A delightful song and dance about Katong

22 02 2022

Betel Box Tours must be applauded for its most recent effort at bringing out the wonderful tales that are connect with the especially colourful district of Katong. Titled Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, the tour involves a walk of discovery through the district’s much storied streets with its stories told through verse, through song and through dance. Created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan and Valerie Lim, and produced by Jamie Lee, two of the wonderfully talent team – Mark Tan, who takes on the role of guide, narrator and singer (he dances too) and independent movement artist Valerie Lim, expertly provide a highly entertaining and refreshing take on Katong’s streets, back lanes, personalities, cultural and religious sites. The tour is certainly well worth the two hours and the price of the ticket!

The musical tour runs until the end of March 2022 and tickets (and further information) may be obtained through: https://katongdreaming.peatix.com/.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour — performed by Mark Tan and Valerie Lim.

About Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour

Katong is always a delight to visit, with its colourful houses, sleepy streets and culinary treasures. But Katong also holds a rich history, steeped in Peranakan culture and traditions, brimming with surprising stories.

Katong Dreaming: A Musical Tour, is a performance art tour created by August Lum, Marc Nair, Mark Nicodemus Tan, and Valerie Lim. It is produced by Jamie Lee for Betel Box Tours, supported under the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, an initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board and National Arts Council to encourage the development and test-bedding of innovative performing arts tours by tour operators.

This two-hour walking tour begins at the southern border of Katong at East Coast Road before winding through Ceylon Road, Joo Chiat Road, Koon Seng Road, and Tembeling Road. In three broad chapters, familiar experiences of food, faith and historical landmarks are woven together through cross-disciplinary art forms into a groundbreaking blend of musical theatre, site-specific performance and tour guiding.

Valerie Lim and Mark Tan

About the Artists:

Marc Nair is a poet who works at the intersection of art forms. His work revolves around the ironies of everyday life. He has published ten collections of poetry.

Valerie is an independent movement artist. The mysteries of the human body, multi-disciplinary and immersive works deeply thrill her. She believes life must be spent pursuing what makes us feel the most alive.

August is a musical storyteller, who has been making sounds for a variety of mediums, from stage to film to theme parks as well. Included in his wish-list is the desire to write music for a dramatic series, as well as background music for certain public spaces.

Mark is a musician, writer, performer, and tourist guide. All of the aforementioned stages allow him to talk about his loves for art, music, history, football, and cricket, to audiences who have no choice but to listen.

Photographs taken during the tour


Who’s the Murderer?

23 11 2021

A social activity that has become quite a huge craze amongst the youth in China is jubensha (剧本杀). Interest in the game, which started off as a type of board game, or one played using a mobile app, seemed to have been sparked by a popular murder-solving celebrity reality TV series in China that is known in English as “Who’s the Murderer”. 明星大侦探 in Chinese, which translates directly into “Star Detective”, the series made its debut in 2016. The TV show was in turn, inspired by the Japanese manga series Case Closed or Detective Conan.

A game room.

How the game is played has since evolved into one that could see players dressing up to take on a role for the game. Some of the more elaborately executed games now also involved very fancily set up rooms. As an industry, jubensha has grown in leaps and bounds since its popularity started rising in 2017, with value of the industry in China thought to be worth in excess of US$2 billion in 2021.

Detective Conan in Chinatown, a mural by Yip Yew Chong. The Japanese manga character may have provided the spark for much more than this mural!

Jubensha‘s — the literal translation of which is “scripted murder”, is often referred to as a “murder mystery game”, and sometimes, “live-action role-play”. It is difficult to find a direct comparison of what the game is about and may be thought of as a take on the board game Cluedo or Clue, in that the game’s goal is to establish the character in the game responsible for committing a murderous act. Jubensha in China finds a following with a youthful crowd of students and young professionals. It seems to also be making inroads into Singapore. Some twenty jubensha outlets have been set up here in the matter of just two years since 2020. While jubensha here may initially have attracted students and young working adults arriving from China, there has also been a fair bit of interest from Malaysians working or studying in Singapore.

