Not just dolls: glove puppets become Taiwanese stars

Some fans are so passionate about the puppet characters that they cosplay them with the same customs, hair, and make-up.

(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)
(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)
(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)
(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)

(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)

(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)

(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)

(Photo courtesy of SamadhiTang)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – It is hard to imagine a group of people from various backgrounds who had gathered together in Chiayi City out of enthusiasm for Taiwanese glove puppetry would shoot this traditional art form to fame within just few years, but SamadhiTang Creative Puppet Troupe, with their devotion to puppet making and manipulation, has already amassed a huge fan base around the world.

Walking around the exhibition room currently held in an old house in Twatutia (or Dadaocheng,大稻埕), visitors are welcomed to touch the exquisitely handmade puppets gently and even hold them if they have enough strength.

A puppet usually weighs more than 10 kilometers, and puppeteers have to hold it over their shoulder in order to let it appear on stage.

“We usually take turns to manipulate puppets for a 90-minute show, as their weight is a great burden for puppeteers,” Yen Jen-hung (嚴仁鴻), executive director of SamadhiTang, told Taiwan News.

The reason for the puppet’s heavyweight lies in the head, torso, and in particular, costume of the puppet. The heads are made of wood and the torso molded acrylic. Each puppet wears layers of fabrics with satin lining and stitched patterns, and their accessories are no less abundant.

A character may wear a head pin made as if a beaming halo or be shouldered with pads made of carved wood inserted with tiny rubies. There are also characters holding chains of colorful beads or a scroll made of patterned fabrics and rolled by two golden metal bars with a dragon decoration on each end.

All the customs are designed in accordance with the characters and stories, which are created by Yen. He took inspiration from various classic stories, such as martial arts novels and religious stories.

With the stories the costume designer Chen Yu-feng (陳有豐) would then discuss with puppet designer Liu Kuo-an (劉國安) to come up with suitable customs for each character with elements ranging from the Japanese kimono belt to Buddhist totems.

As a result, the puppets are so beautiful with details extremely delicate that it is safe to say they are not only puppet props, but also works of art.

When the troupe goes abroad for exhibitions and performances, they have to carefully wrap the puppets with bubble wraps and put each of them in a separate box for delivery.

The troupe had created more than 140 glove puppets by 2016, and among them, the most popular one is the Peacock King of Wisdom (孔雀明王).

“The Peacock King of Wisdom is particularly popular among Japanese fans, and they would follow him on tour," said Yen, joking “His popularity is probably due to his good look and muscles.”

However, fans do not just follow the troupe on tour or join them as volunteers. In fact, some fans are so passionate about the puppet characters that they even dress up as their favorite ones.

Those cosplayers are very devoted, they produce exactly the same clothe as the characters and do the hair and make-up just like whom they cosplay, Yen said.

Yen said cosplay fans often gather at SamadhiTang's exhibitions, which has become an interesting spectacle for visitors as they can see human-sized characters standing side by side with the authentic puppet exhibits.

This is the first part of a report on SamadhiTang Creative Puppet Troupe. Please refer to the second part here: Multilingual Taiwanese glove puppet shows win hearts at home and abroad​