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Chinese Street Opera Stages a Comeback in Singapore

By Lester V. Ledesma

Jul 16, 2021

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Chinese opera performers from the Lao Sai Tao Yuan troupe await their cues onstage in Singapore. The COVID-inspired ban on public gatherings has forced these classical artists into finding new ways to promote their craft.

Photo by Lester V. Ledesma

Chinese opera performers from the Lao Sai Tao Yuan troupe await their cues onstage in Singapore. The COVID-inspired ban on public gatherings has forced these classical artists into finding new ways to promote their craft.

While the rest of Singapore tries to get on with life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a small corner of the country celebrates the return of a cherished tradition.

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In our new series, Disappearing Traditions, we cover cultural moments and makers that may have suffered a blow during COVID, but found a way to continue to shine.  

Over the course of several evenings, the normally quiet confines of the Sheng Hong Temple, on the city’s east side, are woken by the sound of ancient music. Cymbals and gongs crash incessantly, accompanied by the melodic notes of string instruments like the guzheng and erhu. But these are merely accompaniments to a group of performers clad in colorful Ming Dynasty–era costumes. They move elegantly on a nearby stage, their elaborate headgear glittering in the spotlights as they re-enact legends from Chinese history, or tales of lost love, heroic deeds, and filial piety.

Their faces are painted white and shades of red, with patterns that match their carefully rendered facial expressions. The words are in Teochew, a southern Chinese dialect, their voices shrill yet loud even as they break into the occasional song. These people belong to a dying breed of Chinese opera actors whose artistic lineage spans more than 2,000 years. With coronavirus cases currently ebbing and restrictions lessened, Singapore’s wayang performers are making a comeback.

Backstage, an assistant helps put on the trimmings to an actor’s warrior costume. Many of Singapore’s fulltime wayang are well past retirement age, yet they prefer to keep working for the love of the art form.

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“The mere fact that we are onstage again in front of a live audience is a good development for Chinese opera practitioners and our supporters,” says Nick Shen Weijun, who manages the 157-year-old Lao Sai Tao Yuan, the longest-running wayang troupe in Singapore. “Times are tough for us,” he adds. “Because of COVID-19, we haven’t put on a show in almost a year. Most of our cast and crew had no work and very little income.”

It may not look like it now, but not too long ago, Chinese opera was one of the favorite forms of entertainment in Singapore. The wayang first appeared here in the 1800s, along with the thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to work on these shores. At the height of its popularity in the 1950s, its actors were treated like celebrities. Opera troupes would set up temporary stages by the street; crowds would grow and traffic would literally stop to watch them perform. Those heydays are a far cry from today, when wayang shows now play to a sparse audience of aging folks. Sidelined by movies and the internet, these old-school thespians have been relegated to ceremonial affairs like this one, a birthday celebration for a Taoist temple deity.

To make matters worse for the art form, social-distancing requirements halted public events in Singapore. Many feared this would force the country’s last few surviving troupes into ruin, but thankfully they held out. In the case of Lao Sai Tao Yuan, it even brought about some interesting changes.

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“Some government agencies offered financial support on the condition that we do online shows,” says Weijun. “We’re not the most internet-savvy organization. Most of our actors are in the 60s to 80s age range, but we quickly learned how to do a proper livestream performance. We presented the shows at the height of last year’s lockdowns—I’d say our elders even enjoyed performing for an online audience!”

The crowd is thin (and socially distanced) at the Sheng Hong temple, an annual venue for Chinese opera performances. No longer as popular in the age of instant entertainment, the wayang are nonetheless seen as cultural icons of Singapore.

As it turns out, the livestreaming was a success with viewers tuning in from all over the world. Weijun points to one instance when they garnered more than 40,000 views. “Given that we normally get around 30-50 people on the seats during a regular show, our getting that big an audience was a huge encouragement,” he says. “COVID-19 gave us one good thing: It forced us to go online.”

At the Sheng Hong Temple, social-distancing measures remain in place on the evening of my visit. I note the small audience of barely 20 people out front, plus the occasional onlooker stopping to gawk at the gaudy costumes and the painted faces. Yet above them all is a video camera beaming the show in real time, into the phones and laptops of thousands of Chinese street opera fans elsewhere—no temperature checks, COVID-tests, or masks required. Tonight is truly special in a new and exciting way: If the wayang are making their comeback, it isn’t happening on this stage. It’s happening online, for the world to see.

Lao Sai Tao Yuan’s opera shows are now online. Check out its Facebook page for past and upcoming performances.

>>Next: Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay Just Got a Lot More Colorful With New Chihuly Works

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