Language barriers, declining viewers lead wayang potehi to oblivion. One of China’s centuries-old arts is the theater known in Indonesia as wayang potehi, the wooden puppet drama originally called Pouw Tee Hie in the Hokkian (Fujian) dialect, meaning cloth-bag or glove puppets.
Each around 30 centimeters in height, the puppets have wooden heads, hands and feet and are clad in the various costumes of relevant characters.
Believed to have originated before the 16th century in Fujian province, potehi spread along with the migration of Fujian people to regions across the South China Sea, including to Java. With no exact historical records, this art is estimated to have been familiar to overseas Chinese descendants in the 1600s.
Like wayang kulit, or shadow puppet shows in Java, wayang potehi is also performed with musical accompaniment, but its dalang (puppet master) has an assistant and there are only three musicians.
Over time, however, potehi lost its popularity, in contrast to barongsai, or lion dance, and liong, or dragon dance, which are still performed today on various occasions. Nowadays, potehi in Indonesia has virtually faded into oblivion.
Toni Harsono is one of the few potehi activists in the country. “Only about 12 puppet masters called sehu are left in Indonesia to my knowledge,” said Toni at Klenteng Hong San Kiong (temple) in Gudo, Jombang, East Java, recently.
Toni is the grandson of a potehi sehu named Tok Su Kwie, who came from China. The temple chairman indicated that many factors had hampered the growth of the art. “Besides the New Order government’s ban on Chinese art performances in 1967, the number of potehi players and musicians is decreasing,” he said.
Although the ban on Chinese art was lifted by former president Abdurrahman Wahid in the period of reform, revival has been rocky.
This is because by potehi standards, puppet players have to be fairly proficient in Hokkian in order to understand the episodes they are supposed to present. This regional language is also spoken at the opening of the theater, which can be followed by Indonesian or Javanese narrations and dialogues.
Potehi musicians also need to master Chinese traditional instruments such as erl hu (big violin), yana (small violin), piat ko (drum), twalo and dongko (small gongs) and yang cing (hammered dulcimer).
But Toni admitted that money had been the main drawback as it was difficult to rely on this art for a living. “The honorarium received by potehi artists is sometimes as low as only Rp 500,000 [US$42.5] per show, which is shared by five people,” he noted. At malls or hotels they get bigger pay but only during the Lunar New Year holiday or other ceremonies.
With the scarcity of potehi shows, the art will struggle to grow. The performances at Chinese temples can last for more than a month with long dramatic sequences, but at present only a few of the large temples organize potehi programs on a routine basis.
“If only they made it twice or three times a year, there would be more job opportunities for potehi players,” Toni said.
Toni said recent potehi developments, innovations by sehu to attract audiences, were acceptable provided they don’t deviate too much from original standards. He referred to shows given at the invitation of several Islamic educational institutes in Jombang, which were modified and suited to the local language.
The difficult life as a puppet master prompted his late father Tok Hong Kie, also a sehu, to forbid Toni from following in his footsteps.
Toni doesn’t actually work as a sehu, although he made and played potehi in secret as a child against his father’s command. Now he is a successful jewelry businessman, but the charm of wayang potehi fascinating him since childhood lingers on. A backer of all activities to preserve this theater, he also provides facilities and opportunities for potehi shows as chairman of Hong San Kiong.
He now has 12 sets of puppets complete with their stage or platform, accessories and musical instruments, besides another stage and a number of century-old puppets inherited from his grandfather.
Made from six-year-old waru gunung wood, a set of potehi comprises around 100-160 characters. One set and the stage cost up to Rp 50 million.
His hard work to revive potehi has been rewarding. Hong San Kiong has now become a famous center of wayang potehi in Indonesia. The puppets in the 2-hectare temple are known to be very original.
“Even in China it’s now very hard to find such original characters,” said Toni, claiming to have a collection of about 3,000 puppets for potehi shows in different regions.
These puppets are kept at Hong San Kiong, in his residence and in several cities like Jakarta and Yogyakarta. They are lent to sehu free of charge.
Widodo, 42, an indigenous Javanese sehu living not far from Hong San Kiong, said puppet playing had indeed become his career path after learning the art in 1993 and making his debut in 2001. When he gets no performance orders, he helps Toni’s puppet crafting work. Widodo even expects his only child to join this profession. “At least I’m nurturing his love of this theater,” he said.
Another Javanese puppet master, Sesomo, 67, has 40 years of potehi stage experience. He is assisted by Sukarli with Slamet Kianto, Sugiono and Slamet as musicians.
“We’ve performed in nearly all East Java cities and other places in Java and Bali. It’s difficult to find successors particularly from the ethnic Chinese group even though this art comes from China,” said Sesomo after his show to celebrate the Lunar New Year at Hotel Ibis Styles in Malang some time ago.
According to Sesomo, the existing puppet players were actually also related by kinship ties and they mostly used to live near the temple area. “One of my nephews is interested in potehi and I’m just providing guidance,” added the grandfather of 14.
By joining Toni, Sesomo and his colleagues receive more orders and use wayang property for free, which would eat up at least 10 percent of the fee for a show. “The sehu profession will thus hopefully attract the younger generation,” he said.
Toni and his partners are now building a mini museum of potehi on a plot of 2,000 square meters nearby.