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Hokkien orchestral concert at Thian Hock Keng June 1, 2006

Posted by kentneo in Customs.

Text by Victor Yue 

This is the second time this year that the Thian Hock Keng (Tian Fu Gong) – the famous Mazu Temple at Telok Ayer St – opens in the evening for a musical event. The same Nan Yin troupe [said to be based at 2 Bukit Pasoh Rd .. I could not get the name of the troupe, maybe, Kent and Tim who are there could ] was performing the second time this year and again, in commemoration of the birthday of Guan Yin – 19th of the 6th Lunar Month. The next one will be on the 19th of 9th Lunar Month.

Going into Thian Hock Keng in the evening is somewhere different from the day. With lights all up as well as the additional floodlights on the courtyard .. where the main entrance to the courtyard is, it was made into a stage .. the temple gave out a different aura. It is interesting to note that the young were amongst the performers, but not the audience. I could almost safely said that Kent was the youngest in the audience! Most are greying hair or balding old men and ladies. Interestingly, these would be the Chinese educated or uneducated folks, who came all the way to listen to the Nan Yin (Nam Yim in Hokkien).

The old men were excited upon listening to the live performance of Nan Yin, that they chattered away about the old times .. took a while for them to settle down to listen the beautiful and melodius voices from the girls. That a tradition that dated back to the Tang Dynasty .. when, I suppose, the Hokkien started calling themselves Tng-lang (Tang Ren) .. it is said that the Nan-Yin songs and structures continued to be preserved.

Kent thought that the singing reminded him of Noh of the Japanese traditional theatre. Hmm, is there a relationship here? Since Tang Dynasty was the time when much of the Chinese culture was transported to Japan. Maybe, the historians can tell us more. In one item, there was a dance .. for a moment, I thought the lady wore a kimono well, save the Obi. The dance was slow and elegant.

The highlight of the evening must the the piece on the horses walking and galloping where this boy (below 10?) played the wooden-fish (Mu Yu – the wooden block that the monks use for hitting as part of their chanting), bringing the tempo up and down. Another Nanyang piece as we called it, was kind of percussion where they have two guys playing the drum with one foot on it as well, called the Ya-tui (muffling with one leg) or something like that. The ladies with their bamboo blocks did wonders making the rhythm hitting them and even making them roll. I trained my video camera on their hands but still could not figure how they made the bamboos emit the rolling sound. Playing againsts these was this guy who played the kompang! Yes, Nan Yin has arrived in Nanyang. I vaguely remember seeing this guy – a Malay-looking chap – who played the gu-zhen once in ACM at Armenian St. Tonight, he also played the gu-zhen.

Midway through the concert, the organisers led in a simple paying of respect to Guan Yin by bowing three times, led by this lady, who I think is the patron of this Nan Ying group. I missed the Hokken that they used the last time. Tonight they spoke in Mandarin. And it was a simple ceremony versus the chanting by a Buddhist monk the last time.

Rounding up the concert was a rowdy piece with all the percussions and the heralding by the ‘suo na’ [as I learnt of the name of this la ba .. trumpet like instrument from Kent . Another great concert played to an almost full house .. of mainly oldies.

This old lady who still sings in the Nan Yin group was very friendly and seeing that I bought one of QuanZhou’s awardwinning Nan Yin VCD (according to her), she offered to let us know of the next event. So, we exchanged phone numbers.

Maybe, some Chinese temples could invite them to perform short concerts to entertain their oldies, and well, reintroduce this interesting and beautiful music to the young. Compared to the disco and rap, well, this requires some getting used to .. and if you want to learn, more efforts in trying to pull the sound through different harmonics.

So those who want to listen to a piece of music descended from the Tang era, see you there on the 9th of 9th Lunar Month?



1. Koh Sze Wei - July 17, 2006

Siong Leng Music Association is the name of the troupe. This is one of the only two Nanyin (Nankuan, Namguan in Taiwan or older Singaporeans) associations in Singapore, and is indeed located along Bukit Pasoh Road. The other is “Chuan Tong Nan Yin She” which is translated to “Traditional Fujian Music Association” which is further down Bukit Pasoh on Teo Hong Road. The later is made up of mainly senior citizens, who play their afternoons away with the sounds of Nanyin in their association every other day, and has a true air of old Nanyin associations. The door of this association is always open, and any strangers are welcomed to sit down and listen to their ancient music. Ability to speak Minnan (Hokkien) dialect seems a must if you want to communicate with the misters there. Siong Leng on the other hand is an experimental group developed from a traditional Nanyin association. They have tried various forms of arts with Nanyin, and have their own Chinese orchestra, but seldom do they have people playing during weekdays in the premises.

