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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
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Can Darth Vader and Batman save an ancient Malaysian tradition?

Shadow theater, or wayang kulit, has played a significant role in Malaysian pop culture and identity for centuries. In Kuala Lumpur, a Star Wars fan combines this ancient art form with contemporary Western stories in hopes of securing the tradition’s survival.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CN) — When around 50 people sat down for a Malaysian shadow theater show this year in the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, most of them probably had little idea what they were about to witness.

An elderly puppetmaster sat on the floor hidden behind a wide rectangular white sheet. From the audience's perspective, the sheet is something of a stage. 

Soon enough, silhouettes popped up out of nowhere on the sheet, moving with small and quick motions. The movements came from the puppetmaster, who used both arms to swing figures behind the sheet as traditional gamelan music guided his movements.

Shadow theater, or wayang kulit as it’s known in Malaysian, is typically accompanied by such gamelan music. 

Traditionally, a gamelan orchestra of at least five musicians set the tone for these shows with the sounds of gedombak drums, tiny pings from finger cymbals and a snake-charming flute. There’s no live music for this event, and the audience must instead settle for music from speakers.

That’s about where the comparisons with traditional wayang kulit end, though. A small burst of laughter filled the room as shadows of R2-D2 and C-3PO appeared behind the sheet. C-3PO asked a question and R2-D2 gave a beep-beep answer as the unlikely pair started the show off with some comic relief.

Darth Vader, complete with Malaysian cultural elements, was a character in the pilot project of Fusion Wayang Kulit. (Lasse Sørensen/Courthouse News)

The sheet turned blood orange. The “Imperial March” song from Star Wars played. Audience members clapped and laughed as the “Fallen One” (aka Darth Vader) arrived, striking fear among his fellow shadow puppets.

In some ways, it was classic wayang kulit — but this particular story came from a galaxy far far away.

“Even my mom knows who Darth Vader is,” Tintoy Chuo, founder of the Malaysian art collective Fusion Wayang Kulit, previously told reporters, explaining why characters like R2-D2 show up in the stories he tells.

The goal, he says, is to catch the audience with something recognizable, like characters from Star Wars and popular comic books. In doing so, he hopes to spark interest from the audience in traditional wayang kulit.

Welcome to Fusion Wayang Kulit, a modern take on an ancient form of Southeast Asian entertainment. While such shows are still common at events like weddings and holidays, the number of performances is dropping today in Malaysia, much to the chagrin of wayang kulit enthusiasts.

Equipped with a passion for Star Wars and a diploma in graphic design from the Malaysian Art Institute, artist Tintoy Chuo, working with co-creator Take Huat, in 2012 started incorporating modern elements like Darth Vader into traditional shadow-puppet plays. The idea has proven a hit in Malaysia — and 11 years later, Fusion Wayang Kulit is still going strong.

"Although we’re performing for entertainment, we are trying to educate people about this art as well, so that more people will know and understand the art form better," Chuo said in an interview with Courthouse News this summer at his gallery in Kuala Lumpur. "The main goal is to revive this so-called ‘fading’ art form.”

Fusion Wayang Kulit has created a series of DC Comics characters, including a special exhibition on Batman. (Lasse Sørensen/Courthouse News).

Chuo and Huat are not the only people trying to keep wayang kulit alive. Both the Malaysian government and UNESCO are trying to preserve the tradition, seeing it as a vital part of Malaysian history and national identity.

Wayang kulit used to be popular in Malaysia, especially in rural areas. A wealth of stories were told, including stories from old Indian epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The plays could take up to 45 nights to finish — time that few in modern Malaysia have to spare.

Historians disagree on whether the art form started in India or elsewhere in Asia. The earliest evidence of the art form in Southeast Asia comes from 9th century writings found on the Indonesian island of Java. In Malaysia, shows have happened for at least 500 years, with the first recorded example coming from what’s now the Malaysian state of Kelantan near Thailand.


Regardless, wayang kulit, or "shadow theater” as it’s known today, has flourished throughout the continent for centuries — long before European colonists drew borders in the region. Mythological characters are cut out of dried cowskin, colored and performed as silhouettes behind white canvas.

A dalang (puppetmaster) sits behind the screen, moving multiple puppets while also voicing characters and providing sound effects like the grunts of battles. An orchestra usually also sits at close range, following the dalang’s tempo with music and additional sound effects.

These days, wayang kulit is less common in Malaysia, as cultural norms change and young people instead turn to digital screens for entertainment. Shutdowns and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic also had an effect, making it difficult to continue performing wayang kulit shows in Malaysia.

Today, the art form stands at a crossroads, Dahlan bin Abdul Ghani, a professor at the University of Kuala Lumpur and an expert on wayang kulit, said in an interview. In a study on the art form from 2011, he noted that shadow puppet shows are declining in Malaysia, partly due to lack of interest from young people.

"Today's young generation are digital natives,” Ghani said. “When they get out of bed, the first thing they do is check social media, browsing the internet and us[ing] their smartphones for everything."

To stay relevant, modern-day wayang kulit must “meet the youth’s demands,” he said. As one example, Ghani has participated in a project to create 3D models of shadow puppets with the goal of bringing the art form into the digital era.

Another example is projects like Fusion Wayang Kulit, which Ghani thinks is doing a good job catching the interest of young people. 

“Only telling ancient tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata will prove difficult for the youth to follow,” he said. On the other hand, Fusion Wayang Kulit “can get young people to rediscover the art form by watching stories they already know, like Star Wars.”

Tintoy Chuo, founder of the Malaysian art collective Fusion Wayang Kulit, seen in his gallery in downtown Kuala Lumpur. (Lasse Sørensen /Courthouse News)

Before the digital age, Ghani added, wayang kulit shows were a medium for people to relax after a hard day of work. Forget Netflix and TikTok.

"It was like going to the movies,” he said. "These shows happened out in the open for everyone to see,” and “there was a spiritual element [to] watching them.”

As Fusion Wayang Kulit celebrates its 11th year of putting on shows, it appears Ghani is onto something. Maybe, the key to keeping young Malaysians engaged with the art form does come down to recognizable modern characters and storylines.

The collective was only three months old when the experienced dalang Pak Dain jumped on board as chief engineer, To this day, he still checks shadow puppets, making sure that they stay true to traditional Malaysian symbols and design.

With Darth Vader as a front figure, Fusion Wayang Kulit has grown from being a fun side project to an international phenomenon. Usage of globally known figures from Star Wars, DC, Marvel and Japanese anime has rekindled interest for wayang kulit among Kuala Lumpur's residents and beyond.

It all started with a small Malaysian team with a passion for both traditional shadow theater and Star Wars. When the group first had the idea of featuring Darth Vader in a production, they reached out to a representative of Lucasfilm for approval.

“She loved it,” Chuo said — and within years Fusion Wayang Kulit had been featured on the Star Wars YouTube channel and in the official Star Wars magazine. “It was a huge achievement.”

The excitement has only grown since then. ”Companies and organizations are getting interested in wayang kulit," said Chuo, who has already crafted multiple wayang kulit designs for different companies. "We see a bigger interest in wayang kulit. For the past 10 years, I’ve seen the public getting to know this art form more.” Only time can tell what the next 10 years will bring.

Globally known pop-singer Ed Sheeran is one of few celebrities who can brag about having a Malaysian shadow puppet of himself. (Lasse Sørensen/Courthouse News)
Follow @LasseSrensen13
Categories / Arts, Entertainment, History, International

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