Culture Club

Published on 26 February 2017

The Young People’s Performing Arts Ensemble develops appreciation of Chinese language and culture through the performing arts.

By Pamela Ho

“Our existence is all due to radio. We were formed to produce Mandarin radio programmes for children from the 1970s to the early 1990s, and to train children to do these programmes,” says Ma Gyap Sen, artistic director of the Young People’s Performing Arts Ensemble (YPPAE), of their founding by the former Singapore Broadcasting Corporation in 1973.

“In the early days, the radio stations were very particular about tone and articulation. We inherited Standard Mandarin from the old broadcasters; and even though we’re no longer part of radio, we want to keep this tradition,” she shares. “Standard Mandarin is Singapore-birthed. We feel it’s our intellectual property and heritage.”

It was only in 1996, when YPPAE’s advisor Tang Chia-Yu joined the organisation as a drama teacher, that it found its calling as a Mandarin performing arts company for children, by children. Tang introduced a style of creative drama that married Confucian philosophy and Western theories, and established a training framework that imparted not just the speech technique of Standard Mandarin, but also performing skills and creativity.

While the company accepts children for training from age four, it holds stringent auditions for the performing group, which comprises students aged nine to 18. “It’s not a Mandarin programme you graduate from. It’s a sustained period of training that can last years,” Ma clarifies. “As such, this becomes their second home. The big brothers and sisters come back to plan camps or teach.”

One of them is Kow Xiao Jun, 26, an architecture graduate who is now a full-time assistant producer with YPPAE. “I’ve been here for over 20 years!” says Kow, who is effectively bilingual. “I see value in it because I notice our Chinese culture eroding. People think classics, stories and values are outdated; but they teach us how to carry ourselves and treat others.”

YPPAE hopes to develop a deep-rooted appreciation of Chinese language and culture through the performing arts. “The kids don’t come to us loving Mandarin. Parents send them here to practise Mandarin; then they fall in love with drama and the group!” reveals Ma with a chuckle.

To date, YPPAE has staged over 40 original productions — from plays and cross-talk shows to choral concerts and musicals — reaching over 160,000 people, of which 75 per cent are youth. Their latest production, Mr Magnolia, is based on the classic Mulan story but contextualised in Chinese history. “It’s a universal story,” says Kow. “English surtitles will be provided, so all are welcome.”

Mr Magnolia plays at the Drama Centre Theatre 31 Mar – 1 Apr. Tickets available at www.sistic.com.sg. To find out more, visit www.yppae.org.

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