Taiwanese Opera in Singapore May 29, 2006Posted by kentneo in Customs.
Published:September 1, 1999 Source:Sinorama
Believe it or not, Singapore is currently the world’s busiest spot for ko-tzai-his (Taiwanese folk opera). In an age where traditional drama can barely compete with newer entertainment media like film and television, the Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong [city god] Temple in Singapore is still able to stage over 100 days of Taiwanese opera every year.
The world capital of folk opera
The 28th day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar is the birthday of Lorong Koo Chye, a guardian deity venerated as the city god. The icon was brought to Singapore eighty years ago from Anxi in Fujian province, at the request of local followers-ethnic Chinese from southern Fujian, Chaozhou and Guangdong-who remain devoted to the god for his remarkable efficacy. What originally began as two days of thanksgiving opera gradually extended to 50 days, 70 days, and now in the 1990s over 100 days of performances. “There are 101 days of opera this year, running from the 31st day of the third lunar month to the 28th day of the sixth month, but it’s still not enough,” says Tan Thiam Lye, honorary secretary of the Sheng Hong Temple Association. “Many of those who hoped to sponsor performances have had to wait until next year!”
Because the season is so long, every Fujianese opera group in the city gets invited to perform, along with ko-tzai-his troupes from Taiwan and Xiang opera troupes from mainland China. As Singapore audiences know well, for good opera, the city god temple is the place to go. One regular, a lady in her sixties, says that her husband drives her to the temple every day, half an hour by car, to see the shows. So far this year she has seen nearly two months’ worth of operas.
Assistant curator at the Singapore History Museum Ken Cheong, who has written a thesis on Fujianese opera in Singapore, describes the annual performances at the city god temple as a “theatrical jamboree, and a big incentive for opera troupes who usually play for tiny audiences.” The three-way support between temple, believers and opera groups makes this a vibrant, living theatre which doesn’t need to rely on government support.
The three flowers of Taiwanese opera
Ko-tzai-his is a product of Minnan (southern Fujianese) culture, for which various forms of local opera from the Zhangzhou area of Fujian were merged in Taiwan to create a new operatic form. When this was in turn transmitted back to the Fujian region it was named “Xiang” opera, and because of the migrations of the Minnan people and touring performances by troupes from Taiwan, Xiang caught on in Southeast Asia, becoming known in Singapore as “Taiwanese opera.” At the time of WWII, when the Japanese occupied Singapore and Malaysia while holding Taiwan as a colony, ko-tzai-his was renamed “Fujianese” or “Min” opera.
Go South policy
Before 1930, when Singaporeans were still in the dark about ko-tzai-his, what was popular was gaojia opera, based on traditional Nankuan music. Then an opera group from Taiwan, the Phoenix Troupe, visited Singapore and Malaysia after giving some shows in Xiamen, and became an instant sell-out hit. The Phoenix Troupe continued working in Singapore for several years before returning to Taiwan in triumph.
The box-office success of the Phoenix Troupe inspired other ko-tzai-his companies to try their hand in Southeast Asia, and in addition to performing at established venues they began carving up the market for temple shows in Singapore. Unable to resist the ko-tzai-his onslaught, local gaojia troupes either folded or simply converted themselves. The Xin Sai Feng Fujianese Opera Troupe, one of the most prominent in Singapore today, turned to ko-tzai-his in 1936. “It was a matter of survival,” says the troupe’s third-generation leader Wei Mufa, recalling his father’s decision at the time. “Since Fujianese opera was taking over it made sense for us to follow the trend.”
The post-war period of the 1950s and early sixties was a boom time for Fujianese opera in Singapore. Opera companies and impresarios from Taiwan recruited the best performers they could get hold of and one after another came south to cash in on the craze. The enthusiasm of opera fans in Southeast Asia made it an unforgettable time for the performers. Liao Chiung-chih, a winner of the National Culture and Arts Award, spent a year and a half in the region during that period, performing with the Peony-Cassia Troupe. Actors’ fees for touring overseas were little different from what was paid in Taiwan, but there were big earnings to be had in tips from fans. A wealthy businessman from Brunei once stuffed a red envelope containing 1,500 ringgit-equivalent to over NT$20,000-into Liao’s handbag. “That night,” she recalls, “I hid under my quilt counting the money, and was so happy that I couldn’t sleep a wink. I’ve never made so much money in my life.” Aside from red envelopes there were all sorts of other gifts. One fan used to bring her a baked chicken every day, and another took her to get dentures made and to buy clothes for her son. One lady, a godmother of Liao’s, had a gold medallion made for her, which together with its chain came to seven taels in weight.
Coarseness vs. refinement
Good times don’t last forever, and traditional opera was soon facing stiff competition from movies and television, while the glory days of the old venues faded out. Meanwhile the younger generation was becoming more westernized, and as multilingualism spread Fujianese opera could no longer rely on a captive audience of Minnan-only speakers.
The times moved on, and with the launch in 1977 of the Singapore government’s Mandarin campaign, which included a ban on television programs in other Chinese dialects, the audience for Fujianese opera melted away. Matters weren’t helped by the uneven quality of the troupes and the widespread perception that Fujianese opera, with its aging casts, its sometimes slapdash performances and its nonsensical plots, was simply crass. In the stories, a down-on-his-luck aristocrat might continue to appear dressed in sequined finery, or in a scene where the protagonist was in a state of anguish, the supporting actors would just stand around blankly.
