(A dying art) Chinese Street Opera In Singapore, Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe 新加坡有上百年历史的老赛桃源潮剧团
Ever since embarked on the photojournalism path, I have developed a deep interest in documenting changes in Singapore and other countries. I devote much effort in capturing other striking images of Singapore society, much of which has since vanished, like, from changing street scenes, vanishing trades, to traditional Chinese Opera and other cultural practices.
When it comes to evoking the mystery and charm of ancient China, few art forms can compare to Chinese opera, with its kaleidoscopic costumes, distinctive falsetto singing punctuated by gongs, and intricate gestures rich with symbolism. Despite serious competition from more modern forms of entertainment, traditional Chinese performance art in the form of Teochew opera continues to persevere in Singapore as a beautiful and timeless craft. One of the few remaining troupes in Singapore, the Lao Sai Tao Yuan (老赛桃源) Teochew Opera Troupe has been performing for more than 150 years, and continues to sustain the art form. Special thanks to Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe, on this occasion — a god’s birthday, celebrated at Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery in Toa Payoh — I am backstage with their crew of opera actors and musicians.
Chinese opera performances, which typically depict stories of Chinese classics and myths through music and acting, are a common sight during the Hungry Ghost Festival and Chinese New Year seasons. However, some performances still take place throughout the rest of the year.
In the dim light of this dressing room — which amounts to the area behind the stage curtains, where makeshift dressers stand amid piles of costumes and props.
Besides color, lines also function as symbols. For example, a figure can be painted either all white on his face, or just around the nose. The larger the white area painted, the more viperous the role.
The different styles of facial make-up, is one of the highlights and requires distinctive techniques of painting. Exaggerated designs are painted on each performer's face to symbolize a character's personality, role, and fate. This technique may have originated from ancient religions and dance. Audiences who are familiar with opera can know the story by observing the facial painting as well as the costumes. Generally, a red face represents loyalty and bravery; a black face, valor; yellow and white faces, duplicity; and golden and silver faces, mystery. Besides color, lines also function as symbols. For example, a figure can be painted either all white on his face, or just around the nose. Those with white faces are treacherous and cunning — the villains of the show.
In Chinese opera, costumes also signify a character’s social standing – costumes with intricate details are for powerful figures while less-elaborate ones are for characters of low status.
With their makeup all set and their costumes in place, the wayang begin the show. Accompanied by gongs, crashing cymbals and the piercing notes of the erhu and guzheng (both traditional Chinese string instruments), the artists perform their roles with masterful ease. Occasionally their shrill voices break into song. They move with impeccable grace, each flick of the wrist and each tilt of the head adding depth to this time-honoured presentation.
Watching Chinese opera is like watching movies and soap operas, it's good fun especially when you pay attention to it. At the start of the show, shortly after dusk, dozens sit on plastic chairs watching the drama unfold. But by the time it wraps up around midnight, just a solitary audience member and a street dog remain. The troupe aren't bothered though. Everyone here is passionate about Chinese opera, and they all try their best to keep this art alive.
Please feel free to browse my other blog posts on traditional Chinese opera: