A dying tradition lives under the light of the silvery moon

3 09 2012

The seventh month in the Chinese calendar is a month that is held with much superstition in a predominantly Chinese Singapore. It is a month when, as beliefs would have it, the gates of hell are opened and it’s residents return to the earthly world. It is a time when the air fills with the smell of offerings being burned and when tents and stages appear in many open spaces all across Singapore to host dinners during which lively seventh month auctions are held during which entertainment (for both the returning spirits and the living), more often than not, in the form of Getai(歌台) – a live variety show, is often a noisy accompaniment.

Offerings are made to the spirit world when the gates of hell are opened during the seventh month.

Getai, popular as it is today, is however, a more recent addition as entertainment to accompany seventh month dinners. Before its introduction in the 1970s, it would have been more common to see Chinese opera performances and various forms of Chinese puppet shows at such events and during festive occasions at the various Taoist temples in Singapore.

Chinese opera was a common sight at seventh month festivities in the 1960s and 1970s.

The various forms of Chinese opera back in the 1960s and 1970s as I remember them, were always looked forward to with much anticipation by the young and old. My maternal grandmother, despite her not understanding a word of the Chinese dialects that were used in the performances was a big fan, bringing me along to the opera whenever it hit town. Travelling opera troupes were common then, moving from village to village setting up temporary wooden stages on which served not only as a performance stage but also as a place to spend the night. The travelling opera troupes brought with them a whole entourage of food and toy vendors with them and it was that more than the performances that I would look forward to whenever I was asked to accompany my grandmother to the wayangs as Chinese opera performances are often referred to in Singapore and in Malaysia.

A temporary opera stage set up during a Teochew Opera performance at the Singapore Flyer.

It was also common then to see more permanent structures that served as stages back then – they were a feature of many Chinese villages and were also found around temples. Perhaps the last permanent stage in Singapore is one that is not on the main island but one found in what must be the last bastion of ways forgotten that has stubbornly resisted the wave of urbanisation that has changed the landscape of the main island, Pulau Ubin, an island in the north-east of Singapore. Although many of the island’s original residents have moved to the mainland and many of their wooden homes and jetties that once decorated the island’s shoreline have been cleared, there is still a small reminder of how life might once have been on the island – a small community still exists, mainly to provide services to the curious visitors from the main island who come to get a taste of a Singapore that has largely been forgotten.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin – it was common to see such stages around temples and in Chinese villages up until the 1980s.

The permanent stage at Pulau Ubin is one that sits across a clearing from the village’s temple which is dedicated to the popular Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong (大伯公). It is also one that is still used, playing host to Teochew Opera performances by the temple’s opera troupe twice a year – once during the Tua Pek Kong Festival and once during the seventh month festivities. I have long wanted to catch one of the performances in a setting that one can no longer find elsewhere in Singapore, but never found the time to do it – until the last weekend when I was able to find some time to take the boat over for the seventh month festivities which were held on Friday and Saturday evening.

The Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin.

The clearing in front of the temple at Pulau Ubin with the tent set up for the seventh month auction.

For me, it is always nice to take the slow but short boat ride to the island – something I often did in my youth, not just because Pulau Ubin offers a wonderful escape for the urban jungle, but also because it takes me back to a world that rural Singapore once had been. We do have a few places to run off to on the main island, but it is only on Pulau Ubin that one gets a feel that one is far removed from the cold concrete of the urban world in which I can return to the gentler times in which we once lived.

On the slow boat to Ubin.

Ubin in sight – all it takes is a short boat ride to find that a little reminder of a Singapore that has long been forgotten.

Pulau Ubin offers an escape from the maddening urban sprawl.

Although the festivities on the island are now a quieter and a less crowded affair than it might once have been here and in similar celebrations that once took place across the island, it is still nice to be able to witness a dying tradition held in a traditional setting that we would otherwise not be able to see in Singapore any more. While it still is difficult for me to understand and appreciate what was taking place on stage, especially with the amplified voice of the auctioneer booming over the shrill voices of the performers on stage, it was still a joy to watch the elaborately made-up and kitted-out performers go through their routines. It was also comforting to see that the members of the troupe included both the young and the old, signalling that there is hope that a fading tradition may yet survive.