“Some Fujianese opera really is very crude,” says Frankie Hu, a keen photographer who often comes to watch the operas. “They don’t walk or talk properly, they sing pop songs all day long and the leading ladies are fat.”
This is an idea that many have considered, given the contrast between the crudity of street opera, with its improvised performances, and the sophistication of the carefully scripted and rehearsed productions that can be seen in the theater. Even the actors themselves feel that if it’s not in a theater, then it ain’t art.
TV opera saves the day
It was during the 1970s and 80s, when ko-tzai-his was on the way out in Singapore, that opera groups from Taiwanese TV stations began performing in Southeast Asia, so initiating a second springtime for Fujianese opera in the region.
The most popular such group at the time was the TTV Joint Opera, which was invited to do a series of shows at the People’s Theatre in Singapore. The 40-plus members of the group, including stars Yang Li-hua, Wang Chin-ying, Hsu Hsiu-nien and Li Ju-lin, turned out in force to effect the transition from television back to stage. By introducing the softer style of make-up used in television opera and adding a few new ballads, they created a fusion of the best in stage and television opera, and filled the 2000-seat auditorium to capacity night after night. Demand for tickets was so great that after a month they had to extend the run by another two weeks. Singapore had become a second home for ko-tzai-his.
What exactly is the appeal of Taiwan’s televised operas? “In a word: beauty!” says Sim Siew Tin, executive secretary of the Fujianese Association’s Xiang Opera Troupe. “Beautiful actors, beautiful costumes, beautiful sets and beautiful locations.” At the peak of televised ko-tzai-his’s popularity, TV opera films from Taiwan were the hottest and most expensive item in Singapore’s video rental stores.
Promo flyers for live opera at the time highlighted the fact that opera companies were staging new productions using scripts expressed over from Taiwan. Borrowing from the appeal of televised opera in this way proved to be highly effective, and audiences once again began emerging from their front rooms to enjoy the spectacle of outdoor opera. “Seeing that time was right, many performers broke away to form their own groups,” says Ken Cheong. The fever has waned since those days, but there are still 13 groups performing in Singapore today, the more prominent of which present up to 200 performances during the course of a year.
This is live theater!
In the suburbs of Singapore, dominated by the high-rises of the government housing projects, redevelopment of old communities has resulted in temples being torn down and merged into newly constructed “joint temples.” It may be this god’s birthday on one day and that god’s birthday on the next day, which means plenty of occasions for setting up opera stages in open areas around the nearby apartment blocks.
The matinee performance attracts only a handful of onlookers, and is a chance for juniors in the company to try out their skills playing servant girls, young soldiers and eunuchs. After the show is over some of the cast play mahjong on the stage, while others go off on errands. Mostly the troupe works from an established repertoire, and it is frequently the case that come 6 p.m. the actors still haven’t been told what they’ll be performing in two hours time. All they get before the show starts is a brief outline to remind everyone who enters and exits in each scene. For a new production the cast gathers at around five in the afternoon to hear the director explain the story and assign roles, and to run through some action moves. “We do whatever story we think of on the day,” says Cai Jianfu. “It’s not all fixed in advance.”
As to how the performers choose what to sing, it depends on how tragic or comic the plot is, and also sometimes on how they feel on a given day. “Today my voice is OK so I can do a few soprano numbers,” says Qiu Meiqi of the Shuang Ming Feng Troupe, “but if I haven’t got the voice for it then I stick to songs that don’t go so high. So it goes.” Qiu’s attitude neatly sums up the flexibility of Fujianese street opera.
“A lot of people look down on the street opera troupes, but I think that this type of improvisational performance, in which so much depends on context, is actually art of the very highest kind,” says Yung Sai-shing, professor in Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore. Whether it’s high art or low art, traditional drama does after all exist in its own traditional settings and have its own characteristics. And it would be wrong to criticize outdoor theater by imposing on it the viewpoints of Western or modern professional theatre, or of pure art.
Theater of life
Yung Sai-shing says: “Traditional opera is a medium through which an ethnic group forms an identity and provides support for its members. Like the upsurge of interest in Cantonese opera in Hong Kong recently, I think it’s all part of a longing for home that surfaces when people feel a crisis of identity.”
As demonstrated by the stages that are built outside temples, religious thanksgiving provides the main role for Fujianese street opera. Such operas preserve the original form of traditional opera and constitute an important element in the art and the community-building of an immigrant society. In all such immigrant societies, townsfolk associations, temples and opera troupes are bound in a tight triangle of connections. And when opera like this is transplanted into the professional theater, the domain of pure artistic expression, it loses all semblance of what it originally was.
Close encounter of the first kind
“When we were children a lot of people went to watch the operas, and we had to bring a straw mat and four nails along to ‘stake out’ a good spot in front of the temple. There were so many people that it was hard just squeezing your way out to go for a pee,” recalls Chua Soo Pong.
“The adults watched the opera while we kids checked out the stalls and munched snacks. All the traditional novels I read when I was a child were bought during those operas,” says Koh Eng Soon, a freelance writer who collects historical material about opera.
“Why play immortals? Who is the God of literature? For many people Fujianese street operas, free and open to all-comers, provided a first encounter with Chinese cul-ture, and that was especially so for me,” says Ken Cheong. A number of Singapore University students have recently been doing field research into traditional opera because the Fujianese opera troupes, with their close involvement in religious culture, provide the best window onto traditional culture.