The show must go on: San Chun Long, Singapore’s last surviving Hainanese puppet troupe, brings their rare rod puppets to the masses
Founded in 1947 with a history dating back to the 1920s, San Chun Long Puppet Troupe is Singapore’s oldest and last surviving Hainanese puppet troupe.

The show must go on: San Chun Long, Singapore’s last surviving Hainanese puppet troupe, brings their rare rod puppets to the masses

In its heyday, the San Chun Long Puppet Troupe put on more than 100 shows a year, many of them to big crowds. Things are markedly different for Singapore’s oldest and last surviving Hainanese puppet troupe these days.

Still, the show goes on. Each one the group performs, with its silver-haired puppeteers and musicians, such as the upcoming performance at Esplanade’s Forecourt Garden on 9 Sep, comes with added purpose.

San Chun Long was founded in 1947, although its history dates back to the 1920s. Over the decades, the troupe has performed widely across Southeast Asia and continues to put on performances at temple festivals and events today.

Among the different types of puppetry acts across the dialect groups, Hainanese puppetry stands out for its usage of rod puppets. They are controlled and manipulated using sturdy wooden rods: a central rod supports the puppet’s head and body, while thinner rods are used to move the arms. The puppeteers behind them skillfully wield them to portray different characters and characteristics. Male puppets, for instance, swagger as they move while female puppets have to be manoeuvred gently to show their grace.

These puppets, believed to have been carved in 1921 or earlier, are very delicate and fragile. They are also very rare and valuable. Their counterparts in China were mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Given that those puppets in Hainan were the only known collection around, Singapore’s set of puppets could well be the oldest of its kind left in the world today.

Some of the recurring characters in San Chun Long’s performances include The Court Official, Noble Lady, and Villain (left to right). In 2014, the troupe’s rod puppets were sent for repainting.
Some of the recurring characters in San Chun Long’s performances include The Court Official, Noble Lady, and Villain (left to right). In 2014, the troupe’s rod puppets were sent for repainting.

Given that each puppet weighs about 4kg with headgear, doing so while standing and singing at the same time is also no mean feat.

In the past, only the men had a part to play in puppet shows, singing even the female parts. Many girls had to learn in secrecy given that their parents largely disapproved of them being a part of puppet shows.

These shows, seen as a performance for the gods and also entertainment for the people, began to wane in popularity over the years, especially as dialects began to be used less with the younger generation.

But even if it was performed to an audience of one – or even none – those who press on see meaning in continuing.

Said Chew Keng Boon, leader of San Chun Long, in an interview with the National Heritage Board’s Roots: “I wanted to give up, but then I thought, no, since we only perform once in a while, even if it is hard, I will continue to preserve this.”

The A List spoke to Chew ahead of the troupe’s shows on 9 Sep at Esplanade’s Forecourt Garden:

San Chun Long is the last Hainanese puppet troupe in Singapore. What makes you put in time and effort to keep this art form going on? 

I’ve watched my parents work with puppets since I was a kid, and this is something that has been a part of my life since. Even if I was asked to sell the puppets or give them away, I couldn’t bear to do it. I do what I can to hold on to the puppets and try my best to preserve this art form. It’s still a part of Singapore’s history and culture, and it’s important for foreigners to know that this art form still exists. 

What’s the age of the eldest and younger puppeteers in the troupe?

My brother, my wife, and I would be among the youngest in the troupe, and we’re in our 50s. Those from my father’s generation are now in their 80s. 

What is your experience like, when it comes to sharing this art form with the younger generation? What are the main challenges?

As times have changed, not many young people now know about puppetry. There may be more young people in Malaysia who are interested or know about it, but it’s much harder in Singapore. The people who started doing this in the 1960s and 1970s are also quite elderly now. 

Puppetry is also an art form that is not easy for the uninitiated to understand. I believe that if people learned more about its history and go out to watch the performances, more people would form a special connection to traditional puppetry and come to love it.

What is something about traditional puppet performance that many people don’t know but should know? 

Our puppets originally came from China. They’re unique, rare, and have been passed down from generation to generation. Even if people were to put a price on them and try to buy them from us, we wouldn’t sell. 

Puppetry is a form of art, and what we do is a kind of performance. I think we need to help people understand the characters, why they wear what they wear and what the costumes signify, to help people learn more about puppetry. Although there are different kinds of puppetry, from Hokkien to Teochew to Hainan, each of them has distinct qualities.

Find out more about the troupe’s shows here.

(Photos: Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, The Forgotten Heritage)

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