Monday, February 9, 2009

More on wayang po teh hi

I returned to the Festival of Chinese Culture (alias Imlek) on Sunday to see a small wayang po te hi exhibition of antique puppets and the final in the series of performances. I also managed to talk to the puppeteer - an elderly Javanese man named Sesomo -- and while waiting for a pop concert to end and the po te hi show to start we were able to talk for a bit. Sesomo also demonstrated some of the more difficult puppet moves and encouraged me to have a go.

I found the techniques of spinning puppets and turning them around on my hand and stabbing with a spear etc more difficult than I imagined. The puppets are held in the English glove puppet style - with the index finger in the head, thumb up one arm and the other three fingers in the other arm.

Sesomo began performing po te hi in 1968. Both his mother and father were Javanese but he grew up in the area of a klenteng in Surabaya with regular po te hi performances and grew attracted to the idea of puppeteering. He performed as a puppeteer assistant for 2 years before establishing himself as a puppeteer himself. I asked whether one could first play music and then become a puppeteer. The answer was no - it was possible (though difficult) to become a puppeteer through self study, but almost all puppeteers first worked as assistants - typically for 2 to 3 years -- before becoming a puppeteer. Musicians never became puppeteers.

At his peak in the 1970s, Sesomo was performing continuously for 7 to 10 months a year - usually one month stints in klenteng around Java.

Rates for puppeteering are low - he gets about 200 thousand rupiah a show sometimes but for the Yogya shows only 100 thousand rupiah (plus lodging, food etc). Better than working a a coolie hauling stones at 50 thousand a day, he said.

His shows are mostly a mixture of Indonesian and Javanese. Hokien is used to introduce characters. Sesomo recalls an old Chinese puppeteer who used only Hokien.

Sesomo seems to think the best puppets come from China, and speaks with high regard for Chinese glove puppetry. Puppets today are typically carved by a Jepara carver (or sometimes a carver from Tulung Agung) and clothed locally.

Sesomo sadly lost his own collection of puppets during a mud slide in 2006 which destroyed his house. He is still waiting for compensation. The puppets on display and being used in the show belong to a rich collector.

This is the fourth year that po te hi has been performed for Yogya's imlek celebration and it seems an audience is growing. I noticed a number of people who came to both nights I attended - suggesting that they were actively following the story and not just coming as a novelty.

According to Sesomo there are only about 12 po te hi puppeteers in all Java - mostly located in East Java - and about 50 performers (including both musicians and puppeteers) still active. It is hard to say how long po te hi will continue. But the new pride that Chinese-Indonesians are taking in their culture suggests that a po te hi revival might be possible....

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