Wayang days

7 10 2015

Seeing a stage set up for a wayang, as street theatre has come to known in Singapore, is always a cause for celebration. Wayangs not only add much colour that is otherwise lacking on the street of the modern reinterpretation of Singapore, they also take me back to the happiest days of my childhood and ones spent in a Singapore that now seems a far away place.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

Wayangs bring much colour to the now colourless streets.

The Chinese street opera, in its various genres would be the most common form of street threatre. Many of the troupes that started out as far back as in the mid 1800s would have had their origins in southern China. One pioneering troupe still around from those times is the Lao Sai Tao Yuan (老赛桃源), or Lau Sai Thor Guan in Teochew (Chaozhou), who arrived in the early 1850s. The troupe, which was already in existence some five decades prior to the move down the southern ocean, continued performing in Singapore during the occupation and would possibly be the oldest Chinese opera troupe still performing here in Singapore.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

A Lao Sai Tao Yuan perfromer on stage.

Wayang days today, sans what used to be the usual accompaniment of the aroma of steaming groundnuts and cobs of corn and the food laden pushcarts that were as much a crowd puller as the entertainment the wayangs provided, see much less of a crowd. There is also much less of an atmosphere as compared to the days in which wayang days were occasions everyone seemed to look forward to. The embrace of the modern world, and perhaps the abandonment of the vernacular, has resulted in a decline in interest in it as a form of entertainment. No longer a fashionable choice in today’s less unassuming climate, the troupes left today such as the Lao Sai Tao Yuan, survive only out of the passion and the determination of their members to keep a tradition that we in Singapore no longer have a need for, alive.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan's recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The stage at Tiong Bahru during Lao Sai Tao Yuan’s recent performance. Wayangs today attract much less of a crowd.

The Lao Sai Tao Yuan troupe, whose members are all quite friendly, performs quite regularly. Their performances and back stage preparations are a joy to observe. Their next performances will take place on at 12 noon and 7 pm on 9 and 10 October 2015 at the Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong (修德善堂) at Lorong 2 and on 11 and 12 October 2015 at the Paya Lebar Nine Emperor Gods temple (Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng or 葱茅园九皇宫) at Arumugam Road.


Backstage with the Lao Sai Tao Yuan

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The final act

29 09 2015

Except perhaps for the haze and the heavy downpour, the scene at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road last evening would have been one typical of any of the temple’s festival evenings with a stage erected to provide entertainment for the evening’s heavenly guest. It was however the last time the evening’s performers, the Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰) puppet troupe, will be seen on stage. One of only two Teochew rod puppet troupes in Singapore, the Sin Sai Poh Hong has now gone into retirement having played out their final act at last evening’s birthday celebrations for the Monkey King (or Monkey God).

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong's art.

A final peep into the Sin Sai Poh Hong’s art.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

Acts such as these put on by street opera and puppet troupes, while intended for the deities, served also to provide entertainment for the masses. They were a means by which cultural and social values were transmitted from one generation to the next in the days of low literacy levels and before television invaded our living rooms.

Last words ....

Last words ….

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Teochew rod puppetry, which has very elaborately made puppets skillfully manipulated by iron rods, are a more recent introduction (early 20th century) to the street theatre scene in Singapore. The tradition is however thought to go back several centuries in southern China. Sadly, it along with other genres of street theatre once common in Singapore, seem now to have little place in a Singapore that wants to know little of its past and it may only be a matter of time, before the last curtain falls on a form of entertainment that once brought entire communities out onto the streets.

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Behind the stage door

27 09 2015

The stage door or hu du men (虎度门) of a Chinese opera stage is what divides the real from the imaginary. It is the line across which the actor leaves his or her real self and becomes the stage character the audience sees. This was one of several interesting facts of what does go on behind the scenes on a Chinese opera, or wayang as we refer to it here in Singapore that I learnt on a back stage tour organised by the Esplanade that I attended last evening. The tour, which was hosted by media personality Nick Shen, is part of this year’s celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), Moonfest, being held this weekend at the Esplanade.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

The eleventh edition of the celebration at the Esplanade, sees the venue bringing back the street opera scene with a performances by a Hainanese, a Hokkien and a Teochew opera troupe on each of the three nights of Moonfest this weekend. Wayang in the various genres once commonly found in Singapore, would in the days before lives were complicated by modernity, attract the crowds. Often held to coincide with temple festivities, the wayangs would move from village to village and bring with them an entourage of food stalls with wayangs held either on stages erected for the period or on existing free standing stages. The stage in those days would not just be where the performances were held, but also would have been where life, for the actors and their families, would often be lived.

