The distinctive sounds of the erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and bangzi (clapper) are often the first sensory signs that a wayang or Chinese street opera performance is underway.
Much like its name suggests, wayang (malay for a theatrical performance employing puppets or human dancers) is an open-air theatre performance that incorporates a wide range of art forms such as song, mime, dance, acrobatics and even martial arts.
The costumes and makeup of the performers are distinctively vibrant and are meant to give hints to the characters they play. The most common of which being that of caibun (colourful makeup) worn by the jing (painted face) characters, while for the costumes, the prominent sheng (male) character would don a headdress, robes and shoes with an artificial beard.
The temporary stage for Chinese street opera performance is a simple construction made of wooden poles with an overhead canvas to shelter against the rain. An often-vibrant scenic backdrop made of embroidered silk called shoujiu separates the performers from what goes on backstage. Yet if you step aside you’ll be greeted with a full view of what goes on behind the scenes.
There are many forms of Chinese street opera, but over the years three main troupes have emerged in Singapore
1. Hokkien opera or fujianxi – described as having a characteristic “crying” melody and often based on folktales from the Fujian province
2. Teochew opera or chaoju – Known for its clear and tender singing-style, it is based on folk ballads and dances while incorporating fan-playing and acrobatic stunts
3. Cantonese opera of yueju – Said to be easy to understand and reflect reality, the performances are often based on tales from Chinese history of literature and mythology.
The role of Chinese street opera has also evolved significantly over the years since it first became popular in the mid 19th century as a wave of Chinese immigrants entered Singapore.
These groups setup temples and stages to pay patronage to their different deities and cultural groups, with the Cantonese occupying areas like Eu Tong Seng Street while the Teochews took North Bridge Road.
In the late 1800s, special indoor theatres located mainly in Chinatown were even created to meet wayang’s increasing popularity. These theatres often collaborated with restaurants and even brothels to provide a full evening’s entertainment of food, drinks, performance and pleasure.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and an increasingly modernising Singapore and the Government alike would instil measures to further distinguish the role of Chinese street opera, particularly the difference between professional (zhiye) and amateur (yeyu) opera troupes.
Professional troupes, whose members were paid to perform, were seen as mundane and functional in their sole roles of performing solely for rituals. Amateur troupes on the other hand, performed several times a year for leisure or nationwide events on a non-profit basis. They were often hobbyist who continued to contribute to the economy through their day jobs and were thus seen in the eyes of the state as cultural bearer of Chinese street opera, an interesting consideration as this was also the time where the weeding out of dialects and introduction of the Speak Mandarin campaign came about.
As with many traditional art forms, the role of Chinese street opera has significantly diminished in recent time, largely because fewer young adults see it as a viable career or even a hobby while age catches up with the passionate pioneers.
Yet to me I will always recall the times my dad brought me down for wayang performances even though I never understood a word of what was being said. From atop his shoulders I could somehow sense the passion of the performers belting out tunes in a tune that I’ll always remember, all while admiring the colourful costumes and backdrop that make me appreciate the dedication that these performers have to their craft.
The video below details the lives of performers Sin Sai Hong Opera Troupe, the oldest Hokkien Opera Troupe in Singapore. Produced by thecommonpeople with interviews by Royston Tan.