Watching the stars under the stars

29 05 2013

The last place in Singapore to soak in the atmosphere of the festivities which accompany a religious festival in a setting most of us may not seen for a quarter of a century is Pulau Ubin, the last island off Singapore (save for Sentosa) which has a community of residents. It is in the remnants of a village close to the island’s jetty where a Chinese Taoist temple, the Tua Pek Kong temple (Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple or 乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) dedicated to the Earth Deity 土地公 (Tu Di Gong in Mandarin) who is also commonly referred to in Singapore as 大伯公 – Tua Pek Kong in Hokkien or Da Bo Gong in Mandarin, is found. It setting is very much one that is reminiscent of many of the rural Chinese villages which were common on the main island of Singapore up until the 1980s, with a village temple at its centre with a permanent Chinese Opera (referred to locally as “wayang”) stage often located across a clearing from it.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Devotees offering candles at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temples celebrates two festivals in a big way.

Colours painted by the setting sun - setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

Colours painted by the setting sun – setting the tone for a colourful night of entertainment under the stars.

The temple plays host twice a year to a series of festivities which are held to commemorate two important Chinese festivals which the temple celebrates in a big way. The bigger of the two is the Tua Pek Kong festival, celebrated to commemorate the birthday of the Earth Deity around the 15th day of the 4th Chinese month, while the Hungry Ghost festival which is celebrated with an auction around the 15th day of the 7th month, is a relatively quieter affair.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

An image of the Earth Deity, Tua Pek King at the main altar of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.

It is during both the festivals that the wayang stage sees use. Wayangs in the form of Teochew opera performed by the island’s Teochew Opera Troupe  (which I photographed at last year’s Hungry Ghosts Festival – click on this link for the post) based at the temple, are staged for the entertainment of the temple’s devotees (also for the visiting spirits in the case of the Hungry Ghost Festival)  providing a wonderful opportunity for Singaporean’s to revisit an almost forgotten tradition. In keeping up with the times, the stage also plays host to what perhaps is the new-age wayang – the getai (歌台), a somewhat kitsch (some even consider it crude) form of entertainment which by and large have replaced the wayangs of old during similar celebrations around Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage - getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

A brightly dressed dancer on stage – getai is often seen as kitsch and somewhat crude, but it does have a huge following in Singapore.

I had the opportunity to see the new wayang in action in the old village like setting provided by Pulau Ubin’s stage last evening. The getai was held on the last evening of the series of festivities held over six days from 23 to 28 May this year and saw a huge turnout  – boats worked like clockwork ferrying a steady stream of visitors to the temple and the festivities – which certainly made the atmosphere very festival like. Under the stars in in the comfort of the cool breeze, the audience had the seats provided already filled as the stage came alive with lights and action matched by the brilliant colours provided by the of rays of the setting sun.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

The large crowd seated in front of the stage.

While I would not be one to admit to being a fan of getai, I will admit that the experience of watching the gaudily dressed stars of the song stage, entertain with song many which were could well be tunes of yesteryear, as well as converse and joke in Hokkien on a stage under the stars, was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was particularly heartening to see the large crowd – many who broke out into smiles and laughter as the evening entertainment progressed, enjoy themselves. The atmosphere was such that it did also seem to free both young and old from the distractions we have to much of in the modern world (I must have been the only one not taking a photograph or a video clip with a mobile device who was seen to be fiddling with my mobile phone).

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Marcus Chin (陈建彬) on stage.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

Members of the audience had their eyes glued to the stage throughout most of the evening.

The getai show which was hosted by Xu Qiong Fang (浒琼芳) and Wang Lei (王雷) saw a string of getai stars appear on stage. Not having admitted to being a fan, there is also no need for me to pretend to know who I was being entertained by. I did however recognise one of the stars from a previous experience watching getai under the Flyer. That was veteran entertainer Marcus Chin (陈建彬). I was able to identify the Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹) pairing, only through a comment left on my instagram post  by filmaker Royston Tan (the pair featured in a video he produced, “The Happy Dragon“, to promote Safe Sex) .

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Babes in the City (宝贝姐妹).

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also entertained - standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩 ), a young getai star from Johor.

Host Wang Lei (王雷) also sang – standing next to him is Lee Bao En (李宝恩), a young getai star from Johor.

A relatively more recently introduced  form of festival entertainment, the getai does in fact have a long enough tradition, having gained in popularity during the 1970s as interest in the traditional forms of entertainment such as the Chinese Opera and Puppet Shows was waning. On the evidence of the turnout, it does seem that, love it or hate it, it does have a following and being more adaptable than the more traditional street theatre, it certainly is here to stay.  It was nice to be out under the stars in a setting one can otherwise no longer find. It felt as if it was yesterday … almost. It would have been nice to see just one thing more – the mobile food vendors (particularly the bird’s nest drink and the steamed sweet corn seller) who never were very far away whenever the wayang came to town.

The view backstage.

The view backstage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

A view through a window of the permanent wayang stage.