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门).

Nick Shen introducing the concept of the stage door or hu du men (虎度门). Stepping beyond the stage door, the opera actor leaves his or her own personality behind becomes fully immersed in the character.

The troupe's deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The troupe’s deities are an essential part of wayang back stage area.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The back stage area is abuzz with preparation activity before each performance.

The area back stage is always a fascinating place, not least because one is able to observe the lengthly preparations that take place before the actor is able to assume his or her role beyond the hu du men. Hearing about some of what goes on from Nick Shen, whose many talents include Chinese opera acting, made it all the more interesting. Besides introducing the concept of the hu du men and to stage superstitions such as that it was considered bad luck to kick one of the many chests (used to store make-up, props, etc. back stage,  Nick, also provided an insight into life back stage. This was just before last evening’s show by a one year old Hokkien opera troupe, Xiao Dong Tian (小洞天), so participants could also observe some of the preparations for the performance.

Backdrops are an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

Backdrops – an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

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The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

The backdrops are changed by drawing them in a similar way to curtains.

Interestingly, the troupe is a phoenix that has risen out of the ashes of an old phoenix, having been formed by some members of a century old troupe, the Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤), which was disbanded just last year (see: Last rites for the Singaporean soul) – the Hong (凤) refers to a phoenix and it is encouraging to know that the tradition is not completely being lost to the new world as well as that it there are perhaps a few from the younger generation interested in taking up the art.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor's beard is sometimes moved on stage.

Nick Shen doing a demonstration of an actor’s beard is sometimes moved on stage.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

An female performer wearing a beard. While in the past only men could perform in an opera, there are more female performers these days and they would often be cast in male roles.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

Performers now help each other with preparations. The blue make-up around the eyes is characteristic of Hokkien opera.

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Traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments.





Tanjong Pagar after dark

27 08 2015

It has been a little more than four years since the lights went out on Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. Left to the ghosts that are said to haunt it, the former station sees the occasional return of the living, as it did on Tuesday evening, when I got to see it again after dark with its ghosts scared off by the lights, sounds and action of the first of a series of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts’ (SIFA) Dance Marathon nights being held at the station.

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The evening, which had Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi hosting a small reception and introduce Archivist-Choreographer Mikuni Yaniahara as a Japan Cultural Envoy, saw two dance performances, starting with Yaniahara’s Real Reality at the main hall and followed by Yukio Suzuki’s Lay/ered on the tracks. The double-bill was the first of four dance evenings that are being held at the station. The three other evenings are on 28 August31 August and on 4 September.

The Ambassador of Japan, His Excellency Haruhisa Takeuchi.

The Ambassador of Japan, His Excellency Haruhisa Takeuchi.

Mikuni Yanaihara.

Mikuni Yanaihara.

The former station, intended as a grand terminal and a gateway to oceans, was built in 1932 and is thought to have been modelled after Helsinki’s Central Station. Gazetted as a National Monument in April 2011, it has been left empty since the Malayan Railway’s moved its southern terminal to Woodlands in July of the same year. The building, once the property of the Malaysian government through the Malayan Railway or Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) in more recent times, bears many reminders of the links Singapore had to Malaya throughout much of its history.

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The future of the well-loved monument, at least for an interim twenty year period before the port nearby begins a journey to the west (port operations are being moved to Pasir Panjang and eventually to Tuas), is now on the drawing board. As one of two special interest areas, for which a concept design proposal is being sought under Stage 2A of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Rail Corridor, the five teams shortlisted are required to suggest an interim re-purposing of the former station. The former station is seen as a gateway to the Rail Corridor, and it is a requirement of the RFP that any proposed reuse will allow the public to have “unfettered access so that they can appreciate the heritage of this building and its surroundings”.

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Submissions for the stage should have already been made. We should have some inkling of what the teams have in mind with a public exhibition of shortlisted submissions scheduled for October this year. More information on this can be found at the Rail Corridor RFP information site.

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The last puppet show

25 07 2015

The distractions of the modern world have seen us lose many of the traditions that once coloured the streets of Singapore. One that struggles to survive is Chinese puppet theatre in its various genres, kept alive only by the passion of those still involved with it.

Words that may no longer be sung.

Words that may no longer be spoken.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Sadly, we would soon see one of Singapore’s two Teochew rod puppet troupes, Sin Sai Poh Hong (新赛宝丰), exit the scene. Faced with dwindling interest, a lack of willing successors and the pressures of the modern world, the members of the troupes will play out their final act in the month after Singapore celebrates its half century embrace of modernity.

Fading with time ...