A jubensha script can involve some props.

With Singaporeans, the attraction seemed to have been a lot less at the start, which could be put down to a lack of mastery among Singaporeans of the Mandarin language. This is essential to in playing the various roles demanded by the games’ scripts in Chinese. To overcome this barrier, several outlets are looking to innovate by introducing scripts translated into English. This would certainly enable jubensha’s reach to be extended in Singapore. Well-written scripts form the basis of playing the game, with each character in the game having a different script. For the game, each player takes up a role with the number of players determined by the number of characters in the game. A dungeon or game master, who is a member of staff of the outlet involved, leads the game, which can last several hours. Besides players dressing up for the role, some outlets have specially decorated rooms to play the game in and props that can increase the immersive experience. One newly opened outlet even goes as far as having dedicated rooms to play each of its two script-based games with very real looking life-sized props and rooms that are appropriately decorated.

Inside a very elaborately decorated jubensha outlet.

To find out more about jubensha, what it is about and how it is played, the video clip below is of a visit to a jubensha outlet TopWE. Unfortunately, it was not possible to show parts of an actual game in progress due to the pandemic restrictions in force during the visit. Located at 195 Pearls Hill Terrace, TopWE is run by a group of jubensha enthusiasts, which includes a Singaporean, Sim Jun An, who takes us through the outlet and provides an explanation of how the game is played.

Pulau Ubin in the merry month of May

25 07 2021

One of the places in Singapore in which the memories of old are still alive is Pulau Ubin. It is where many in Singapore now find an escape from the staid and maddeningly overcrowded world in which Singaporeans have been made to call home.

Pulau Ubin — at least pre-Covid — comes alive every May, when the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple honours its main deity Tua Pek Kong, around the time of the Buddhist Vesak Day holiday (which has little to do with the local Taoist deity). The manner in which the festival is celebrated, harks back to the days of village life, with the Ubin’s rural settings certainly lending itself to providing the correct atmosphere.

No village temple festival would of course be complete without a Chinese opera performance. Held to entertain the visiting deity more than the crowd, these performances would in the past draw large crowds and be accompanied by a a variety of night-market-like stalls offering anything from food, desserts, drink, masks and toys, and the tikam-tikam man. While the stalls are missing in the modern-day interpretations of village festivals, Chinese opera performances and these days, getai, are still held at selected temples during their main festivals over the course of several days. Such is the case with the festival on Pulau Ubin, which is commemorated with as much gusto as would village festivals of the past, even if it involves a largely non-resident population. What does complete the picture on Pulau Ubin, is its permanent free-standing Chinese opera stage — just one of three left in Singapore — on which both Chinese opera and getai performances are held.

Photographs taken during the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Tua Pek Kong festival in May 2014

Where durians and Chinese opera come together

13 07 2021

Once commonly found across Singapore, permanently erected free-standing Chinese opera (also commonly referred to in Singapore as “wayang”) stages have become quite hard to come by in Singapore. Erected to entertain the gods during their visits down to the mortal realm, the were also put to use in several other ways, doubling up as the clan, temple or village schools, depending on where they were built. Only three such stages are left in Singapore, two on the main island and one more on Pulau Ubin and it is always a treat to catch a Chinese opera performance being staged on one of them, especially if one is able to head backstage where in my opinion, the best “action” takes place.

The Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple is a place of devotion for many.

One occasion during which I had the good fortune of doing just this was during the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple at Balestier Road in September 2016 from which the photographs in this post were captured. The temple, having links to Hokkien plantation workers from Joseph Balestier’s venture to grow sugarcane by the Whampoa River, has a history that dates back to 1847. Its stage, which came up in 1906, was built by Tan Boo Liat — the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng, and who is also well-known for erecting Golden Bell — the Edwardian-style mansion on Mount Faber that is now the Danish Seamen’s Church.