More photographs of the stage and audience:

277A1856

277A1889

277A1896

IMG_3187

IMG_3220

IMG_3239

IMG_3244





Under the Flyer

7 03 2012

One experience that many who lived in or visited Singapore back in the days when Policemen did wear shorts, often look fondly back to, is that of dining on the streets. In those days, whole streets and car parks would magically be transformed into bustling eating places as night fell. The invasion would first be led by the army of push-carts laden with the raw ingredients that would be turned into scrumptious street fare, and the load of stools and foldable tables that would seat hungry patrons. As day turned to night, the concentrations of pushcarts, with tables arranged in front of them, would turn the otherwise dark and dingy streets into a sea of light and shadow, as diners began to fill the tables that never quite seem to sit firmly on the ground, greedily wolfing down what lay in front of them. It was in this hot, sticky and less than sanitary environment, in the glow of kerosene pressure lamps, and flicker of flames that leapt from under the blackened woks against which the almost musical and somewhat rhythmic clang of spatulas being furiously moved would be made, that many popular hawkers acquired and perfected their art. For those who dared to brave not just the conditions, but also the often ill-mannered assistants one needed to shout orders at, the reward wasn’t just the fare on offer, but the unforgettable atmosphere that unfortunately could not be replicated in the more sanitary food centers the same hawkers were to eventually move to.

Silhouettes against the spotlight - the Singapore Food Trail livens up the recreation of the 1960s street dining atmosphere by brining in various forms of street entertainment - not necessarily from the 1960s, from time to time.

The Singapore Food Trail brings the experience of street dining back to Singapore.

There are many who lived through those heady days of a Singapore in transition who now look back and realise that the relentless pace of change has consigned much of what made Singapore, Singapore, to seemingly distant memories. There is a current wave of nostalgia that sees attempts to bring some of the experiences that would otherwise be lost back. One such attempt is the Singapore Food Trail at the Singapore Flyer, a 800-seat themed food court which attempts to take the diner back to the days of dining on the streets of the 1960s Singapore. Walking through the Singapore Food Trail, it is easy imagine that you are where the setting aims to place you in. Old style tables and chairs – maybe not the type you might have found used on the streets, set against a disordered backdrop of push-carts that are the food stalls, each different to give a feel of what it might once have been like, arranged in front of what appears to be shop houses and five-foot ways. No effort has been spared in trying to recreate the atmosphere – all around, there are those reminders of that forgotten world that many would recall with fondness – the very recognisable logos of famous brands, old style signboards, bamboo chicks (blinds) painted with logos that were commonly seen providing shade to coffee shops and sundry shops, and lots of paraphernalia from those days of old. Help was enlisted from the likes of clan associations as well as some of the owners of the famous brands (including Nestlé Singapore in recreating signboards and signs to lend an air of authenticity to them. The push-carts serve up fare from what perhaps are the who’s-who of today’s hawkers – hand picked from over 100 who applied. It is also amongst the stalls where some old time favourites – ice-balls, kacang putih and bird’s nest drink, await rediscovery.

It is easy to imagine that one is immersed in the atmosphere of the 1960s street dining scene at the 800 seat Singapore Food Trail.

One of the things I enjoy about dining “under the flyer” (some may recall a very popular hawker – the Whitley Road Food Centre which was located in the shadows of the Thomson Road flyover which was commonly referred to as “Under the Flyover“), are the attempts to also liven up the “streets” with various forms of entertainment – some of which would have been a common feature of the 1960s, as well as some forms which are more common these days that have evolved from some of what we did occasionally see on the streets. This included the very well received Teochew Opera performances by the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association in July of last year, and over the last weekend, a Getai Extravaganza.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi) on stage. Kitsch as it may seem, Getai has a wide reach in Singapore.

Love it or hate it – some find the form of entertainment crude and even kitsch, Getai (歌台) has firmly established itself as a very popular form of street entertainment in modern day Singapore. It had its roots not in the 1960s, but in the 1970s when waning interest in Chinese puppet shows and opera performances which were features of temple festivals and seventh month (Hungry Ghosts festival) auctions saw them being replaced by live variety shows which came to be referred to as Getai, which translates into “Song Stage”.

A pair of twins, the Shinning Sisters (闪亮姐妹) were among the performers for the night.

吴佩芝 (Wu Pei Zhi).

The 3 day Getai Extravaganza brought in by the Singapore Food Trail was one that saw many well know personalities in the getai scene – both emcees and performers, and based on the the crowd it attracted and the reaction of the crowd which counted both young and old in it, was a huge success. Sunday’s show was hosted by Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and Lin Kai Li (林凯莉), and featured performances by Zhan Yuling (詹玉玲), Shun Qiang (孙强), the Shining Sisters (闪亮姐妹), Desmond Ng (黄振隆), Ting Ting (婷婷), Wu Pei Zhi (吴佩芝), Zhang Xiong (张雄), as well as an impersonation of the comedy pair Lao Fu Zi and Da Fan Shu (老夫子与大番薯). Most of the audience at Sunday’s show were glued to their seats throughout the evening which also attracted a large number of bystanders as well as had those manning the stalls off their seats. Although I am not a huge fan of Getai myself, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment provided at the show and it definitely was for me, a Sunday evening that was well spent.

Emcees for the evening, Marcus Chin (陈建彬) and 林凯莉 (Lin Kai Li).

Marcus Chin had many in stitches.

Desmond Ng (黄振隆).

The Shinning Sisters on stage.

Some of the members of the audience were off their feet.

The impersonation of Lao Fu Zi and Da fan Shu had many laughing ...

... including those manning the stalls.