Holding The Strings

Published on 28 February 2018

Credit: Tuckys Photography

Tan Beng Tian, a puppeteer with passion, describes her artistic journey.

By Jo Tan

Tan Beng Tian’s puppetry career began with some of Singapore’s prominent theatre companies. “Years ago, I watched the play Lao Jiu by [Cultural Medallion recipient] Kuo Pao Kun and was struck by the character of the Chinese hand-puppet master who couldn’t pass his trade on before dying. I joined Toy Factory — the group Pao Kun had assembled to handle the show’s shadow puppets — and later, moved to The Theatre Practice’s [now-defunct] puppet division, before co-founding The Finger Players.”

Tan wasn’t always puppetry focused. “In my youth, I wanted to be an illustrator for Disney, so I studied graphic design at LASALLE College of the Arts. In my final year, I was actually invited to become an apprentice to a puppetry master who was in Singapore, but I couldn’t because of schoolwork.

“After graduating and landing an advertising job, I realised this was far from my Disney dreams. I spent evenings working on theatre shows for the satisfaction I craved.” Tan eventually resigned from her day job and shortly after, she heard the puppetry master who was seeking an apprentice had died in a car accident. “I couldn’t stop thinking of the character in Lao Jiu.”

With Tan’s modest life savings and a National Arts Council bursary, she sought out a master of hand puppetry, Li Bofen, in Quanzhou, China, where she lived and trained for over a year. She was the first foreign student in her class, the oldest at age 27 and didn’t speak the local dialect. However, she adapted and learnt to carve puppets, manipulate different types of puppet characters from traditional Chinese tales and eventually, even performed a full traditional hand-puppet show all by herself, in exemplary Quanzhou Hokkien.

Li told her to help keep puppetry alive in Singapore and Tan has since expanded her repertoire of puppetry genres. “I always hope for a protégée with the same amount of passion for puppetry, but I haven’t found one yet. That devastates me, but you cannot impose a passion on someone. I share all I can with those who show interest.”

Tan trains young puppeteers in various puppetry genres through The Finger Players’ apprenticeship programme. She also gives talks and performances to the community. She volunteers with Project Tandem (a Singapore-based professional theatre training programme for members of the disabled community) and is directing the children’s show The Dog Who Goes Woof Woof — featuring object puppetry — for the Esplanade. The show features sensory-friendly performances for children on the autism spectrum, or with other sensory sensitivities. Says Tan, “Making my shows accessible to different communities is a new challenge, and life for me has always been about challenges.”

The Dog Who Goes Woof Woof plays from 2-11 March at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

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