In a 3x3 meter room, five people are busy playing musical instruments. One plays a harp, another plays an erhu (traditional Chinese violin) while the other hits his drums according to a puppet master’s rhythm.
The master in question is Sugiyo Waluyo — known as Subur — the busiest man in the group. Helped by an assistant, he focuses on reading a handwritten story while playing two puppets. It’s a regular day for the Fu Ho An group from Gudo, in Jombang, East Java.
The art of potehi puppetry arrived in the region that is modern-day Indonesia with the arrival of Admiral Cheng Ho in the 16th century. Potehi puppetry grew during the Jin dynasty between the third and fifth centuries. Chinese legend has it that potehi shows were first performed by five prisoners who were granted a pardon from a king after they performed a potehi show in their cell a few days before they were due to be executed.
Just like other art forms from Peranakan culture, potehi puppetry then gradually became acculturated into Indonesian culture. The first potehi show held in Indonesia was reportedly staged in 1772. Originally, the performance was held as a ritual to honor one’s ancestors.
During the New Order Era, the government prohibited activities associated with any kind of Chinese cultural expression, including ceremonies and art forms.Thus, the puppet show was considered illegal and began to disappear from people’s memories.But in the early 2000s, the shows were brought back to the stage upon the request of many members of the community, and today, they are a favorite way of celebrating Chinese New Year in many places.
Although potehi was born of Chinese culture, today most of its enthusiasts are Javanese.