An interview with National Arts Council’s 2022 Traditional Arts Residency Artist-in-Residence: Dr Caroline Chia

An interview with National Arts Council’s 2022 Traditional Arts Residency Artist-in-Residence: Dr Caroline Chia

The National Arts Council’s (NAC) Traditional Arts Residency is a programme that supports the incubation of innovative content with a traditional performing arts focus. The programme includes grant funding, guidance through an interlocutor, and a rent-free studio space at the Stamford Arts Centre for selected Artists-in-Residence, allowing them to develop new work that culminates in a showcase or presentation.

New to 2022, a Research Residency was added for practice-based research and/or documentation initiatives on the distinctive practices, development of new work, and/or cross-cultural exchanges of traditional performing art forms in Singapore.

With the conclusion of this year’s 16-week Residency programme, we caught up with the 2022 Artists-in-Residence to see what inspired them in their fields, and how their Residencies have helped shape their perspectives for the future.

In part 1 of this series, we introduce Dr Caroline Chia, one of the two 2022 Artists-in-Residence. Dr Chia has a PhD in Asian Studies from University of Melbourne, with published works on Chinese theatre and puppetry. Her Research Residency aimed to chronicle this traditional art form for modern audiences and culminated in two public presentations and a mini-exhibition.

You’ve spent 15 years researching traditional Chinese puppetry. What piqued your interest in this?

My love for tradition was greatly influenced by my maternal grandma who came from Shantou, Chaozhou, and particularly her love for opera and passion to create traditional delicacies.

During my childhood days, I was surrounded by the colourful lights and sounds of opera but it was only in 2007 that I first came to know the existence of traditional Chinese puppetry in Singapore. My interest in researching this theatrical form was inspired mainly by this rich but little-known heritage that has been around for a century. Singapore is a relatively young country, and having a heritage that has been sustained for a hundred years and more seemed, to me, like a wonderful discovery. This led me to delve deeper into the subject, and it has been going on for 15 years now. 

How would you describe the traditional Chinese puppetry landscape in Singapore – how has it evolved, in both artistic practice and audience appreciation?

According to the sources that I have gathered, traditional Chinese puppetry used to be a big part of the everyday lives of Chinese migrants and their descendants. The Chinese would invite puppet shows to perform for various celebratory occasions, including weddings, birthdays, and festivals.

Old photos in the 1950s showed children crowding enthusiastically, standing on stools just to catch a glimpse of the puppet shows. There were even competitive shows, where at least two troupes were invited to perform in the same venue to see who would put on the best show.

However, with transitions in the social and linguistic landscape, many of the customs and traditions gradually faded and most puppet shows today are confined mainly to the religious realm, as they perform on the feast days of deities. Most of the regional dialect groups are left with only one troupe each, including the Hainanese, Henghua, and Teochew. The last Hakka puppet troupe had to wind down in the 1990s. 

A presentation given by Dr Chia.
A presentation given by Dr Chia.

How would you describe your journey so far in your years of research in this field?

It is a lonesome journey as there is almost no one else researching traditional Chinese puppetry in Singapore. But I am grateful to have the support of family and friends, and remain greatly inspired by practitioners of traditional and contemporary theatre – both local and overseas. This has made the sweat and tears through years of fieldwork all the more worthwhile.

It is also encouraging to see renewed interest in the arts scene, particularly at the national level, where government arts bodies show their support for traditional performing arts. 

What are some aspects of traditional Chinese puppetry that you think would benefit the younger generation to learn more about? 

I felt that I learnt a lot from the knowledge of puppeteers, including the puppet makers. Back in the day, our forefathers hardly had access to electrical lighting and machinery, which are regarded as essentials today. So how did they create these beautiful puppets? I was particularly intrigued by a story about how some glove puppets in the early days were painted white because the creators used kerosene lamp to illuminate, which gave the puppets a skin-coloured appearance. 

Many of today’s youths are fascinated by animation, but most don’t know that traditional puppetry makes use of animation features such as moving eyes and mouths. I strongly believe that there is valuable knowledge in the traditions that have been passed down for generations. But of course, it will take more effort and passion to make this relevant to a contemporary audience. 

Residency talks and exhibitions by Dr Chia.
Residency talks and exhibitions by Dr Chia.

What are some of your key takeaways from this Residency?

I am honoured to be awarded this Traditional Arts Research Residency, which is the first of its kind. The Residency serves as an excellent platform to reconnect with arts practitioners from both traditional and contemporary theatre. While there is an urgent need to document and revitalise traditional theatre, it is also important to hear the views of contemporary theatre practitioners, especially on how they sustain the interest of the contemporary audience.

San Chun Long, the troupe selected for this Residency, has had the opportunity to interact with some of the practitioners and members of the public during the public workshops and engagements carried out in the residency space. Many of them have come forward to share their excitement in seeing a Hainanese puppet troupe in action – something they have never seen before.

After witnessing this enthusiasm for traditional puppetry, the residency space at Stamford Arts Centre was also used for a mini-exhibition on Hainanese puppetry in Singapore to further engage the public.

Combining the photos provided by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and stories related to me by puppetry performers was like piecing together the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

Historical photos and artefacts on display.
Historical photos and artefacts on display.

Look out for part 2 of our interview series with the 2022 Artists-in-Residence where we speak with award-winning local Chinese dance practitioner, choreographer and educator Li Ruimin, whose Residency focused on using dance to portray the intercultural fusion of the Singapore identity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photos: Dr Caroline Chia, Dynamic Learning)

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