It is also a place where Chinese opera performances take place (at least pre-Covid) on one of Singapore’s last permanently erected free-standing wayang stages.

The temple, besides being a place of devotion and a place to catch a wayang, has also become a place that is synonymous with indulgence in the “king of all fruits” — durians. Durians have been sold in and around the area for, which was also known for its cinemas, for a long time and right by or in front of the temple ever since I can remember. Much of the area has changed, even if there is much that is is familiar physically. The durian stalls of old, are however, still very much a common sight every durian season. Not only do you see them just by temple, but also in the side lanes in the area. Like the temple, and the stage when it comes alive, they are among the last vestiges of the living side of the old Balestier Road, a side that long lives in my memory.

Durians and Chinese opera.
Another view of the temple.
Joss sticks at the temple.

Photographs of the Chinese Opera preparations and performance in September 2016

By Brute Force

28 08 2019

Photographs, from last evening’s action packed media preview of Fuerza Bruta. The Argentinian performing group has made a return to the Singapore Night Festival – as its headline act. The troupe’s energy packed performances will take place over 3 evenings at Cathay Green from 29 to 31 August. Tickets are priced at $15.

More information can be found at https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/csnf2019.


Expect an electrifying finale to the Singapore Night Festival this weekend

22 08 2018

The Singapore Night Festival draws to a close this weekend with several not-to-be-missed performances, including one that is quite literally electrifying. That, The Duel by the Lords of Lightning, takes place on Cathay Green and sees a high voltage battle fought with bolts generated with century old technology that takes the form of a Tesla coil.

The Duel by Lords of Lightning.

Other performances to look out for are the enchanting FierS à Cheval by the Compagnie des Quidams, Automatarium by David Berga and Elements – Water by a local Urban Dance company Six.5.

FierS à Cheval by the Compagnie des Quidams.

Automatarium by David Berga.

The performances take place on the evenings of 23, 24 and 25 August. Do note that 100% bag checks will be carried out at the Festival Village and Cathay Green and festival-goers are advised to head over to the festival bag-lite.

Elements – Water By Six.5.

More information on the performances can be found at :


See also : Night Lights.

Performance Highlights

Automatarium By David Berga
23 Aug to 25 Aug
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM, 10:00 PM – 11:00 PM
Queen Street


FierS à Cheval By Compagnie des Quidams
23 Aug to 25 Aug
7:45 PM – 8:15 PM (Capitol)
9:15 PM – 9:45 PM (NMS/SMU Sch of Economics & Social Sciences)
10:30 PM – 11:00 PM (SMU Sch of Infosystems/Queen Street)



The Duel By Lords Of Lightning (UK)
23 Aug to 25 Aug
7:45 PM – 7:51 PM, 9:15 PM – 9:21 PM, 10:30 PM – 10:36 PM



Elements – Water By Six.5
23 Aug to 25 Aug
8:00 PM – 8:10 PM, 10:15 PM – 10:25 PM (23rd Aug);
7:30 PM – 7:40 PM, 8:40 PM – 8:50 PM, 10:00 PM- 10:10 PM (24th Aug);
7:20 PM – 7:30 PM, 9:45 PM – 9:55 PM (25th Aug)

Night Lights at the Singapore Night Festival 2018

16 08 2018

A sneak peek at some of the Night Lights installations for the Singapore Night Festival, the 11th edition of which starts properly on Friday 17 August.

Running until 25 August, the festival features light installations (switched on over the festival period) and performances that will take place from 23, 24 and 25 August across 5 zones.

Some of the eye-catching installations, which are featured below, are Pulse at Armenian Church (the model will only be at the display on the 23, 24 and 25 Aug), Aquatic Dream at the National Museum Lawn, The Search and World of Wearableart at the National Design Centre and Before the Word at Chijmes.

