Finding Thio Thiong GieSunday, May 26, 2013
a traveler wannabe, I have met many interesting people, say it a young
entrepreneur in Klaten who started his business from scratch, a loyal royal
servant in Yogyakarta who believed that there was a value of Islam in every
royal tradition, or a porter in Baduy who had for many times got in touch with
modern world and yet decided to preserve his ancient way of life.
From all above, I learned about principles. But when I met Thio Thiong Gie, an 80 year old puppeteer of potehi - a traditional Chinese puppet, created thousands years ago – who could still speak and perform in Chinese Hokkien dialect, I learned that sometimes in life, you just have to go with the flow.
I knew this man from a blog I had found six months earlier on the internet. Finding his house in a narrow street deep inside the Chinatown of Semarang was a real fortune as I couldn’t even find the street on google map.
What follows is my short conversation with Uncle Thio, taking place at the front porch of his house in the China town of Semarang, right before the Chinese New Year's Eve this year.
Thank you for coming.
A traditional Chinese song coming out from a nearly broken old radio and the scent of burnt joss sticks had simply made me feel like being in a time capsule. Everything in that house seemed to be preserved as it had been in the past, including the old chair on where Uncle Thio sat that afternoon.
One day, while doing his job, he found a book written in Chinese, titled “Chu Hun Thay Chu Chao Kok.” It was some sort of novel about a crown prince, named Chu Hun, who flees from the kingdom. Thio was soon immersed deeply in the story. So deep he was even able to visualize the story by using his hands as gestures.
His ability was noticed by Oey Seng Tui - a friend of his father whose job was to find a puppeteer to play potehi - who one day visited the food stall where Thio was reading the story book. Oey then forcibly took the book away from Thio's hands. Shocked with the rudeness, Thio asked:
"This book is written in Chinese. Do you really comprihend the story?" Oey doubted.
"Yes, I do. I can even picture the story with my two hands." Thio replied and demonstrated his skill in telling the story.
Amazed with what Thio did, Oey decided to bring two puppets of potehi on the following morning and asked Thio to practice with those puppets. Excited but wondered, Thio asked:
"Why should I practise potehi?"
"Well, I see that you have the potential of becoming a puppetter. I would like you to perform next week in Cianjur." Oey replied.
As if he had had no choice, Thio did what Oey had told him. Never did he think that it would stir his life to some direction.
I wondered why there were like two official names for the founder of Demak, the first Islamic kingdom in Java. Uncle Thio excitedly responded to my wonderment by telling me the story where the name of "Patah" came from. Regardless the legitimacy, I somehow had a faith in the following story he told me.