The stage manager calling lines from the script out to the performers – a necessity as the troupe members are all doing this part-time.

The treat that comes with any wayang performance is that it brings with it the opportunity to go backstage. It is here where we get to see the performers painstaking preparations in first doing up their elaborate make-up and in dressing up in the costumes, as well as watch the musicians who provide the characteristic wind, string and percussion sounds that Chinese Opera wouldn’t be what it is without.

Going backstage is always a treat. A performer gets ready as a drummer adds his sounds to the opera in the background.

A performer preparing for the evening’s performance backstage.

The same performer doing her make-up.

Another putting a hair extension on.

The fifteen year old little drummer boy.

Performers also double up as musicians as the troupe is short of members.

I would have liked to have spent the whole night at the festivities, but as I was feeling quite worn out having only returned to Singapore early that morning on a late night flight, I decided to leave after about two hours at the wayang. The two hours and the hour prior to that on the island were ones that helped me not just to reconnect with a world I would otherwise have forgotten, but also to the many evenings I had spent as a child catching the cool breeze in my hair by the sea. Those are times the new world seems to want us to forget, times when the simple things in life mattered a lot more … There will be a time that I hope will never come when this world we find on Pulau Ubin will cease to exist. I will however take comfort in it as long as it is there … and as long as there are those who seek to keep traditions such as the Teochew opera we once in a while are able to see there, alive.

The light of the silvery moon seen on Pulau Ubin – the festivities are held during the full moon of the seventh month.

A section of the audience and participants in the seventh month dinner.


Close-ups of performers and scenes from the Teochew Opera:


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7 responses

3 09 2012
thoughtmoments

An interesting blog which you have taken a splendid efforts, research and a photojournal to travel to Pulau Ubin and explore little streets in Singapore everywhere for the seventh lunar month festival to celebrate with open-air opera wayang, puppet shows and “getai”.

I do not believe that this is a dying tradition for the near future for as long as there are Chinese Singaporeans who are Taoists and worshippers in the Taoist temples in Singapore.

For centuries once a year in the seventh lunar month, these “visitors” of another unseen realm are like “tourists” to offer them offerings, prayers and entertainment for one month’s vistor passes. The deceased ancestors or families are supposed to welcome them and thanksgiving. This is a Chinese culture which would not die even in the modern world and age of technology. Its not a westernised out-fashioned belief. Those who believe cannot be explained. No explanation is not required for those who believe. 信不信由你。

5 09 2012
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks for the comments and observations – the dying tradition is that of Chinese opera. There are not many troupes left in Singapore, as is the case with puppet troupes – what is more commonly found these days are Getai shows …

4 09 2012
Sunny Lim

Thanks for the excellent post and pictures. Really appreciate it and kinda of make me regret for not making the effort to go down ubin this time.

5 09 2012
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks for your kinf comments Sunny. There should be more opportunities for at least a few years to come … hopefully Pulau Ubin doesn’t become another place lost to development in Singapore …

9 09 2012
FL

In the early sixties as a young kid, I could recall that the Chinese wayang (opera) was very popular. The whole place around the stage was very congested, crowd of people, young & old, makeshift hawkers selling foods & drinks, bright lights at nights, vehicles usually avoided the areas then.

In those years in my kampong, one spot was popular for staging the Chinese wayang was a field behind Deli Street (demolished) at the end of Tanjong Pagar Rd. I remember during the Ghost month, the Chinese wayang could go on for more than a week ! It first started with the Cantonese operas for about 3 or 4 days, followed by one or two days for the Hokkien, Teochew, and even Hainanese or Hakka ! My late uncle and other residents there would build temporary wooden platforms at the rear, so that we could join them to watch the operas. Outsiders were not allowed to sit inside as the chairs infront of the stage were, I think, for members who paid for them. At that times, the “getais” were not popular and seldom staged. I don’t know why. Of course, as young kids, we didn’t actually watch the operas as we were too young to understand the operas ! We just joined in for the fun, a happy get-together with relatives, and not forgetting enjoying the hawker foods. Ha ! Ha ! Ha !

10 09 2012
GET

Thanks Jerome! This article harks back to the good old days of yore… where Singaporeans are a much simpler and happier bunch of people.

19 08 2016

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