Wayang at Heart

Published on 29 September 2015

Despite the odds, Chinese opera is not about to fade away in Singapore any time soon.


Chinese opera arrived in Singapore with Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s. While there are over 300 styles of opera in China, only seven or eight found their way here, largely from the Southern provinces — with Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien being the most widely practised.

Historical records show that in 1842, Chinese opera was performed during the Chinese New Year festival here. By 1881, there were about 240 opera performers in Singapore, according to a research study, Chinese Opera in Singapore: Negotiating Globalisation, Consumerism and National Culture, by sociologist Dr Terence Chong.

These professional street performers were largely uneducated. They made a living performing for temple rituals and clan festivals. As Chinese opera was the only form of entertainment for the immigrant Chinese, it was intricately woven into the social and cultural fabric of the time.

“In those days, the troupes stayed and travelled together and were fairly organised: they had trainers, scriptwriters, composers, even people who cooked for them, washed their clothes and helped them set up makeshift stages,” reveals Tan Ooh Chye, principal of the Chinese Opera Institute (COI), a coordinating body for Chinese opera groups in Singapore.

In the 1930s, performances shifted from Chinatown theatres to amusement parks like Gay World, Great World and Happy Valley. Thrust into the eclectic mix of boxing and wrestling matches, shooting galleries and variety shows, Chinese opera could be enjoyed seven nights a week! The 1930s to the 1950s is widely acknowledged as the Golden Era for Chinese opera in Singapore.

REFLECTION OF TIME Street wayang has declined steadily over the last century. Today, it’s hard to find makeshift stages or professional opera artists.  
FACE ON Performers of Lao Sai Tao Yuan, a professional Teochew opera troupe established in the early 19th century, prepare backstage for a performance.


But with the 1950s and ’60s came a new wave of Western pop culture and icons — through music, movies and television. The Golden Era of Singapore cinema and music is pegged to these decades. Young audiences found alternative forms of entertainment, and street operas became confined to religious festivals. Many professional troupes disbanded during those years.

Perhaps the biggest impact came in the 1970s when dialects were officially discouraged in Singapore. “The steady decline in dialect usage, due largely to the government’s promotion of Mandarin and the focus on a broad and inclusive national culture, weakened opera’s links to the ethnic Chinese community,” explains Dr Chong, who is a senior fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

TEOCHEW TALES From makeshift stages to air-conditioned theatres, Teochew opera continues to entertain audiences today through amateur groups like Nam Hwa opera.

With the decline of dialects came the inevitable decline of Chinese opera in Singapore. Audiences dwindled. Clan associations, which were set up along dialect lines, saw a fall in membership, leading to fewer patrons and donors.

It was only in the 1980s that Chinese opera saw a slight revival, when Confucian ethics came into the national conversation and there was renewed interest in Chinese culture.

It was also around this time that China emerged from the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), and performers and instructors from the Mainland arrived on Singapore shores. This led to the rise of amateur groups, which would play a vital role in keeping alive this traditional art form.


These amateur groups consisted largely of educated individuals with a love for culture and the arts. “We started Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC) in 1981 because of our own interest. We were eager to improve and to promote the art,” says Cantonese opera doyenne and Cultural Medallion recipient Joanna Wong. She is also president of Pat Wo Wui Kun, a Cantonese opera guild set up in 1857.

“With the help of instructors from China, amateur groups improved greatly,” reveals Wong, a former registrar of the National University of Singapore. “Because we could afford to buy new costumes and stage concerts in theatres with proper set, lighting and sound, it attracted younger people.”

Around 1986, CTC started bringing Cantonese opera to community centres. “If you won’t come to the theatre, we will go to your neighbourhood! Some shows were free; others cost S$5 a ticket.”

To boost attendance, Wong included English surtitles — she was the first to introduce this in 1975. This made Cantonese opera accessible to the English-educated and foreigners.


For Nam Hwa Opera, an amateur Teochew opera group, it was strong leadership that fuelled its growth. “We’re 52 years old, but this year we became a charitable organisation with IPC [Institution of a Public Character] status. We invited many notable Teochew businessmen to form our board and help strengthen our overall strategy,” says its president Toh Lim Mok.

“With a carefully crafted board and executive committee, people are more willing to invest their time and resources. In our fundraiser in April, we managed to raise S$650,000,” he reveals.

“Our focus is on giving additional value to our members. We bring in professional instructors to train them and last year, we sent 30 performers, aged 11 to 72, to Jieyang in China for two weeks of intensive training. It was free for them as we managed to get funding,” shares Toh.

While the average age of its members is in the 50s, Nam Hwa currently has five members under 20. The profile of their audiences is also evolving: about 25 per cent are young adults.

Liyuan Opera, an 800-year-old genre of Hokkien opera, took centrestage at Siong Leng Musical Association’s 70th anniversary in 2011


Within Hokkien opera, there are many sub-genres. Liyuan opera, which originated from Quanzhou, Fujian, has a history of over 800 years and is one of the oldest genres in China. In 2005, it was inscribed in the first list of National Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.

Siong Leng Musical Association (SLMA) was established in 1941 to preserve, develop and promote Liyuan opera as well as Nanyin music, which boasts a 1,000-year history. Known for its formulaic presentation, Liyuan opera’s ‘Eighteen Step Basic Directions’ is taught to a fairly young troupe here.

