Ubin comes alive

21 05 2016

Photographs taken mainly of the Teochew opera performance held on the first day of festivities this year (20 May 2016). The main festivities of the annual celebration take place today, the day of the full moon. The event lasts until Wednesday and will see nightly Teochew Opera performances on one of the last free-standing Chinese opera stages left in Singapore, except for the final night when a Getai will be held. More on the schedule of this year’s festival can be found in this post: The full moon on the fourth month on Ubin.

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The full moon of the fourth month on Ubin

17 05 2016

For a few days around the full moon of the fourth month of the Chinese calendar, Pulau Ubin comes alive for a huge religious celebration held in honour of the popular Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong. The festival offers a glimpse into a Singapore that no longer exists and is a reminder of days when villages would have come alive in similar circumstances during feast days associated with their respective temple’s main deities.

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The schedule for this year’s festival is as follows:

Friday 20th May 2016 (4th Month, 14th Day)

10 am  Invite Tua Pek Kong
11 am  Beginning Ritual sts
3.30 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 1
7 pm  Taoist Ritual Part 2
7 pm  Sin Yong Yong Hwa Teochew Opera performnce
10 pm  Invite Jade Emperor

Saturday 21st May 2016 (4th Month, 15th Day)

10 am  Taoist Ritual
1 pm  Lion & Dragon Dance
2.30 pm  Distribution of Blessed Offering
3.30 pm  Sending off Jade Emperor
7 pm  Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera
7.30 pm  Crossing the Ping An Bridge
8 pm  Wei Tio Temple’s Tua Ji Ya Pek visit

Sunday 22nd May 2016 (4th Month, 16th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Mon 23rd May 2016 (4th Month, 17th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Tuesday 24th May 2016 (4th Month, 18th Day)

7 pm Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera

Wednesday 25th May 2016 (4th Month, 19th Day)

10 am Sin Sin Yong Hwa Teochew Opera Qing Chang (Singing only)
6.45 pm Getai
10.30 pm Sending Tua Pek Kong back

Free Ferry service

20th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

21st May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10.30pm

22nd to 24th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 8pm-10pm

25th May 2016
Changi-Ubin 6.30pm-9pm
Ubin-Changi 6.30pm-10.30pm


More information can be found in the following posts:


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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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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.





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.

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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.





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

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The celebration returns to Pulau Ubin

26 05 2015

Every year around Vesak Day, Pulau Ubin comes alive as the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙) holds a series of festivities to celebrate the Tua Pek Kong festival. It is one of two occasions during which Teochew opera and getai performances are staged and offers a rare opportunity to watch Teochew opera as one might have done in the old days, under the stars. This year’s festival will be celebrated from 31 May to 5 Jun 2015 with opera performances every evening, except on the last when a getai performance will be held. The main day of the festival is on 1 Jun. More information on the festival schedule is provided below.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage during last year’s celebrations.

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 during the last evening’s getai performance two festivals back.

The schedule for this year's Tua Pek Kong Festival.

The schedule for this year’s Tua Pek Kong Festival.

A quick look at the main events as translated by Victor Yue:

Sunday 31 May 2015 (4th Month 14th Day)
10 am: Invite Tua Pek Kong
1 pm: Prayer ritual starts
3 pm: First Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Second Taoist Ritual
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
10 pm: Invite Jade Emperor

Monday 1 Jun 2015 (4th Month 15 Day) – also Vesak Day, a Public Holiday
10 am: Prayers starts
1 pm: Lion and Dragon Dances
2.30 pm: Distribution of Temple Offerings
3.30 pm: Send off Jade Emperor
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts
8 pm: Tua Ji Ya Pek (First and Second Grandpa deity from the nearby temple) visit

Tuesday 2 Jun 2015 (4th Month 16th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Wednesday 3 Jun 2015 (4th Month 17th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Thursday 4 Jun 2015 (4th Month 18th Day)
7 pm: Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera performance starts

Friday 5 Jun 2015 (4th Month 19th Day)
10 am: Teochew Opera Singing (From Sin Sin Yong Hua)
6.15 pm: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Night (Getai) with Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Minister for Defence & National Development, Mayor for South East District, and MP for East Coast GRC as Guest of Honour
10.30 pm: Tua Pek Kong returns

Free Ferry Service
31 May  to 4 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30 pm to 9 pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty (8 pm – 10 pm)
5 Jun 2015 from Changi Jetty (6.30pm to 10pm) and from Pulau Ubin Jetty: (6.30 pm – 10.30 pm)


More photographs from the main celebrations last year:

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

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The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

The three stars make an appearance.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

 





The three last stages of Singapore

17 09 2014

A structure that often featured in the rural landscape during the days of my childhood, was the wayang stage. Constructed usually out of wood, the wayang stage was often found in the vicinity of a rural Chinese community’s temple and together with the temple, such stages became focal points for the village folk during important festive celebrations.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

A wayang performance on one of the last permanent wayang stages left in Singapore.

The festivals often required that the gods be kept amused. Entertainment often took the form of the retelling of traditional tales through the strained voices of garishly dressed performers with gaudily painted faces, all of which played out on the stage, attracting not just the gods but also many non- celestial beings.

