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Overlapping Fantasies

Words / Grace ChenTranslate / Wei ShiminPhotography / Aperture XXI

Review of street performance by Yi Shin Taiwanese Opera Troupe

It seems like Chinese opera are rarely staged these days, however, tucked away in a neighbourhood lies Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple, where Hokkien and Teochew opera troupes are invited from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia to commemorate the birthday of the Taoist City God over a period of 120 days. This adds a uniquely Chinese vibrancy placed within the multi-cultural backdrop of Singapore.   

Chinese opera has spread in Southeast Asia for over a hundred years, serving as one of the rituals in religion, and meant as an offering of gratitude to the gods and entertainment for spirits. Opera also has an important social and cultural function in bonding the Chinese together through its appearance in folk festivals, government charity events, and significant life ceremonies. The first half of the 20th century was a golden era for Singapore Chinese opera, where commercial performances were flourishing, street performances were presented as spiritual offerings, there were year-long performances at teahouse theatres and playgrounds, and many amateur troupes started to surface. Despite the disruption of the Pacific War, Chinese opera was quickly revived thereafter. It was only in the later part of the 1950s that opera begin to decline as new forms of entertainment took flight, together with the rise of nationalism, the volatile situation in China, and the overall political, economic, social and cultural changes in a newly-independent Singapore.   

Initially, Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien Gaoja opera[1]  were popular in Singapore. In 1920, Cantonese Hanchu opera[2] was lively for a while, but it disappeared just as quickly. Taiwanese opera later appeared in 1932, and Taiwan’s Phoenix Troupe was invited to perform at Medan, Indonesia. As it stopped by Singapore, it was invited by the immigrant Hokkien businessmen to present a last-minute show. With its accessible and lively tunes and language, and the magnificent and refreshingly new costumes and set design, their style swept across the country, and replaced the mainstream popularity of Gaoja opera. Singapore has the title of being “the second homeland of Cantonese opera”, however, Cantonese opera in theatre suffered under the influx of movies and road shows, hence it did not develop as well as that of Teochew and Taiwanese opera, which were primarily based in street performances. What was certain was that in such a complex immigrant society, there was a flourishing opera scene for over half a century, including opera styles from places such as Guangdong (Cantonese, Hanchu, and Teochew opera), Fujian (Gaoja, Taiwanese, and Puxian opera), Hainan (Hainanese opera), and others (Peking opera). The vibrant competition of so many different types of opera resulted in a uniquely Singapore style – one that integrated the highlights of each opera, and was fully marketable for all tastes.

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Taiwanese opera has seldom been heard in Singapore for about 80 years. Yet for Yi Shin, the sole troupe that harks from the hometown of Taiwanese opera, it successfully performed with high enthusiasm for a consecutive 18 days. What kind of performance would be suitable to highlight the troupe’s speciality, and present the characteristic Taiwanese style, while also meeting the taste of local audiences?

First of all, Lorong Koo Chye’s ticketed events offer a large-scale stage, well-equipped sound, lighting, special set effects, professional technical crew, allocated seat numbers and a well-sheltered canopy. Overall, this is a venue that lies in between that of open-air and enclosed theatre spaces, showcasing a combination of both street performances and commercial shows by troupes. There is competitive pressure for the latter as unhealthy ticket sales mean that the troupes might not be invited back again in the following year. Secondly, this is a stage that is both xenocentric and particular about grandeur. Troupes from Singapore and Malaysia always have to employ a few foreign actors and musicians in order to highlight themselves. Even troupes from Taiwan have to engage additional performers to extend their existing team, which serves to substantiate their value and express their sincerity.

In summary, Yi Shin’s 18 days of performance can roughly be said to be the style of the 1950s. With frequent set changes, dazzling lighting effects, sparkling and elaborate costumes, magnificent martial arts fighting and “flying” scenes assisted with hanging wires, all of these elements are engineered for entertainment and enjoyment. This format is rarely seen in today’s Taiwanese opera scene. The programming also veers towards being retro: although half of the works are brand-new, but most of them are re-adaptations of traditional texts, with little ideological or literary breakthroughs. There are several reasons for this: the audiences are mostly older, and would not like to think so much; there is poor response to new works, resulting in sparse audiences; having too many stand-in actors who are not familiar with the script, and resorting to improvisation, etc.

Looking at the actors onstage, I feel perplexed. They are dressed in costumes from all eras, singing and reciting with vastly different rhythms, performing a storyline that is not so logical, and creating a melodrama that is out of touch with reality – their relationships are baffling, with sudden ups and downs that come from nowhere. Such a performance creates a surreal sense of reality from visual and auditory aspects. It is a multi-coloured and magical wonderland, where everything is out of sync, with overflowing emotions and a liberated sense of living larger than life. At that moment, I am surprised to find that the uncles and aunties next to me are completely unruffled by what I thought was completely illogical. They simply bask in the flamboyant colours of the moment.

In an era where the aesthetics of theatre is gradually multi-varied, the art of opera is seeing more and more creativity, breakthroughs and experiments in all areas, such as script, stage design, acting and director’s style. Should we reflect on the direction that Singapore’s Chinese opera might develop in the future? Is it purely for entertainment purpose only? Could overseas troupes realistically spark off an improvement in the local arts, or is it just a temporary way of making money for actors? Should they merely aim to please audiences, or search for a balance between light entertainment and the arts? Having existed for a hundred years, would Singapore’s Chinese opera have the energy to operate as before, from street performances to theatres, to once again present its traditional beauty?

The incense from the joss sticks and dry ice onstage make for a blurry vision, the resounding drumbeat rhythms and vocals give a strong grassroots flavour, and newspaper hawkers weave in and out of the audiences as they call for sales…… Lorong Koo Chye’s staged performances could have literally walked out from the golden era period of Taiwanese opera, as reality and fantasy overlap, and I seemingly find myself drawn into a mystical vortex.

[1] Cantonese Hanchu opera: The official language of the central plains of China, with the main tones of Xipi and Erhuang, and it differs from Hubei Hanchu opera. In Southeast Asia, it is also known as Hakka opera and Riverside opera.

[2] Taiwanese opera: Originated in the early 20th century from Yilan in Taiwan, and spread to Minnan in China, then it followed Minnan immigrants to Southeast Asia. It has a lively performing style, and is also known in Southeast Asia as Sha opera, Min opera, Hokkien opera, and also known in China as Hsiang opera. 

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About the author:

Grace Chen, Taiwanese, Bachelor degree in Chinese from National Chengchi University, Master’s degree in Cultural Management from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, freelance Taiwanese opera actor and playwright, currently working at The Theatre Practice as Festival Assistant for M1 Chinese Theatre Festival.

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 7 / July 2015:From Finite To Infinity