Fading with time …

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A more recent addition to the street theatre scene – Teochew rod puppetry arrived Singapore in the early part of the 20th century, the form of puppetry does have a long tradition in the land of the Teochew community’s forefathers, serving as a vehicle for the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Part of the preparations for the performance include getting the puppets ready.

Strange bedfellows.

Strange bedfellows.

At its height in Singapore, its performances would have attracted many off the streets, although intended primarily as entertainment to the deities. Troupes such as Sin Sai Poh Hong were kept busy through the year and would on the average, be engaged ten days in a month, providing sufficient income for the troupe to be run on a full-time basis. However, pressures of the modern world in which tradition is less valued coupled with the enforced shift away from the use of the vernacular,has seen interest fall in traditional puppetry.

Music accompanies the performance.

Music accompanies the performance.

The photographs accompanying this post, as well as the badly taken and edited video found at the end of this post, were of the troupe recent performance at the Chee Chung Temple at MacPherson Road. The temple, where the troupe regularly performs, was commemorating the birthday of its main deity, Huang Lao Xian Shi (黄老仙师). The next performance, the troupe’s last, will be held at the same venue on the evening of the 28 September 2015 (amended from previously reported date of 24 August 2015), the sixteenth day of the eight month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Birthday of the Monkey King). More information on this, and further updates, can be found at this Facebook post (please click).

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The Chee Chung Temple.

The Chee Chung Temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.



Other forms of puppetry once commonly seen in Singapore:





Bold and Beautiful – let’s Harp on it

21 08 2014

Bold and Beautiful – in line with its theme for this year, the ever so magical Singapore Night Festival, is back! This year’s festival, on for two Fridays and Saturdays on 22 and 23 August and 29 and 30 August 2014 across the arts and cultural Bras Basah. Bugis Precinct, sees it being organised around five key zones, that will include for the first time, a Festival Village at Cathay Green – which will not be short of delectable offerings, entertainment and shopping opportunities. Two venues will also feature for the first time at the Night Festival, with the historic Armenian Church seeing two Night Lights installations and the National Design Centre (the former St. Anthony’s Convent), which will see a mini interactive exhibition with a ceiling of white illuminated helium filled balloons as well as two light installations.

The Singapore Night Festival is back - bolder and more beautiful.

The Singapore Night Festival is back – bolder and more beautiful – and sure to pull-in the crowds.

The highlight of this year's Singapore Night Festival has to be The Earth Harp at the National Museum's front lawn.

The highlight of this year’s Singapore Night Festival has to be The Earth Harp at the National Museum’s front lawn.

The highlight of the festival has to be the William Close performing on his Earth Harp at the National Museum’s front lawn – one of several spectacular performances being lined up for the Pretty Arty festival zone based at the museum. The Earth Harp Close creates for the Night Festival, sees the huge harp strung across to the National Museum’s façade – the use of architecture as part of his harp, is inspired by a quote “architecture is frozen music” from Frank Lloyd Wright. Close, who was a second runner-up in the seventh season of America’s Got Talent, will collaborate with several local and international  artists such as Singapore’s drum group ZingO and songstresses in the form of Sound of Sirens as well as the fire and lights of Austrian collective Phoenix over both festival weekends.

Willaim Close and his Earth Harp.

Willaim Close and his Earth Harp.

Close close-up.

Close close-up.

ZingO - a local drum group, who are collaborating with William Close.

ZingO – a local drum group, who are collaborating with William Close.

Pretty Arty also sees half human / half birds of Follies for É Birds by the Arts Fission Company in the former Fashion Gallery.

Pretty Arty also sees half human / half birds of Follies for É Birds by the Arts Fission Company in the former Fashion Gallery.

The festival sees the return of Singapore’s very own Starlight Alchemy, playing not so much with fire this time, but with light and acrobatics beside the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Information Systems in a zone intended to reach out to Young Hearts around SMU Green. The acts will include AcroYogis – an acrobatic partner yoga presentation in which the audience can participate in, as well as Illuminated Playtime in which participants will be invited to play with LED lights.

AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

Another look at AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

Another look at AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

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Watch 10 local DJs spin together on Stage at the SMU Green in the Young Hearts Zone.

Watch 10 local DJs spin together on Stage at the SMU Green in the Young Hearts Zone.

The 10 DJs on stage.

The 10 DJs on stage.

Always a crowd-pleaser, Night Lights, will also return – this time doubling in scale – with installations spread across the festival’s zones. Night Lights never spares the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), a building I always enjoy seeing bathed in light – like outstretched arms its wings are always welcoming as it had been when I went to school there all those years ago. This year the façade of the SAM will be see a nature inspired multi-media presentation, Spirits of Nature, by WeComeInPeace from France.

