Friday, February 27, 2009

Chinese Opera....

Recently I saw a Chinese Opera Play and songs were sung in English. This is to appeal to English speaking audiences so that they can enjoy and understand the whole story. However I find it weird to watch and I prefer to watch Chinese opera performed the Chinese ways.

I recalled when I was young, my Mum and Dad used to bring me along to watch Chinese operas along the streets. These plays were free for all and most of the time acted out to thank the divine Gods, Goddesses and Deities for a whole year of blessings of good fortune or successful business dealings. Others were acted because someone strikes it rich by lottery number given by the ‘House God’ of that particular temple. At other time, it is the 7th Month, which is the Chinese Ghosts Month. Such were acted out for the benefit of these 'beings' to provide entertainment for their 15 days of ‘annual leaves’. Chinese refers to these beings as 'Good brothers'.

So off we went carrying stools as these streets operas do not provide seats. It was a free street show – a treat for the people living in and around the area. We have to leave home early to get a better place to put our stools so that we were not blocked by others. So for days with performances of interest, Dad and I will start as early as in the morning to 'chop' a better place. If the performances go on for days, people will leave their stools and someone to look after the ‘choiced’ place so that no one will take it over or push it over.

As I grew older, Chinese opera to me is a spectacular display of colorful backdrop, vibrant costumes and make-up. The make-up was painstaking applied on faces acting different parts. The leads were easily identified as they are the hero and heroine of the story. Other casts were the rich landlord, the ‘funnybones’, the warriors and his army, the bad guys and the maids. In Chinese operas, some of the casts were acrobats because they need to somersault in the air. You will hear claps and whistles and cheering on parts well acted out.

Stories are normally about patriotic heroes, about love, about unfaithfulness and punishments etc. These were stories collected from the various dynasties in China. As a kid I like 'Wu Song beating the Tiger'. The exciting part was when the tiger (acted by human) and Wu Song were wrestling each other. All the children and adults were cheering and clapping like crazy. I particularly like the ending when the magistrate cleared Wu Song of him murdering his midget brother. Another play that I like is the 'Butterfly Lovers', it is the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet.

The muscial instruments used are mostly wind and string instruments. I love the Chinese Harps which is KuZheng, the fluet which is Xiao, the Pipa which gives a sad tune (always reminds me of Wang Zhaojun) and of the Erhu. These instruments created moods for the whole show, especially the drums... I love the drums!

In the days when Chinese operas were at their peak, such operas actors and actresses were well respected and were held in high esteemed. Like any other entertainment, these actors and actress have their fans and some were really rich and influential fans. I remembered Dad said once that his friend presented a beautiful costume to the female lead. It was a beautifully designed white dress sewed with beads, pearls and sequence complete with headgear and opera boots. The costume cost a bomb to the currency of that time. Furthermore, this gentleman inserted dollar notes into the hem of the costume as a tip to the lead lady. Talking about flirting… the most lavish and flattering gift which gives the lead lady a lot of ‘face’. Chinese are concerned with ‘face’. ‘You give face’ means you acknowledged and held the other person in high esteemed. It has something to do with creditability.

I started to love Chinese operas. I watched the Hokkien operas, Teochew operas, Beijing operas and Cantonese operas. The Beijing opera costumes are mostly embroidered. The most elaborated ones were the Cantonese operas costumes which are decorated with ‘blink blink’ and designs embroidered in gold and colorful threads studded with vibrant colored stones. Later Dad told me that the opera costumes designed were mostly from the Ming period .

In term of language, I am able to understand Cantonese, not full but at least 80% of the narration in songs followed by Hokkien and Teochew. However I have a hard time understanding what the Beijing opera performers were singing. Unless I am invited by friends, I will not personally buy ticket to watch a Beijing opera performance.

Another interesting side to this Street Wayang (a Malay word for Show/Play) was hawker stalls set-up along the pavement of the streets. This area will be lighted by fairy-lights. Hawkers selling cold drinks, ice-cream, fried noodles, wanton noodles, floss candy, kachang puteh (assorted peanuts) and the best were fresh cockles. People sat on small stool with low table and cockles were sold in plates. The hawker will drop them into hot boiling water and the cockles will open up. You eat it by dipping it into chili sauce and you can eat as many plates as you can consume and pay later. Those were the days where no one is worried about Hepatitis B or cholesterol.

Kids loved ‘tikam tikam’…whereby you open a little paper and see what is the price. Even if you do not win cash (the biggest prize is 50 cents), you will surely get an ice cream to compensate. There were hawkers selling swords made of papers. These were miniatures of the ones used in the operas. Dad used to buy them for us and we will 'clang' around like we were the heroes. When adults were watching opera, children will ran around playing games, eating ice cream and peeping into the back stage. I love to peep at the back stage to watch the various casts taking their rest, drinking teas and taking food. Childhood was made of these.

Now a day such hakwers' treats are no longer available along the streets for safety and hygiene reasons. As a country progresses, she lost her precious cultures. People are no longer interested to watch operas, not the young let alone understanding all the singing.

Talking about heritage conservations, how many know about our heritage? Especially in Singapore where people are not homogenous but come from different countries. Within these people they inter married and another group was borne – like the Peranakan and the Eurasians. They too have their own plays, style of language and a set of culture as well.

Did I spread my nostalgic mood to you?....


  1. That was lovely ... what beautiful childhood memories. It is a shame that as a society progresses, it changes and loses some of its charm. But I suppose that every generation feels the same ... things change.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories of the Chinese Opera.

    Small Footprints

  2. Hi, good to see you back again. Watching the play made me think of my younger days when everything is not so complicated and simple. Needs were simple then. Cheers!