More on the festival can be found at www.nightfestival.sg.



National Museum Lawn





Armenian Church







both at the National Design Centre



A WOW piece entered by Maria Tsopanaki and Dimitri Mavinis, who now design for the likes of Lady Gaga.






In search of love in the old GPO

14 04 2017

I loved the old GPO. It was a post office like none other in Singapore. Its main hall, which you entered after a climb up a short flight of stairs, was grand and airy. Stretching almost the entire length of the building, the hall was also where the long postal counter was found. That ran along the hall’s length and held the distinction of being the longest in the world.  Like all old buildings, the GPO – now the Fullerton Hotel has its collection of stories, including ones that tell of romantic liaisons.

In search of romance – a civil servant, played by Isabelle Chiam, gets everyone at the Minsitry of Finance involved.

An opportunity to discover the romances of the past, and also the building’s colourful history – in a fun and amusing way – presents itself with “A Fullerton Love Story Tour”.  Led by a resident tour guide, participants are taken on a search for romance – not of their own – but between a love struck postman at the GPO, played by Edward Choy, and his love interest – a civil servant with the Ministry of Finance housed in the same building – played by Isabelle Chiam. Participants also become part of the story as they move through various historic spots that include the Singapore Club, Fullerton Square, the Presidential Suite and the location of the Fullerton Building’s former lighthouse.

The love struck postman, played by Edward Choy.

View from the lighthouse towards what used to be the harbour.

Tours, which will be held from 8pm to 9.30 pm on 29 April, 6 May and 13 May 2017, are available for booking at http://afullertonlovestorytour.peatix.com. Priced at $78 nett for adults and $58 nett for children between 6 to 11, the tours will be followed by desserts at The Courtyard crafted by Executive Pastry Chef, Enrico Pezzelato.

The resident tour guide.

Besides the tour, which is being held in conjunction with the Singapore Heritage Festival 2017, the Fullerton Hotel is also bring back the TENG Ensemble for a showcase of brand new Singapore-inspired works. The showcase, “Where the River Always Flows II”, will include songs by P. Ramlee and Zubir Said and two East-West pieces specially commissioned  by the Fullerton Heritage.  Tickets for the concert, which will be held at the East Garden on 29 April 2017 at 7 pm, are available at $3 each at http://wheretheriveralwaysflows2.peatix.com.  More information on the concert and the tour can be found at the Fullerton Heritage’s website.

Enchanted Garden – one of five desserts guests on the tour will get to choose from.

Back to school at Armenian Street

10 03 2017

Detention class, tuck shop, science lab, literature class and PE – names that evoke an instant recall of the best (or worst) days of our lives – will haunt Armenian Street this weekend when just like the good old days, scores of kids dressed in school uniforms that probably no longer fit, make a return to the area for the Armenian Street Party.

The former Tao Nan School – now Peranakan Museum, in party colours.

Put together by the Peranakan Museum, which is itself housed in a former school building,  the party being held this Friday and Saturday evening, offers lots of opportunities, especially for those of my generation, to feel that youthful vibe of one’s schooldays. If being naughty and ending up in The Substation’s Detention (an interactive space that celebrates creativity and playfulness) isn’t for you, there are lots of other things to do including showcasing one’s talents on stage through the Timbre Group’s Open Mic Night to relive the glitzy days of Talentime, tucking into some delectable and quite un-school canteen like treats brought the Tuckshop by True Blue Cuisine, and take part in Upside Motion’s Xtend the Night PE lessons – for which sign-ups ( are required at http://asp-xtendthenight-80s.peatix.com/ (Fri) and http://asp-xtendthenight-90s.peatix.com/ (Sat).

More information on the party and how to have fun at it can be found at the Peranakan Museum‘s and Singapore Philatelic Museum‘s websites.

Detention Class by The Substation (Friday and Saturday, 10 and 11 March 2017 7.30pm – 11pm).

