Puppet Origin Stories: Traditional Chinese Hand Puppet with Turning Plates

by fingerplayers

In 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we spoke to the Makers and Designers of the puppets we have in The Finger Players (TFP), to create the repository that is the Puppet Origin Stories – a humble effort to highlight the background, and the making and design history of these puppets. We hope that this can be a continued endeavour at TFP, and we hope that you can go on this journey with us.

Featured in Magic In Our HandsA Triple Bill, at The Substation Guinness Theatre, 1996 (when TFP was still under the auspices of The Theatre Practice. The triple bill comprised: Wu Song Da Hu (Wu Song Fights the Tiger), Da Ming Fu (Da Ming County) and Crane and Tortoise. Also featured in Turn By Turn We Turn, 2011 and 2014

This production was planned as the opening show of The Finger Players (TFP). Tan Beng Luan, the then General Manager of Practice Performing Arts Centre Limited (PPACL)* felt that it was essential for the first show by the company to open with a big bang. At that time, Tan Beng Tian, Co-Founder of TFP, had just came back from Quanzhou after a year of training with Li Bo Fen Shifu. She felt that the training she had received was not sufficient to train people, and so the company invited Li Bo Fen Shifu over to Singapore to train them for their very first show. The cast members involved were Co-Founders Tan Beng Tian, Ong Kian Sin, Benjamin Ho and Lee Wai Ying. 

The Traditional Chinese Hand Puppet with Turning Plates was part of Da Ming Fu, and was manipulated by Shifu’s cousin, Li Wen Bing (李文炳). The puppet has a vertical rod at the tip of its head, and an L-shaped rod that came out of its mouth. The puppeteer would start spinning the plate on the vertical rod, before throwing it up into the air, and landing it on the L-shaped rod, where it would continue spinning. An assistant puppet would then come in with a spinning plate and put the spinning plate onto the vertical rod, and the puppet would then be spinning two plates at the same time. To quote Beng Tian, “This is really Kungfu.” 

Puppet spinning four plates at once

The plate was made of camphor wood, was heavy and was quite brittle. During rehearsals, the plate would drop on the ground and break. It would then have to be fixed by coating it with papier mache. As papier mache is layered over certain areas only, it affected the weight distribution of the plate, and this meant that the plate could not remain spinning for a long time. There was no furniture company in Singapore who was willing to replicate the plate for TFP, as their machines were fixed in a way to carve and rotate certain wood pieces that were meant to be part of bigger furniture pieces. The company had to continue making do with the imbalanced wooden plate.

In 2011, when the company embarked on the production of Turn By Turn We Turn, Beng Tian tried replacing the plate with a plastic plate, but found that it was impossible as it was the base that had to be specifically constructed. The base of the plate tapered in an inverted-v manner, with rims that the metal rod could catch hold of. Once the puppet’s rod catches onto the metal rim, the puppeteer would start to twirl the plate until the rod slides to the center of the plate. Tan Wan Sze, one of the cast members of the show, knew a friend who could 3D-print the plate. At the time, Daniel Sim, who was in the production as an intern, constructed the side view of the plate with a 3D-printing software, and the company then printed new plates that are much lighter than the original wooden ones but were as brittle.

*Practice Performing Arts Centre Limited (PPACL) was a company with two wings: –

  1. Practice Performing Arts School – an educational wing teaching dance with Mdm Goh Lay Kuan as the principal
  2. The Theatre Practice – a theatre performance wing with Mr Kuo Pao Kin as the AD

Tan Beng Luan was the GM of PPACL and she oversaw both wings.

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