Part 4: Shimu (The Master’s Wife)

by fingerplayers

This Digital Resource is a repository that accompanies the Turn By Turn We Turn audio theatre, holding together the stories of traditional Chinese hand puppetry and how it has touched the different artists in The Finger Players. This segment speculates on the lives of two women through two personal letters—one from Ong Kian Sin to Shimu (Li Bofen shifu’s wife), and another from the play’s character Bo Yuan to his wife. 

Master’s Wife: Bo Yuan, what would you like to take with you? We have your pictures, clothes, your tools and puppets— those for training, shows, sales and decoration. 

Letters to Shimu

To my beloved wife, 

We’re now in Singapore, and I’m secretly writing this letter to you while I’m alone in the hotel. I don’t have much time left after all, so while I still have the energy and a lucid mind, I’d like to properly convey these sentiments that have welled up in my heart over all this time. I will be asking our children to pass this letter to you, and so by the time you read this, I may already be in the next world. 

This trip to Singapore, to have been able to see the world beyond, has been exceptionally nourishing for the mind and soul. The best part of this is being able to take a pause on the never-ending workload and daily chores, and to be able to spend every second of every day with you. In all the decades since we’ve been married, we have never really had the opportunity to spend our days in such leisure and elegance, have we? I have also been so heartened to see the children enjoy such success abroad. Even though everyone has switched careers and pursued other paths, just knowing that everyone remains healthy has put my worries to rest. I am truly happy for them. 

This really wasn’t a wasted trip, don’t you think? I feel reassured that I can now face up to my own successes and failures. In the end, it was good to have led a simple and ordinary life. 

I remember when we first met, I was still a newcomer who had to take over the reins of the entire theatre troupe. I felt especially alone and helpless then. Yet you, a new-age woman, took the initiative and married me without hesitation. At that moment, it felt like Heaven was looking out for me, by sending me such a smart, considerate and good woman. In the days that followed, I was always the stubborn one, and you were always so giving. While I was forging ahead, you stayed behind to hold the fort. Everyone thought I was tough as nails, but little did they know it was you who was truly the tough one. In every crisis we faced, I would always have your support and reassurance. You were always there to help me pull things together, and somehow we’d manage to overcome our problems.When we were at our most desperate and poor, it was you who handled all the affairs in our home and in the troupe, allowing me to single-mindedly focus on creating and performing. If it were not for you, the matter with Ah Heng and Ah Liang would not have been handled with such a gentle and affirming hand. I would not have had the courage to continue building up this family, nor the troupe, if it were not for you. I can hardly imagine how I could otherwise continue this obsession, this trade and craft of mine.  

As I now reflect on all the critical moments in my life; when I was demoted, slandered, suppressed, abused, you were always resolutely standing behind me, contributing silently, carefully managing matters big and small, always squaring the circle. You remained by my side through countless sleepless nights, when I was filled with worry and fear. If it were not for you, I can hardly imagine how unbearable it would have been. I know we’ve been married for a long time now, and we are not used to expressing such sentiments verbally, so please excuse me for saying it through this letter – I love you! With you by my side, I have felt incredibly fortunate and happy.

I also wanted to say, if you don’t succeed in passing on that crate of puppets, then take it back with you. And this time round, I will stand by your decision. 

To my beloved comrade, I owe you so much in this life, I’m afraid I can only pay you back when we reunite. 

Remember to spend your coming days in happiness and good health. I’ll be waiting for you. 

Thank you. 

Bo Yuan
June 1996, Singapore

Dear Shimu,

Are the streets still lined with paving stones? Do you still have the tea set with the red flask? Is the well still there? Are the two Minnan traditional beds still there? 

It’s been a long time since you’ve been on my mind. The production and recording process of Turn By Turn We Turn has brought me back and stirred up memories of my stay at your house in Anhai, Quanzhou, in the Fujian province of China. All that remain of my memories from that time are residual fragments, even the impression I had of you… 

It was my first time in China, and it was for a whole month. I was there to learn the fundamentals of “Shou Cheng Guan” (The Gatekeeper) from Bofen shifu. For that one month you took meticulous care of my meals and lodging, and were always asking after my needs. You weren’t fluent in Mandarin, and I wasn’t familiar with the local dialect, so we had to communicate through a combination of looks and gestures. I always remember you and Bofen shifu gesturing to the table of food, saying “Qia!” (eat!). Because of how little I ate compared to Bofen shifu, you would always ask him worriedly, “Why is he eating so little? Is he not used to the food?” 

When Bofen shifu visited neighbours to play mahjong, it got even more awkward between us. I would sit on the threshold of the living room, practicing with a puppet, and you would pop in from time to time, to ensure that there was still hot water in the red flask, and then you’ll point to the tea set saying, “Lim Te!” (drink some tea!). 

Even though my ancestral home was Fujian, An Xi, a province famous for its tea, I was completely clueless when it came to the flavours and culture surrounding tea.

As I was a fanke (a foreigner), both you and Bofen shifu were especially concerned about my safety. Everytime I asked if I could explore the town on my own, both of you would always offer to accompany me wherever I wanted. But how could I make an elderly couple trek through stone-paved mountainous roads?! One day when Bofen shifu made a trip back to the school, I seized the opportunity to borrow your bicycle, and told you I would be back in a flash. I could tell from your gaze that you disapproved, but perhaps you knew that I was bored out of my wits from being trapped inside the house all the time, so you reluctantly agreed… when I returned, you opened the door before I even knocked, to let me wheel the bicycle back into the house. 

Once, I had some xianzhou (porridge cooked with a variety of locally caught seafood) with Bofen shifu by a roadside stall. While he was perfectly fine, I had terrible diarrhea the entire night, and wound up having to fetch water from the well to the toilet multiple times. You heard the noise and came to check, and quickly woke Bofen shifu to call a doctor to the house. I was in bed for the next few days on a drip, and you were particularly worried about my food intake, and even reprimanded Bofen shifu, making sure he does not bring me to roadside stalls for meals anymore. 

I remember the bed I slept in was a traditional Minnan bed for newlyweds, and the two of you had the same bed in the next room. Before I fell asleep each night, I would vaguely hear the two of you chatting. Even though I couldn’t quite get what you were talking about, I somehow guessed that Bofen shifu was talking to you about what happened at the school, while you were updating him on the household matters of the children and grandchildren. In those conservations, you seemed so different from your daytime self. It seemed like you had so much more to say.

I’m sure you and Bofen shifu are still chatting animatedly with each other in the same manner, up in the skies at night.

It is now that I understand how Bofen shifu could devote his entire life so wholeheartedly, so relentlessly to the art of hand puppetry. That is because you were there. You were there to ease him of any worries, to help bear the burden of handling household matters, and to provide him with a home. Shimu, you were quiet but you were the best listener. It is no wonder that every time you spoke, Bofen shifu was particularly attentive to you, and his temperament became tender, even child-like in temper, because he had your generous and steadfast presence there with him. You were like a harbour to him, in the fiercest of storms.

People always say a man is most attractive when he is serious, and I can’t help but remember how attractive Bofen shifu is. He truly is. And you, Shimu, when I think about how serious you are, I think of your beauty too. You are truly beautiful!  

Shimu, thank you for the time you’ve shared with me!

Kian Sin
December 2020, Singapore