Brief Introduction of Nanyin:

Nanyin (also known as Nankuan, Namguan) is the traditional form of music of the Quanzhou Hokkiens. It is basically played by an ensemble consisting of a Pipa, Sanxian, Dongxiao and Erxian, with a clapper. This is the so called the four instruments (Si Guan). There is also the ten tones (Shi Yin) which consist of a flute, Aizai (Ai-a in hokkien, which is a Hokkien suona) and a few percussion instruments.

This form of music has its roots to ancient Chinese music, and has elements from Tang dynasty music. The formation of the ensemble is typically seen in Tang dynasty paintings of musicians. Besides, the instruments are even better evidence that this form of music is ancient: the Pipa being played horizontally, the Erxian which is almost the same as the ancient Xiqin (still used it in Korea), the Dongxiao or vertical flute which is 1 feet and 8 inches (according to old Chinese ruler), the clapper which is made up of 5 pieces of wood etc. The appearance and structure of these instruments and the way they are performed are truly ancient, when instruments in all other parts of China have evolved into what we see in the Chinese orchestra. This is precisely the reason why some people say they resemble Japanese music instruments which unarguably have their roots traced to the Tang kingdom (check out those in the Shosoin). To say Nanyin is Tang dynasty or even Han dynasty music is actually overly generalised. I would prefer to say that there are Tang dynasty elements in it, and it is formed and enriched over the later dynasties. Till now, Nanyin pieces still use the ancient form of score known as gong-chi score, and titles are often similar to Song dynasty ones. The songs of Nanyin are sung in classical Quanzhou accent Minnan dialect, which is also recognised by many linguists to be one of the most ancient form of Han language in China, preserving much elements of ancient and archaic Chinese.

This form of music reached its peak in the Qing dynasty when the imperial scholar Li Guangdi (if you watched the Chinese serial Kangxi Emperor, you will know who he is), who is a native of Hutou Town, Anxi County, Quanzhou Prefecture took an ensemble to perform in front of Emperor Kangxi, earning the musicians the title “Yu Qian Qing Ke”, or “Musicians of the Imperial Hall”.

Nanyin in its birthplace, Quanzhou region of Fujian province, is very popular. This form of music has been widely utilised and incorporated into many opera forms like Liyuan Opera, Gaojia (Gaogak as Anxi Hokkiens call it) Opera, String and Hand Puppets etc, all of which native to Quanzhou region. In cities and counties of Quanzhou, it is not difficult to hear the sounds of Nanyin, both in cities and villages. This music form definitely has an inseparable place in the hearts of old “Chuan Chew Lang” (Quanzhou Hokkien), not because of anything, but because it is their “Hiong Yim” (hometown music), which sings out their “Hiong Jieng” (nostalgia).

2. Soon-Tzu Speechley - August 17, 2007

Hi! This is a great site! I hope you don’t mind a Malaysian Music student giving his 2 cents worth.

The similarity noted between the costumes and music of Japan is no surprise really. Japanese culture received a big “boost” in the Nara/Tempyo/Heian periods (roughly analogous to the T’ang Dynasty and the following dynasties in China). Much of the instrumental and musical traditions were received from China via Korea (more specifically the kingdoms of Southern part of the Korean peninsula).

As pointed out, the instruments in the Shosoin Imperial Collection are essentially T’ang instruments – made in China, imported to Japan. The Court Music tradition of Japan, Gagaku, is also directly related to Chinese Yen yue/Ya yue and Korean Ah ak. The instrument construction is older and playing style more ‘classical’. The pipa, for example, is played horizontally, rather than vertically. In terms of instrument construction too – it has far fewer frets than the modern form of the pipa, which is a 20th century form as it is.

Considering the proximity of Fujian with Japan (as opposed to places like Changan) it is no surprise then that a great deal of the culture is shared.

Also, on the comment about the T’ang style costume resembling kimono without an obi, it’s worth noting that the Heian period costume (AD c.900-c.1400) did not have an obi which is a later convention. Much closer when you compare the Heian junihitoe of the period with the T’ang clothes the women wear.

As pointed out above though, it is impossible to say how much change has occured in the musical practices of Nankuan, since much of the tradition is passed on aurally. It definitely has roots in T’ang music, and is probably one of the oldest continued chamber music traditions in the world; passed down by teacher to student over generations.

It is quite hard to find recordings of this style of music. There was a set of 6 CDs, recorded by Ocora (of Radio France) which featured a Taiwanese woman performing Nan kuan. Liner notes included English and are worth looking for as further research.

Anyways, I’m really glad I found this site. So much information, and great videos. Is there anyway to get more information about future performances by this ensemble?

– S-T. Speechley

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