Teguh Chandra: Exit the persecuted puppets

Lutfi Retno Wahyudyanti
The Jakarta Post, Fri, 03/20/2009

In the middle of busy Semawis Market in Semarang, dozens of people stood staring, apparently transfixed by a red box, from which issued the sounds of traditional Chinese music.

Before long, a golden puppet appeared, decorated with the picture of a dragon – the king. The Potehi puppet show had begun.

Inside the box, 75-year-old Teguh Chandra and his assistant performed their show, accompanied by three musicians playing a range of traditional instruments.

Potehi puppet shows, which originated in the Chinese mainland during the Shang Tiaw Dynasty about 3,000 years ago, are becoming increasingly rare here, with few people interested in maintaining the tradition. Puppeteers in Solo and Surabaya are ethnic Javanese, leaving only one puppeteer of Chinese descent, who lives in Semarang.

Thio Tiong Gie, better known as Teguh Chandra, was born in January 1933 in Demak, where he taught himself his Potehi puppeteering skills.

“A long time ago my father had a fabric shop in Demak,” he says. “We went bankrupt because the shop was robbed in 1942. My father even went to prison.”

After that, the family – Teguh is one of five children – moved to Kaligawe.

“At that time we earned an income from selling snacks. My father bought newspapers to wrap the snacks.” In one newspaper was a pakem [a traditional puppet story] about the Potehi puppets.”

Teguh liked the story and memorized it. Some years later, he met a friend of his father who was recruiting puppeteers who could perform with the Potehi puppets. Because Teguh wanted a job he claimed that he had the necessary skills. He was the right person for the job, he said, because he liked history and was a good performer.

He had a week to learn how to run a Potehi puppet show, before he was asked to go on stage in Cianjur.

“This stage event was a big success,” Teguh recalls. “The audiences liked me and I was asked to perform again.”

Teguh then started to seriously learn how to become a Potehi puppeteer. He had success in various places, especially along the north coast of Java, although he had only one play. Those who came to watch his Potehi puppet shows were from both the ethnic Chinese community and the indigenous Indonesian community.

Eventually, word of his success reached the ears of a famous Potehi puppeteer called Tan Ang Ang.

“I got a letter from him. He asked me to go to Blitar. There I was given 10 books of pakem for Potehi puppets. After that I started to perform various pakem.”

The word potehi comes from the words poo (kain/cloth), tay (kantung/pocket), and hie (wayang/puppet). The puppets, about 30 centimeters tall, have a similar shape to the unyil (children’s cartoon) puppets made from cloth. Each doll has an individual face.

There are darkly colored dolls with angry faces and brightly colored dolls with happy faces, which wear colorful dresses decorated with beautiful embroidery.

The puppeteer manipulates the dolls from below using both his hands, yet can play two characters at the same time. He may have an assistant for more characters.

During this time, Teguh Chandra, a Confucian, also became a teacher of religion, being active as an itinerant preacher. He also ran services for those wanting a prayer ceremony or help with prayers for funerals.

If the Potehi puppets are now nearing extinction, it is mainly because of a 1967 presidential instruction, which forced ethnic Chinese to integrate, costing them their Chinese identity. Under this law, Chinese New Year celebrations and various Chinese arts were prohibited.

And so Thio Tiong Gie (as he then was) could no longer stage his Potehi puppet plays. He kept his dolls, some of which are hundreds of years old, in a big case, cleaning them occasionally to keep them in good condition.

He also had to change his name to something more Indonesian and, following the Internal Affairs Minister’s Decree in 1978 allowing only five official religions, was forced to register himself as a Buddhist.

Forced out of his job, the man now known as Teguh headed to Tegal, recalling from his stage shows that there were many welders working there. He tried to make doors and window bars and started a welding workshop.

He got the chance to return to the stage after former president Abdurrahman Wahid revoked the presidential instruction.

Teguh’s first shows were performed in 1999 in the Ismail Marzuki Park at the invitation of Gadjah Mada University and the Kencana Solo University.

The stage shows, although legal again, have lost their prestige and popularity and, as each show runs for three or more days, are finding it difficult to compete with television programs and modern entertainment.

Furthermore, the long prohibition means interest in becoming a puppeteer has disappeared, and Teguh has never had a student.

“Well before the performances were prohibited, who wanted to learn how to be a puppeteer?” asks Teguh, now the only person of Chinese descent running Chinese Potehi puppets shows. “Even now, among those who are on the stage, only a few want to continue because it is difficult to rely on this as a source of income.”