“Currently, we have over 25 artists aged between 19 and 35, in both Nanyin and Liyuan opera. But young people show greater interest in playing music than learning opera,” admits Wang Pheck Geok, SLMA’s executive director. But for Miko Huang, 33, it was the opera’s elegance that attracted her.

“We have one lesson per week, for about two hours. I started by learning how to walk and to do the hand gestures accurately,” Huang shares. “I’ve been practising Liyuan opera for the past 10 years and there’s no end to learning the art form.

“To keep Chinese opera alive, it’s crucial we attract a younger pool of audience,” she reasons. “It will be of little use to have more talents but
no one to appreciate it.”

NEVER TOO YOUNG Cai Bixia (above), founder of the Traditional Arts Centre, goes into schools to teach children and teenagers the fine art of Chinese Opera.


What better way to reach out to the young than to meet them where they are? That was the vision of Young Artist Award recipient Cai Bixia when she established the Traditional Arts Centre (TAC) in 2012. “We go into schools to teach Chinese opera. It’s currently a Co-Curricular Activity in four schools, and we also run ad hoc workshops to create awareness and foster appreciation of the art.”

In the recent Singapore Youth Opera Showcase 2015, TAC featured over 50 students, aged seven to 16, at the historic Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre. There were even non-Chinese students performing!

A possible reason for TAC’s success in attracting youth is the focus on Huangmei opera. Originating from Anhui province in China, this relatively young genre (about 200 to 300 years old) utilises Mandarin. “More people understand Mandarin in China and around the world, so it’s very popular.

“You need a strategy to attract youth. We start with stories and characters familiar to kids, like the Monkey King in Journey to the West,” she explains. “They watch it on television, so they’re more receptive when they see it in operatic form.

“My vision is to groom the next generation, to raise standards in Singapore, and to eventually set up a troupe of young artists who can make Singapore known on a global stage,” says Cai, who feels hopeful, as the government is pumping S$25 million into traditional arts over the next five years.

COI’s principal Tan notes that while the professional street operas of yesteryear are dying off, the amateur groups are extending the life of Chinese opera in Singapore. “Chinese opera is more than just entertainment — it connects us to our language, history and culture. I hope we can rediscover its social value before it’s too late. Once it’s lost, it takes a lot of effort to restore.”

GLAMOUR GIRLS  CHIJ Toa Payoh and Singapore Chinese Girls’ School have Chinese opera offered as a Co-Curricular Activity.


Can we distinguish between different genres of Chinese opera in Singapore?

In Singapore, there are seven or eight genres of Chinese opera practised. Among them, Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese and Beijing. “Most are similar in the movements, makeup and costumes. What differentiates them is the language and music,” says Cai Bixia, founder of the Traditional Arts Centre. For those in-the-know, subtle differences can be teased out. For example, Cantonese opera tends to have more reddish hues around the eyes for makeup and more elaborate headgear. Even hairpins differ. Traditionally, Cantonese opera uses long pins while Beijing opera uses small, round pins. In terms of costumes, it’s harder to differentiate these days as many troupes order from renowned costume-makers (for example, in Zhejiang) because of quality and aesthetics.

PHOTO  Sabrina Chow


Tan Wei Tian, 12
Teochew Opera Nam Hwa Opera

A student of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School, this dynamic 12 year-old, who speaks fluent Teochew (picked up from her maternal grandmother), started training in Teochew opera at age three. “My grandmother brought me to watch Chinese opera and I fell in love with the makeup, hairdo and costumes. I asked my mum if I could learn and she found me a teacher,” says Tan.

“Some of my friends are supportive but some are not so nice: when I start singing, they start laughing, but I don’t mind. I know it’s something quite unusual. If I like it, why not?” reasons the natural performer, who clinched second prize at a Teochew opera competition in July, competing against adults in the open category.

How has she benefited from the experience? “I’m more focused and my Mandarin has improved: we sing in Teochew, but our scripts are written in Mandarin,” explains Tan, who is effectively bilingual. “For me, Chinese opera is play. In the future, I want to be a policewoman or lawyer. Right now, it’s something I really like and I hope I won’t stop, but it’s hard to say.”

PHOTOS  Nam Hwa Opera


Sim Song He, 17
Huangmei Opera Traditional Arts Centre

Currently a student at Victoria Junior College, Sim Song He picked up Chinese opera at age 15 while studying at Xinmin Secondary School, which offered Chinese Opera as a Co-Curricular Activity. Sim admits it was a possible trip to France that enticed him to join. He ended up playing the lead role of Macbeth, performing Chinese opera at a Shakespeare Festival in France, as well as for the Prime Minister in 2013.

“The moment you put on your costume and makeup, and look in the mirror, you feel you’ve been transported back in time,” Sim reflects. “It’s like an ancient charm imposed upon you and you feel you’re a part of this rich history and tradition.”

But he admits, “I don’t think there is much prospect of me becoming a full-time opera artist, but I do hope to continue performing as an amateur, to cultivate a lifelong interest. If I have the chance to be someone influential, I hope to use my influence to fund, promote and preserve Chinese culture in Singapore. I think we need it.”

PHOTO  Traditional Arts Centre
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