has not dampened the Ming Yu Feng (Singing Jade Phoenix) troupe leader’s enthusiasm but performing is more of a hobby for her now.
Ooi currently has over 100 well preserved puppets in her collection despite having given some away.
Besides having the distinction of being a Living Heritage Treasures of Penang Award recipient, Ooi can also boast of having been the youngest and the only female towkay (boss) of a glove puppet theatre troupe in Malaysia.
“My grandfather was a master of Chinese traditional Hokkien theatre from Nam An, Fujian, China. I picked up puppeteering at 14 and took over the troupe two years later after my grandfather passed away.
“I think I can still do this for another decade. In the old days, we would perform 10 days straight but now we only get booked for one or two days,” she says.
These days, her troupe travels about 100 days a year, performing in Penang, Perlis, Perak, Kedah and Kuala Lumpur.