Glee Club by Sing’theatre Academy (Friday, 10 March 2017 6.45pm, 7.45pm and 8.45pm).

Old School Swinging by Act 3 International (Friday, 10 March 2017, at 6pm and Saturday, 11 March 2017, at 6pm and 8pm).


The 16th century sailor seen wandering at the National Museum

30 01 2016

With all that’s been rumoured about the National Museum, the curious sight of a lost soul dressed in the manner of a 16th century Portuguese sailor wandering around one of its galleries would not be unexpected. Strangely though, rather than stay well away from the sailor – as one might expect, those present in the gallery seemed instead to be drawn to him.

The Level 2 galleries.

The National Museum – where the past comes alive in more ways than one.

There is little that is sinister about the sailor who roams the basement gallery with two muses in tow. On a quest to find what he thinks will offer an escape from the curse of his long but lonely existence – attributed to the consumption of the Elixir of Life, the sailor enlists the help of those around. The sailor, the two muses, and his quest – to find the greatest treasure in the world, is all part of the fun of an experiential play, “The Greatest Treasure in the World”.

A muse and Aesop (as well as several other characters from the past), also help Afonso in his quest.

A pair of muses and several other characters from the past, also help Afonso in his quest.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The play, created by Peggy Ferroa, has the audience, embark on a rather enjoyable adventure through time with Afonso, the Portuguese sailor – whose full name sounds as long as the life he has had. The search for the treasure takes place in the in the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition –  where Afonso suspects he would, with the help of the audience, find what he seeks.


Tickets to join Afonso on his quest cost $38 and can be booked through SISTIC. Two sessions of the hour-long experience will be held on the evenings of 30 January, 25, 26 and 27 February, 24, 25, and 26 March and 28, 29 and 30 April 2016. More information on the The Greatest Treasure in the World can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s website.

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).




Don’t under-ESTIE-mate this 8-year old

26 01 2016

All eyes will surely be on eight-year old Estie Kung when Man vs Child: Chef Showdown premiers this evening (26 January) on A+E Networks’ Lifetime channel (StarHub TV Channel 514). The cooking competition series, which made its debut in the U.S., has some of America’s young culinary talents taking on professional chefs. The precocious Estie will be the youngest of the five young chefs who will feature in the 13-episode series. Hosted by chef and television personality Adam Gertler, the series also sees Dylan Russett, Emmalee Abrams, Cloyce Martin and Holden Dahlerbruch, who are between 12 and 14, pitted against a different executive-level chef in each week’s episode.

Estie Kung at Ikea Alexandra.

Estie Kung in Singapore at Ikea Alexandra.

Estie was in town recently as part of an Asian promotional tour, making public appearances at two ‘Meet-and-Greet’ sessions. Held at the two IKEA stores, the sessions on 17 January had Estie, who has been in the kitchen since the age of three, exude a confidence well beyond her years in serving up two exclusive recipes – a vegetable ball Banh Mi and Pan Seared Salmon with New England Clam Chowder Sauce – both with IKEA’s products.

Estie, very skillfully dicing onions for the preparation of Bahn Mi.

The series premiere, titled “Don’t Under-ESTIE-mate Her”, will see Estie Kung whipping up a Korean fried chicken dish with kimchi mayonnaise and a gochujang gastrique. More information on the series, which airs every Tuesday at 7pm, can be found at Lifetime Asia.

Estie Kung’s IKEA Veggie Ball Bahn Mi.

Putting the finishing touches on her pan-seared salmon with New England clam chowder sauce.

With Jamie Yeo during the Q&A session.

Adam and eve

1 01 2016

As anticipated, Adam stole the show with eve – New Year’s eve that is, bringing Singapore’s jubilee year to a rousing end at Marina Bay Countdown 2016. The event, – Singapore’s largest countdown event, saw the new year welcomed with a huge eight minute display of fireworks – some 4000 shots were fired compared to 2200 the previous year. The intermittent rain, which fell throughout the evening and into the new year, paused not just for the fireworks but also for Adam’s hour long performance, which went on for 30 minutes on each side of the fireworks display.


