Preserving Traditional Performing Art of Teochew Street Opera With Xin Xin Rong He Troupe In Singapore 新加坡潮剧艺术绽放出灿烂的历史文化光芒 - 新新荣和潮剧团
Since Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Chinese street opera has played a significant role in defining Singaporean identity. I followed Singapore’s Chinese street opera troupe, Xin Xin Rong He Teochew Opera (established in Year 2000), for one weekend, only to learn that it will probably take several 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.
I had the privilege to do a documentary photo shoot at the backstage, while the opera performers were in preparation, doing their make-up, dressing up and getting ready for the show. This was the perfect opportunity for many behind the stage shots, opening a lot of photography opportunities I think are far better than just shooting what happens on stage. You get to see how the performers did the make up by themselves, without external help. You get to see the passion and great discipline the opera performers have, to keep the culture and tradition going strong, though the practice has been losing interest in the newer generation. Their effort, sacrifice and dedication to the art were admirable, and praise-worthy. I applaud their genuine effort and hard work to preserve the Chinese art, which I believe is very important. Chinese Teochew Opera is an ancient art form that faces increasing competition from more modern forms of entertainment.
I arrived at the venue, Xian Dang Gong Temple located at Old Tampines Road with some trepidation mid afternoon last weekend, not sure what to expect. But it was not long before I felt very comfortable amongst everyone, they were all so friendly and welcoming, for me it was truly an 'honour' to be able to watch and photograph the performers at this time and who made it so much easier for me. I sat there most of the time mesmerized at the time and effort it was taking to apply the make up, watching the 'transformation' and the costumes.
Teochew Opera is a fast disappearing art form and culture here in Singapore, largely because not many and particularly in this present generation, understand the dialect enough to truly appreciate it. But on the other hand, this also makes them exquisite and precious in the art scene giving these performers the much needed recognition which they truly deserved.
I waltzed a few decades back in time to see mostly men and women in their 50s, 60s, dabbling red make-up paint on lips and gelling hair curls readying themselves for the night’s performance.
The incandescent light bulbs cast an atmospheric orange-yellow hue over the insides of what felt like a dilapitated, but lively and colourful shack, with costumes strewn all over the place and a network of electrical cables cross-crossing overhead. The performers were more than game in posing for us; a few of them had probably enjoyed a celebrity following in the days of their prime.
The makeup process is a labourious one. The performers arrive many hours before the performance to ensure that their makeup and costumes are ready.
What I like about it is to see the transformation of painting their faces at the backstage simply because Chinese opera makeup is particularly fascinating and rich in meaning. I also like to observe the interaction between the performers, there’s something about it that draws me. Sometimes I just spend time watching them, chatting, laughing & doing their own things, be it smoking, reading newspaper while waiting for their turns etc.
Makeup is an important component of Chinese opera. Exaggerated designs are painted on each performer’s face to symbolise a character’s personality, role and fate.
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.
Most of the performers are used to photographers coming to document them. After a while it’s only natural that a relationship & friendship is build. Most of them treat me very well. They also invited me to have meals with them. It makes you feel like you are part of the family.
There was a lot of energy on stage, thus a lot of photo opportunities. At times, I had to stay really focused. It was visually pleasing just to watch them. Some were waiting at the side for their turn at the stage. Some were having a quick conversation while others where changing into a new costume.
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.
I have found it equally useful to focus on listening to the background music, especially the rhythms of the percussion section, so as to appreciate the emotional nuances that the performers were attempting to convey. As for Teochew Opera, it is a genre of Chinese opera performed in the Teochew dialect with over 450 years of history.
Soon on this temporary stage, performers begin to play, fully presenting the charm of Teochew Opera with their powerful voice and agile movements. Audience under the stage immerse themselves in the show, feeling every emotion that the characters feel, no matter happiness or sorrow. After the weekend show, the troupe will head for their next venue, to continue their life both on and off the stage.
Acting is an intense experience – those tears could only have sprung from real emotions.
In traditional Chinese opera, postures are one of the methods used to shape characters or express their state of mind. The actors perform gestures or actions which carry symbolic meaning, to convey the character’s personality and emotions, the time and space, or other elements of story development.
These Chinese opera performances also encourage a national attitude focused on both remembering the past and preparing for the future in Singapore. Regardless, Chinese street opera combines tradition and modernism and promotes a national culture that brings Singapore’s main ethnic groups.
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.
I spent the entire afternoon till night to watch these actors and actress transform themselves with makeup, hairdos and costumes. Under stage lighting that was far from state-of-the-art, performing for people who stared at them from a dark street, the actors and actress i watched were magical people keeping the tradition of art alive.
At the backstage of an opera performance, i have explored the brilliance of the traditional performing arts. As the performers prepare for a show with dazzling costumes, unique makeup, stylized movements, beautiful vocal techniques, i was there with them on that day to learn all there is to know about the Chinese tradition. I gained a big insight into some of the mythology behind the characters and costumes.
The future of chinese opera may be uncertain despite being a disappearing art form in Singapore. However it will continue to stay so long as the new generation embraces and supports it. It’s good to know there’s a group of younger generation are coming together to learn and perform this art form. I sincerely hope more will come forward. More and more local photographers are documenting and sharing what they captured to keep the presence alive. I also hope that it will stand the test of time for the next generations and generations to come to experience these traditional art performances in the future.
A heartfelt thanks to Xin Xin Rong He Teochew Troupe for allowing me not only from backstage to onstage during a performance but also graciously permitting me to watch them work in action and sharing their stories of their trade with me. I feel honoured to have spent so much time in the presence of such great artists!
可惜，潮剧 “台柱” 缺乏新人材，近年的本地潮剧观众渐渐已“断层”，也许只有我外婆那一辈的老人如今还对潮剧情有独钟。一个戏剧没了观众，缺乏互动，你说能维持下去吗？演员出演虽然声情并茂，可是就是缺乏知音人，现在有关潮剧的编剧作曲逐年少，而最关键就是潮剧缺乏接班人。
A freelance Singapore-based travel photographer / photojournalist. I seek the extraordinary, but finds beauty in the everyday. Life is interesting, capture it.
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