Stayin’ Alive

Published on 26 March 2017

While it can be hard to stop certain art forms from disappearing with the passage of time, these Singaporean heroes won’t stop trying.

BY JO TAN

Lao Jiu, one of late theatre doyen and Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun’s most popular works, premiered in 1990, telling the doomed love story between the eponymous boy and the dying art of Chinese hand puppetry. Twenty-seven years later, Lao Jiu is receiving yet another restaging (as a musical, no less), drawing attention to how Singaporeans are seeing beloved traditional art forms fade into obscurity. Here, we talk to champions of various vanishing arts.

BENJAMIN HO - CHINESE HAND PUPPETEER

A musical about puppets requires a puppet designer/trainer. Enter Benjamin Ho, artistic director of Paper Monkey Theatre, who fills this role perfectly for Lao Jiu: The Musical. “I’ve been mad about puppets since I was young, sacrificing meals and spending crazy money to buy puppets or travel to learn about them. It’s just a calling,” muses Ho, who spent years training in traditional Chinese hand puppetry. While his company presents several traditional puppet performances a year and has dedicated workshops to introduce young people to the art, he is not overly optimistic about its future.

“It’s encouraging when our audiences are amazed by how an inanimate object can suddenly speak and somersault. They love the nostalgia, the novelty. But
they don’t necessarily get the word out to friends and family to buy tickets.

“There’s also a problem of supply. Many of the experienced puppet makers in China or Taiwan have retired because there isn’t a market. Nobody even wants to make the traditional embroidered costumes except for a few foreign artisans who are so aged and scarce, you can wait up to three years after placing an order with them. It’s really taxing on your eyes making outfits so small: even without any embellishments, a plain puppet costume would cost over $100.

“And I don’t see the next generation of puppeteers. I have taught many hardworking young performers, but they don’t have the necessary curiosity I did to explore its Chinese opera roots, to listen to the traditional music. This means they can’t improvise, but only manipulate the puppets according to specific instructions. Even that is hard because their fingers are stiff, since they didn’t begin training from childhood.”

However, Ho refuses to let the art form disappear. “I’ve tried making puppets from readily available materials, even paper. It might not be traditional, but they’re lighter for new performers to manipulate. I also borrow from modern culture when creating a show: why can’t we recreate changing camera angles, make shows more movie-like? Art forms die out when you stubbornly stick to something without bothering about your current audience. But if we adapt and invent, who knows? We might be able to come up with something new that we can call Singapore hand puppetry.”

SOM SAID - TEACHER OF VARIOUS MALAY DANCE FORMS INCLUDING BORIA

Photos: Sri Warisan

Rather than being one single art form, Boria includes a song-and-dance sequence following a comic sketch based on rural characters. This Penang creation spread to Singapore as early as the 1800s, but is rarely seen here nowadays. When it is, it’s thanks to doyennes like Cultural Medallion recipient Madam Som Said, who continue to teach the moves.

“Boria movements are distinctive but simple, I’ve been teaching them to children and youths since the early 1970s,” says Madam Som of the dance with cha-cha and rhumba influences, which her company Sri Warisan also taught to Mediacorp Suria celebrities in a collaboration for the programme Te:Ra Seh! “But there is little demand for it, perhaps because it is not as exciting as dikir barat (a highly percussive combination of singing, movement, poetry and music) and also because Boria ensembles require a very big group of people.”

Nonetheless, Madam Som continues teaching Boria to her young students. “We are keeping Boria, a Malay art form, in our repertoire. But if we were to stage it again, I would retain the traditional form but create new content based on stories of Singapore.”

ANG HAO SAI - SINGAPORE’S LAST MOVIE BILLBOARD PAINTER

Ang Hao Sai joined now-defunct art studio Lam Kok at the age of 12 to help paint dazzlingly realistic movie billboards and posters. Forty-four years on, he’s still painting.

“I’m the last one doing hand-painted posters in the whole of Singapore,” says Ang. “All my colleagues at Lam Kok retired years ago after printing became much faster and cheaper. But thanks to my previous work experience, I was able to open Hao Meng Art Studio and branch into making signage and structures for events and advertising, while still continuing to paint. I’ve loved painting since childhood.”

Mr Ang has not been able to pass his unique craft on, even to his own children who have now taken over the company. “Though they’ve been curious about my art, I don’t think it’s something you can fully teach. When I was 13, my boss gave me money to go and learn painting from an artist, but I didn’t want to continue after a few months. There’s only so much you can learn by talking. You need to go and try with your own eyes and hands, discover for yourself.”

You may have seen Ang’s work at Capitol Building in 2015 when he painted posters for five restored Singapore films shot between 1950-70. His poster for Cathay Organisation’s 80th anniversary movie, Our Sister Mambo, has also been displayed at The Cathay. You may also have seen some of Ang’s non-poster work in 2015, when 50 of his paintings displaying scenes from Singapore’s history — ranging from those as everyday as children playing games on the streets to Lee Kuan Yew making the historic separation speech — were exhibited at Orchard Road.

“When companies approach me to paint old-fashioned posters or advertisements, I’ll still do it. But now my passion is painting Singapore from its kampong to city days: having witnessed how hard everybody worked to make Singapore what it is today, I also want to work hard to paint that journey.”

HAMID PUTRA & YANNI ABDUL SAMAD - KUDA KEPANG PRACTITIONERS

Photos: Kumpulan Kesenian Kuda Kepang Siji Loro Indah Sari
Photo: Kumpulan Kesenian Kuda Kepang Siji Loro Indah Sari

Originating in Java, Indonesia, Kuda Kepang (a dance depicting horsemen) made its way to Singapore in 1948. In recent years, however, this art form involving gamelan, dance and performers executing spectacular feats like walking on broken glass after entering a trancelike state has become increasingly rare, due to a public perception of it being connected to gangsterism and the occult.

“We have to apply for permits from town councils to practise or perform at void decks, and these are not always granted,” says Yanni Abdul Samad, whose husband Hamid Putra founded the company Kumpulan Kesenian Kuda Kepang Siji Loro Indah Sari. “So we practise in my house, even though it is small. When we do get permits to practise in the void deck, we are sometimes told by the authorities to stop early or at least turn down the volume, even in the early evening… and that’s hard to do because we are playing live music, not tunes on a speaker.

“I think people are very cautious because they can find the trance aspect of Kuda Kepang frightening. But Kuda Kepang also includes singing, dancing, playing instruments, mask-work… there is still a show without performers going into a trance. Yet when people do hire us, it’s the trance part they want to see.”

Hamid, who has practised Kuda Kepang for over seven years, says, “I remember when there was at least one Kuda Kepang performance every week or fortnight in Singapore. Now my group performs maybe, once every three months at most, and whenever someone performs somewhere, everybody who is curious about this art form will congregate, even old folks often pull up chairs to watch.

“They know it’s exciting but harmless. The performers under trance are in complete control and trained to use the spiritual energies to perform stunts. We don’t even allow our performers below the age of 18 to go into trance unless it is with parental consent, and only after they’ve learnt all the other aspects like the dance, lighting the fire and playing the instruments.”

Despite difficulties, Yanni says they aren’t giving up on the art. “Trance doesn’t mean you are not responsible for your actions. Once you come out of one, you feel the pain of what you were doing before, for instance, if you hurt yourself on the broken glass. So you really learn self-control to avoid consequences you’ll regret, and that’s something you can apply in everyday life.

“Also, there are many young people — like my son — who are interested in this aspect of Malay culture. If everybody gives up, who will show it to them?”

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