Spirits of Nature by WeComeInPeace.

Spirits of Nature by WeComeInPeace.

The two Frenchmen coming in Peace.

The two Frenchmen coming in Peace.

One of the students behind Singapore University of Technology and Design's Night Lights installation at SMU, Stop and Smell the Flowers ...

One of the students behind Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Night Lights installation at SMU, Stop and Smell the Flowers …

... the installation requires one to pause - only by pausing to take a long exposure photograph, can the artwork be appreciated.

… the installation requires one to pause – only by pausing to take a long exposure photograph, can the artwork be appreciated.

Greenhouse Effect - another Night Lights installation by Maro Avrabou and Dimitiri Xenakis from France.

Greenhouse Effect – another Night Lights installation by Maro Avrabou and Dimitiri Xenakis from France.

Other eye-catching Night Lights installations I got to see a preview of include Cyanea, inspired by the Cyanea capillata – one of the largest jellyfish in the world, spread across Cathay Green. The installation, illuminated by a set of colour-changing lights, with smoke and sounds for effect, is being put up by Cumulus Collectif also from France.

Night Lights: Cyanea by Cumulus Collectif.

Night Lights: Cyanea by Cumulus Collectif.

Back to the SAM, where the Roundabout Midnight zone is based around, there are several installations to look out for. These include, The Cloud of Unknowing  by Ho Tzu Nyen in the Chapel on 29 and 30 August, 2014 – a cinematic exploration of the cloud as image, metaphor and carrier for divine illumination; a NOISE Weekend @ SAM on 22 and 23 August at 8Q Plaza, SAM at 8Q that will feature emerging bands and musicians from NOISE Singapore’s Music Programme; Darker Than Wax DJs at SAM on 29 August; and The Local People x SAM Night Market on 30 August, 2014 – where visitors can eat, listen and shop at the art market along Queen Street.

Cyanea from its inside.

Cyanea from its inside.

A view of the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, through Cyanea.

A view of the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, through Cyanea.

The last zone, Block Party @ Armenian Street, will see a wild and happening Armenian Street where parties to late will be taking place. The parties will include one that will see much excitement with a ring put up on the second weekend right in the middle of Armenian Street (which will be closed to traffic from 8 pm to 2 am on festival nights). The ring will see wrestling bouts that will pit stars of Singapore Pro Wrestling – another first at the Night Festival.

And Tango makes the Singapore Night Festival.

And Tango makes the Singapore Night Festival.

A performance that might be worth catching at Block Party is How Drama ‘s Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap, in Something Borrowed, Something New at The Substation Theatre, which will probably have you in stitches – not just because of the speed performance of 31 plays in an hour by the Singapore based improvisational performers, but also for their rather amusing take on current happenings. The performance, which will see the audience determine the sequence, has the audience laughing at the funny side of issues such as the much talked about Singapore Tourism Board’s “Honey, Look!” video advertisement as well as the National Library’s tango with the removal of children’s books from the shelves.

Honey, Look!

Honey, Look!

Admission to the Singapore Night Festival (including to the participating museums) is free. More information, including the festival guide, details of the performances, installations and also the artists, can be found at www.sgnightfest.sg. The festival’s happenings can also be followed on twitter at @BrasBasahBugis and on Facebook. There is also a festival guide available on instagram @SNFGUIDE. Hashtags for use during the festival are #SGNightFest and #SNFer.

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Poor Thing: A typical day in the Singaporean social media space

26 02 2014

Yes, another typical day in Singapore and another incident on the roads that leads to a reaction that is overblown through photos and videos of it finding their way onto social media platforms … only this time, it isn’t for real, but staged – for the stage.

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Poor Thing, a rather clever production by local theatre company The Necessary Stage that is inspired by what goes on on social media sites such as the rather infamous local so-called “Citizen Journalism” site STOMP  and popular platforms such Facebook and Youtube opens today at The Necessary Stage Black Box. The one-hour long production, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, may not be your typical theatre production in that the audience is free to move and even interact with what goes on on stage and through the social media by befriending one of the characters, but certainly examines the typical reaction of Singaporeans to such incidents when aired on social media.

The production, for which a script was only developed after a first series of rehearsals, does also see the actors exercising some degree of improvisation as they go along – making it all a rather interesting experience not just for the audience but also for those on stage. Poor Thing, which sees Siti Khalijah Zainal, Sharda Harrison, Dwayne Lau and Joshua Lim deliver rather intense performances on stage, runs from 26 February to 2 March and from 5 March to 9 March and limited tickets are still available at http://poorthing.peatix.com/.