Since Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Chinese street opera has played a significant role in defining Singaporean identity. asia! photographer Debby Ng follows Singapore’s largest Chinese street opera troupe, Wang Si Mei, for one season, only to learn that it will take several seasons and even years to fully understand the complexities that exist within this performing art that is steeped in culture, rooted in religious beliefs, and fueled by irrepressible passion.
(Right) A member of the cast, who doubles as a stage hand, prepares to haul up a cyclorama as the scenes change in a new Act.
Text and photos by Debby Ng
A hundred and fifty years ago, Chinese immigrants who came from different parts of the world brought with them different dialects and culture. Locally known as Chinese wayang, Chinese street opera used to be a common source of entertainment for these migrants. Today, however, these shows only attract some old spectators, religious devotees and, some believe, spirits.
(Right) At some performances, the first row of seats is reserved for the lao xiong di or “old brothers”. During the seventh month of the Lunar calendar, these street performances are as much for living spectators as they are for ancient ancestors. Many Singaporeans (non-Chinese included) believe that spirits return to visit this worldly plane from the netherworld during the course of this month. Because of strong religious roots, Chinese wayang fails to engage with a majority of modern Singaporeans who subscribe to other, more current, religious beliefs.
Crowds gather before a temporary stage raised about six feet above the street and made bright by neon lights. Rough seats are provided for the audience in the open and in the old days, there would be admission charges that varied from 25 cents to half a dollar. Today, unless the show is held within a private facility, the public is welcome to watch for free.
In performing Chinese street opera, troupes preserve their rich heritage by understanding the Confucian mind-set that a learned person engages in the arts for moral and unselfish purposes. Though mainly appreciated by Singapore’s Chinese community, performances continue to bring together various ethnic groups to watch and to perform.
(Right) A cast member in costume enjoys the show from her vantage point backstage, while awaiting her turn on the stage.
Some academics maintain that these performances also encourage a national attitude focused on both remembering the past and preparing for the future in Singapore
(Right) A grandchild of one of the cast members gets made up for fun while playing back backstage.
In Singapore, operas were mainly performed by Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien actors. There were no actresses and all female roles were performed by young boys. Since Singapore reformed its linguistic policy in the 1970s to favour Mandarin, young people are now less likely to understand the dialects used in street opera. The Wang Si Mei opera troupe is a Hokkien troupe that was founded by a woman, a testament to how perception and tradition can change, and how a fading language can find splendour in a landscape approaching linguistic monotony.
(Right) Actors relax and chat backstage. While women were not allowed to perform in the old days, today, women fulfil male roles as interest in street opera wanes amongst modern men.
Wang Si Mei, the founder of Singapore’s busiest Chinese street opera troupe, rests between acts. Her troupe has performed alongside guest actors from Taiwan, and although with more than 340 shows a year, Wang Si Mei admits that interest in Chinese street opera is waning. After speaking with her, it is apparent that street opera is more than a profession for her – it is her life, her passion, and comprises a part of her spirit. When a show fails to go as well as she plans for, she is spiritually and emotionally disheartened.
In the heydays of Chinese wayang, fans would arrive with their own wooden stools. Others would just stand. Some would even present money and floral bouquets to lead performers.
(Right) Despite a less apparent appreciation of their art compared to the old days, it was touching to observe the actors evoke even the smallest crowds with physically and emotionally charged performances.
In the 1930s there was a slump in the number of performances with the growth of cinema halls and the emergence of silent movies. Since the 1960s, Chinese wayang has been on the decline. With rapid urbanisation and population growth, villages where Chinese wayangs were once held were turned into modern towns or flatted factory areas. Some professional troupes also disbanded while others reduced the frequency of their performances. Despite these challenges,Chinese wayang has retained a presence to this day; the older generation continues to turn to Chinese wayang for entertainment while the younger generation is beginning to apprecaite it as an art form, as is evident from the establishment of numerous associations to promote Chinese Opera in Singapore.
(Right) A veteran actor straightens his headdress before emerging into stage.
Actors who fulfil smaller roles play multiple characters during a show and though their roles are minor they have major roles backstage, helping major actors with their make-up and costumes, and preparing stage props. Here, one of the minor actors goes through the list of acts backstage. Their roles may also be more difficult in many instances since they have several make-up and costumes to don (and remove) during a single show.
Each actor has specific make-up styles and each is in charge of applying his or her own make-up. Oftentimes, actors are unrecognisable when their make-up is removed as they are completely transformed by the make-up that defines their character. Some troupes have large dressing areas, but the cast of Wang Si Mei functions perfectly well with limited space and portable vanity chests.
Apart from the language, costume and stories delivered by these troupes, there are several nuances to observe and learn about culture, creativity and literature during these seemingly simple performances. The assortment of props, arrangement of music and evolution of story-telling methods comprises skills that are both traditional and modern. Adaptation will be the greatest challenge that each street opera troupe will have to contend with, and all though several interest groups have emerged over the past half a decade, it awaits to be seen if Chinese street opera will find a future filled with as much richness and heart, as the Wang Si Mei troupe has nurtured.