An eight minute long fireworks display lit up Marina Bay during the countdown.

The display also featured music composed by music director Julian Wong, with wishing spheres – a feature of the Marina Bay countdown event, lit to have their colours change in sync with the display of fireworks. As part of the celebrations, the façade of the Fullerton Building – Singapore’s latest building to be gazetted as a National Monument, become a canvas for a 3D projection intended to show Singapore’s multi-faceted cultural and architectural identity, the City in a Garden and its modern outlook. The projection was jointly developed by a Canadian-Singaporean team comprising of Aims from Singapore and Canada’s Symmetrica. Involving a total of 32 projectors – each covering a span of 120 metres by 35 metres, the show had been running at regular intervals from the evening of Boxing Day.

The 3D projection on the Fullerton.

The 3D projection on the Fullerton.

The spotlight was very much on Adam Lambert, before ....

The spotlight was very much on Adam Lambert, before ….

... and after the fireworks display.

… and after the fireworks display.

Rain clouds over a Marina Bay dressed up for Countdown 2016.

Rain clouds over a Marina Bay dressed up for Countdown 2016.

Wishing spheres lit for the event.

Wishing spheres were lit to change colours during the event and during the fireworks display.

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



























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.






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.


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.





Traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments.

The season for wayang

9 09 2015

Public entertainment during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, while intended for the special visitors of the netherworld, would once have attracted a large audience across Singapore. The crowds at such events, typically a getai in more modern times, or a Chinese opera or puppet performance in the past, have dwindled over the years. Perhaps this is more the case this year with the political hustings coinciding with the celebration of the hungry ghosts festival. It still is nice to come across them as they make not just for a colourful spectacle, but also because they tell us that the traditions of our forefathers, though modified, are very much still alive.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple's free-standing stage - one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A 7th month Hokkien Opera performance at the Balestier Road Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s free-standing stage – one of the last such stages left in Singapore.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

A getai performance at Woodlands.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

Front row seats at such events are reserved for the guests from the netherworld.

The crowd at the getai performance.

The crowd at the getai performance.



Another getai held in Sembawang,

Another getai held in Sembawang.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

Which attracted a different kind of special guest.

A performer at  the Sembawang getai.

A performer at the Sembawang getai.

And another.

And another.

MasterChef Asia makes it debut

3 09 2015

The first season of MasterChef Asia makes its debut on Lifetime today 3 September 2015. Over the 15 episodes, the first ever MasterChef Asia will emerge from the total of 15 aspiring cooks from across Asia. The first season will see three contestants from Singapore, Lennard Yeong, Woo Wai Leong and Sandrian Tan, who were seen at a live cook-off mystery box challenge at NEX on Saturday, along with the three judges, Hong Kong born Susur Lee, 3-Michelin Starred Bruno Menard and Singapore born Audra Morrice. The show can be followed on Lifetime (Starhub TV Channel 514) on Thursdays at 9 pm.

Susur watching over Leong and Sandrian at the Mystery Box challenge at NEX.

Susur watching over Leong and Sandrian at the Mystery Box challenge at NEX.

The three judges being introduced to the crowd.

The three judges being introduced to the crowd.

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.




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.



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”.



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.





The art and science of bringing an ogre to life

15 06 2015

Animation has allowed many a tale to be spun in which the unlikeliest of heroes take centre-stage. This is especially so in the last two decades with the availability of the computing power required to allow CGI animation to give scenes and characters a much greater degree of realism. We now have a chance in Singapore to see what how DreamWorks Animation, one of the studios at the forefront of animation, in bringing endearing characters such as a love struck ogre and a round kung-fu kicking panda to life, at Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition. The exhibition, which opened at the ArtScience Museum over the weekend, will be a treat not just for animation fans, but also anyone and everyone who has watched any of DreamWorks’ wonderful creations.

