Teochew that is! I had the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do … get up close and personal with the performers at the back of the wayang stage, and with the kind invitation of the URA’s Marina Bay Singapore and the Select Group’s Singapore Food Trail, I got to do just that over the weekend. The behind the scenes visit allowed a group of us to watch and photograph performers of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association backstage (on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin opera troupe) as they went through their routines in getting dolled up for the evening’s performance. The performances were part of the Singapore Food Trail’s initiatives to bring back the good old days of Singapore in what was termed as “A Night of Nostalgia” to bring us back to the heyday of Teochew Opera on the streets of Singapore in the 1960s.
The colours that the various genres of Chinese operas (often referred to locally as “wayang”) brought to the streets of the Singapore of old, if not for anything else, always were a visual treat. They were a huge draw, bringing with them the entourage of mobile vendor providing a carnival like atmosphere each time they came to the area. My maternal grandmother with her lack of the command of any other language other than her native Bahasa Indonesia was a huge fan, often dragging me along in my early years as her companion. And even when I could never sit quite still below the wayang stage as the performers went about their routines, I was a more than willing companion to my grandmother as I could never resist the reward of a drink from the bird’s nest drink vendor which more often than not was a sweetened drink with bits of jelly in it which was made to taste like the real thing, and also a visit to the toy vendor from which I could get my hands on items such as a sword made of paper mache that split into two lengthwise when it came out of the paper mache scabbard.
What sometimes fascinated me on the stage were the costumes and the make-up of that the performers had on. The painted faces sometimes terrified me, so much so that back then, I never could never muster up the courage to peek backstage where the performers would have their make-up done well before the performances started, even as many boys in my neighbourhood did. That was something that I thought I would never be able to do again as I grew up, wayangs became less common as Singapore’s rapid urbanisation resulted in many traditions being lost to modernisation. When I had heard of the troupe that is still performing on Pulau Ubin earlier, I had actually wanted to visit Pulau Ubin, even though I am not what one might consider to be a big fan, to immerse myself in atmosphere of being around once again, which perhaps I hope will transport me back to the carefree days of my childhood, and I was plesantly surprised when I got an invitation to watch one at the Singapore Food Trail and at the same time sample the street fare that I imagined was long lost. What was a huge bonus was the opportunity provided by the organisers as well as with the kind permission of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, to watch and photograph the performers as they got their faces painted and hair done up on an authentic wayang stage. Being backstage was fascinating and I took it all in with the excitement of a child … taking lots of photographs some of which I have added to this post. What was equally fascinating was watching the performances which I thoroughly enjoyed and have perhaps Pei Yun of Oceanskies to thank for enlightening me on the excerpts that were being performed. I can also say that at the end of the evening performances I have become a little bit of a fan … Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association I understand in celebrating the 80th anniversary this year – I do hope that they are able to see at least another 80 and many more years to allow them to continue the excellent effort in keeping what is a dying tradition alive for our future generations.