Meet Singapore puppet master Ong Kian Sin

Meet Singapore puppet master Ong Kian Sin

Go behind the scenes and watch how puppeteers with Singapore theatre company The Finger Players warm up their hands before a performance. (Video: The Finger Players)

Puppeteer Ong Kian Sin was not fond of hand puppetry when he started learning the art form in 1996.

He says: “The training was tough and extremely tiring. We had to raise our arms up high to practice the moves and at the end of the day, my body would ache and my hands would tremble uncontrollably.”

Difficult as the training was, however, he persevered. He was part of the founding team of The Finger Players, which aimed to promote traditional puppetry among the young. The group was the brainchild of the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun, and it started as a division of his theatre company The Theatre Practice before it went independent.

Ong’s background as an actor with The Theatre Practice, performing in productions that toured schools, did little to prepare him for hand puppetry. For a while, he struggled to enjoy the artistic process of putting on a good theatre show.

But he had a change of heart when The Finger Players invited puppet master Li Bofen from China to stage a hand puppet performance in Singapore. Ong had the opportunity to observe the master at work up close, and he was deeply impressed by the skill and artistry of the art form.

He says: “I began to realise how with just two hands, one can bring characters to life and express the full depth of human emotions. I started to see hand puppetry in a different light. I fell in love with it.”

He became a puppeteer and has not looked back since. Read on as he offers a look behind the scenes of a hand puppeteer’s life.

What does a hand puppeteer do, and how do you hone your craft?
A hand puppeteer’s work is to bring the puppet to life, present different characters and tell stories using his hands. The craft is all about practice, practice and more practice. I also watch and learn from master puppeteers, and I have since realised that to preserve the art of puppetry, we must be innovative and keep up with the times.

Do you do anything special to care for your hands?
I just take care of my hands like most people do, nothing special. But I was born with an extra piece of muscle between my thumbs and forefingers, which makes both my hands more powerful. It is almost as if I had specially trained my hands with weights.

What is a job hazard of a hand puppeteer?
My job requires me to keep both arms raised high for prolonged periods and exert physical strength, so my shoulder blades and spine have sustained injuries and strain. For a period of time, due to frequent and physically demanding rehearsals, I had to visit a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner every week for acupuncture and cupping to alleviate the pain I felt.

What is your pre-performance ritual?
Like any other theatre performer, puppeteers must warm up their bodies before a performance. For hand puppeteers, we practice basic hand exercises to loosen the muscles in our hands. The exercises are important because for the hand puppets to come to life, we must re-create the bodily movements of a person using just the muscles in our hands, and the movements must be lifelike.

Which type of puppet character do you like to play?
In Chinese hand puppetry, there are five main character types – sheng (the gentleman), dan (the maiden), jing (painted face), za (miscellaneous) and chou (the clown). My favourite is the clown character. I am rather quiet and reserved in social situations, but playing the clown character on stage has allowed me to present a different side of myself.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about The Finger Players here.

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