SINGAPORE: Rows of red plastic chairs sit empty in front of the makeshift stage. Backstage, it is quiet except for the whirring of several fans on full speed. The sweltering mid-afternoon heat would have turned this place into a steam bath otherwise.
A few members of Xiao Dong Tian Hokkien opera troupe have just begun the elaborate process of painting their faces. Laid out on their dressing tables: brushes of all sizes and face paints of all colours.
A closer look at the cosmetics reveals brands like MAC, Living Proof and Make Up For Ever. These ladies in their 50s and 60s are definitely up to date with their make-up choices.
My clicking away with the DSLR camera doesn’t seem to faze them – clearly these ‘aunties’ are used to being photographed backstage. There are a few raised eyebrows, though, and the occasional side glance.
One of them, Madam Gwee Lay Huan, finally takes it upon herself to be my guide, telling me about her gear, the show being staged later in the evening, and what everyone’s role is.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The 67-year-old veteran has been a street opera, or wayang, performer since the age of 13. Back then, she said, “no one had a choice”.
“This was family business. You don’t work outside,” she explained.
Mdm Gwee comes from a family steeped in tradition. For more than a century starting in 1910, the Gwee clan ran Sin Sai Hong – one of the most renowned professional Hokkien opera troupes in Singapore and peninsula Malaysia.
At its peak in the 1950s, tickets to Sin Sai Hong shows at Great World Amusement Park sold like hotcakes, and the troupe’s lead performers were the ‘pop idols’ of the era.
The travelling troupe – its members spending literally every hour doing everything together – even had its own in-house chefs. Mdm Gwee’s parents slogged a good part of their lives away in the Sin Sai Hong kitchen.
So in addition to singing and acting on stage, Mdm Gwee, being the good daughter, remembers working after hours every night helping her parents clean up.
“I had to sit there and wash the big pile of bowls until my legs went numb,” she said of the days when the troupe was more than a hundred-strong.
The kitchen chores remained even after she had risen through the ranks to become the “xiaosheng”, or young male lead.
“Looking back, I don’t think I had a childhood,” she said, and then chuckled somewhat resignedly.
AN ERA GONE BY
Of the more than 300 types of Chinese opera, only about eight varieties made it to Southeast Asia, the most popular ones being Teochew, Cantonese, Peking and Hokkien.
The earliest description of wayang in Singapore dates all the way back to the mid-1800s. For more than a century, jiexi (street opera in Mandarin) enthralled more audience than any other form of live entertainment.
At one point, the flourishing scene supported over a hundred professional troupes that staged thousands of shows each year. Some of them even had their own dedicated theatres in Chinatown.
Mdm Gwee remembers the excitement of being on stage every night. “There was no break. We even performed during Chinese New Year,” she said of the bygone era.
FANS WERE PART OF THE STREET OPERA COMMUNITY
In addition to the strong bond among troupe members, Mdm Gwee also reminisces about the ‘groupies’ who became more than just fans.
To show their appreciation, many opera enthusiasts would invite the performers over to their homes to wine and dine them, when the troupe staged shows in their neighbourhoods. There was also the occasional mahjong game.
“Even when their children got married, they would invite us,” said Mdm Gwee who became lifelong friends with some of her fans.
But these friends were also some of her harshest critics. To stay on top of the game, Sin Sai Hong troupe members, despite the fact that most of them were related, had to compete for roles – and only the best got to be the leads.
“The instructors were strict, and expectations were high,” she said, adding: “Not like now.”
Mdm Gwee laments that performing standards have dropped along with audience numbers.
The 1980s marked the decline of street opera in Singapore. Two important factors came into play: The Government’s push to replace dialects with Mandarin, and the ageing and dwindling of the core audience.
The advent of media like VCDs and DVDs that exposed enthusiasts to Chinese opera acts from other parts of world also took audiences away from live performances.
The number of professional opera troupes plunged.
In 2014, Sin Sai Hong ended its 104-year run. But in that same year a new troupe, Xiao Dong Tian, was born.
NOT READY TO QUIT
Its youngest member is Danson Ong. Even backstage, he exudes restless energy. On top of doing his own makeup, he flits around to help others with their hair and headgear.
His passion for Hokkien opera makes him an oddball. At 27, he is also Xiao Dong Tian’s sole male performer.
Women have come to dominate the wayang scene in Singapore, playing all the parts from the handsome scholar to the suave general. Mdm Gwee, for example, has specialised in playing only male roles for more than five decades.
This is a rather ironic development – considering that for centuries before the 1920s, females were not even allowed to set foot on stage. Their place in the feudalistic society back then was firmly at home, with the children.
But when Mr Ong joined Sin Sai Hong at the turn of the millennium with his older brother Johnson, both of them teenagers at the time, street opera was already in decline. Danson became a performer and his sibling, a musician.
The small daily fee – ranging from S$60 for leads to as little as S$25 for small roles – has deterred most other men who can no longer rely on the profession to feed themselves and their families.
Fortunately, the brothers make their living in full-time jobs elsewhere.
When Sin Sai Hong bowed out of the scene, Johnson and other former members decided to set up Xiao Dong Tian to help the ‘uncles and aunties’ whom they had come to regard as family. For some of the ageing performers and musicians, street opera remains their only source of income.
“We give them higher pay than they got in Sin Sai Hong so that they can make a living,” said Danson.
We are not blood-related, but our relationship is closer than family members.
He noted that there are now fewer than 10 professional troupes left in Singapore.
THE SHOW WILL GO ON
The stage curtain lifts at 7.30pm. The music starts. Danson announces the title the show in Hokkien.
Tonight, there is a small audience. Among them, a middle-aged woman is recording the performance on her iPad. A few feet away, an elderly man is recording the audio on old-school cassette tapes.
Mdm Gwee hobbles to the stage entrance and waits for her cue. Once on stage, she transforms into the manly general skillfully fighting his enemy with a spear.
Xiao Dong Tian’s main clients are Taoist temples located in the older neighbourhoods. During a slow month, they take on only three or four shows.
Their busiest period are the months before and after the Hungry Ghost Festival, when they stage about 20 shows a month.
But they face increasingly stiff competition from boisterous getai shows that tend to draw much larger crowds.
Asked what she does when there is no audience – which sometimes happens especially for afternoon shows – Mdm Gwee said: “For people in my generation, we do it for the love of the stage. We still perform to the best of our ability.”
“We can’t force people to watch, but at least we’re trying,” she pointed out.
Danson added: “As my aunties say, the deities are watching.”