Mr Chris Harris of ACMI, the ArtScience Museum's Ms Honor Harger and Mr Doug Cooper of DreamWorks Animation.

Mr Chris Harris of ACMI, the ArtScience Museum’s Ms Honor Harger and Mr Doug Cooper of DreamWorks Animation.

Curated by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), the exhibition, which is divided into three main galleries, also offers the visitor lots of opportunities to have a feel for some of the processes involved in animation for themselves, through its interactive components. One that will certainly be a hit would be the Face Poser interactive station. Here, visitors can play around at manipulating facial features such as furrowing a brow or raising an eyebrow of a character to give different facial expressions and show different emotions.

The Face Poser.

The Face Poser.


There also is an opportunity to have a feel of the software used by DreamWorks’ animators at another interactive station in the Drawing Room. This will allow visitors to create a short 2D animation sequence with the aid of a tutorial.

Mr Doug Cooper at the Drawing Room.

Mr Doug Cooper at the Drawing Room.

The exhibition proper, which is on its first stop of an intended five-year international tour, takes visitors through the process of how characters are developed and how they evolve from 2D sketches to what we see on the screen in the Character gallery, how the story is developed and sold in the Story gallery, and finally how the magical worlds – the wonderful scenes that give a flavour to the films are woven around the characters and the story, in the World gallery.


A recreation of a DreamWorks Animation studio real-life workspace.

A recreation of a DreamWorks Animation studio real-life workspace.

In the Character, we are also introduced to how the development of characters have evolved with the advances in computing, with the display of sketches, the marquettes that were used to develop 3D images prior to this being done completely on the computer screen, as well as in-depth interviews that are screened.

The Character Section with its display of marquettes and sketches that depict the evolution of some of the popular characters.

The Character gallery with its display of marquettes and sketches that depict the evolution of some of the popular characters.


A recreation of another DreamWorks Animation studio real-life workspace.

A recreation of another DreamWorks Animation studio real-life workspace.

The Story gallery is where one finds what I thought was one of the more interesting exhibits – a digital storyboard at which visitors can catch a very animated Conrad Vernon, doing a pitch for the “Interrogating Gingy” scene in Shrek. The filmmaker was apparently so convincing that DreamWorks had him lend voice the gingerbread man his voice.

Catch Conrad Vernon doing his pitch for Interrogating Gingy.

Catch Conrad Vernon doing his pitch for Interrogating Gingy.


The World gallery, the largest section, is where the work of directors, designers and concept artists converge and where we have a look at some of the thoughts that go into the scenes. It is also where another of the exhibition’s must-dos, Dragon Flight: A Dragon’s-Eye view of Berk, a panoramic ride on the back of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon over Berk across a 40-foot 180 degree projection, specially made for the exhibition, can be viewed.

Dragon Flight (photo: Marina Bay Sands / Mark Ashkanasy).

Dragon Flight (photo: Marina Bay Sands / Mark Ashkanasy).


There will be lots of other programmes and activities during the exhibition period, including screenings of some of our favourite DreamWorks’ films. More information on the exhibition, including a full list of programmes and on ticketing can be found at the exhibition page on the ArtScience Museum’s website.

For the kids - an activity that introduces the basics of animation.

For the kids – an activity that introduces the basics of animation.

The granite island alive

4 06 2015

Pulau Ubin, the granite island, comes alive for a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, when the celebrations in honour of the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong are held. The festivities, now still going on, offers an opportunity to have a glimpse into a Singapore we have discarded. The highlight for many is the Teochew opera performance, which is being held on five of the six evenings of the six day celebration, the last being this evening. The festival will end tomorrow, with a getai performance.

More information can be found in the following posts:

Photographs of Pulau Ubin taken during the full moon of the fourth month this year