A permanent wayang stage in Tuas, 1978 (source: Ronni Pinsler / http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

Interest in the tradition, wayangs  – as the various genres of Chinese opera practiced here have come to be referred to, has long since dwindled and have largely been replaced by entertainment forms that reflect the national desire to abandon age-old practices. But this isn’t quite what is to blame for the disappearance of the (permanent) wayang stage. The displacement the rural world by urban townships and the dispersion of the members of the rural communities in the process, meant that many of the temples equipped with such stages have had to vacate their once generous spaces. The squeeze put on new spaces has made it less practical to have occasionally utilised permanent stages on the temples’ premises these days and today, only there are only a handful of such stages that can be found in Singapore.

Another permanent structure that was located in a village in Choa Chu Kang (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/).

The brightly coloured century-old stage at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple along Balestier Road, would be one that many would have noticed. The temple is one that has long been a very recognisable part of the road’s landscape having been established as far back as 1847. An article in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Jan/Feb 2012 edition of Skyline gives us the background on the temple as well as on the wayang stage:

Historically, Balestier had been a swampy area infested with tigers and malarial mosquitoes. In a bid to ward off these dangers, Chinese Hokkien immigrants built the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong temple in 1847, asking deity Tua Pek Kong for protection. Years later, Tan Boon Liat, grandson of philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, funded the creation of a free-standing wayang (theatrical performance) stage in 1906.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong's with a performance on the wayang stage.

Seventh-month festivities at the Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong’s with a performance on the wayang stage.

A second permanent stage, is one found in a less obvious location, well hidden deep inside a private housing estate in Ulu Pandan. The concrete world that now dominates the area was where the Chua or Tua Kang Lai village had once been spread across at which the Tan Kong Tian temple, to which the stage belongs to, was established at the turn of the last century. The stage, built together with the current temple’s building in 1919, based on information at the Beokeng.com site, was rather interestingly also used as a classroom when a school, Li Qun, was setup in 1927:

Tan Kong Tian Temple (yuan fu dian) was founded in 1904 in the old village Tua Kan Lai, which means ‘near the Big Canal ( Sungei Ulu Pandan)’, and for this reason, Tan Kong Tian is also known as Tua Kang Lai Temple. Majority of Tua Kan Lai’s residents go by the surname Chua, which gave rise to another name Chua Village Temple.

The statue of Dong Gong Zhenren was brought over from Jin Fu Dian temple in Anxi county of Fujian province. The temple was rebuilt in 1919 with a opera stage, which was also used as classroom for Li Qun School setup in 1927. The school was closed in 1980 but the stage is still standing today beside the temple.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The wayang stage at Tan Kong Tian in the Ulu Pandan area.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The approach to Tan Kong Tian and the wayang stage.

The two, are the last to be found on Singapore’s main island. A third is found at the Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple on Pulau Ubin. The three, now serve as a reminder, not only of  tradition we are fast losing, but also of a time and a way of life that has long passed us.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

The wayang stage in Pulau Ubin.





The festive face of Ubin

15 05 2014

It is during two Taoist festivals celebrated in a big way by the Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Teng Tua Pek Kong Temple (乌敏岛佛山亭大伯公庙), the Tua Pek Kong festival celebrated around Vesak Day in May, and the Hungry Ghosts Festival during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, that the somewhat sleepy island takes on a festive air.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

Backstage at the wayang stage: a festive face of Ubin.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The Tua Pek Kong temple.

The island, particularly during the Tua Pek Kong festival, is overrun by thousands of visitors who range from the many devotees who go over to participate in the rituals at the temple and the curious who are there to soak up the atmosphere of what might once have been a common scene on the main island of Singapore; to the hundreds who would head there festival or not, to seek an escape from the madness of the concrete jungle.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

The Teochew Opera performances is one of the draws of the festival.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

A dragon dance held during the celebrations.

The three stars make an appearance.

A modern interpretation of the three stars make an appearance.

It is more than just the colourful religious rituals that would be of interest to the curious. It is during the two festivals that we also see the use of the permanent Chinese opera stage – one of possibly two that are still left in Singapore. It has long been a tradition for Chinese temples to hold a ‘wayang‘, as the various forms of Chinese opera is commonly referred to in Singapore and Malaysia, in conjunction with festivities to entertain the deities and in the case of the seventh month, the spirits who return and many permanent stages were a feature of temples in villages across Singapore.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

The opera troupe onstage paying respects to the deity.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening's performance.

A view of the wayang stage during the evening’s performance.

While interest in wayangs, which had a following among the masses, has waned in the wake of the introduction of more modern forms of entertainment, the art is being kept alive at the Ubin temple and by its Teochew opera troupe on which the spotlight does shine during the two big festivals that the temple celebrates.

More backstage scenes.

More backstage scenes.

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At the time of writing, this year’s Tua Pek Kong festival (the photographs of which are used in this post) is still being celebrated. The celebrations will draw to a close on Saturday (17 May) with a getai (歌台) after which the temple sends Tua Pek Kong (Da Bo Gong or 大伯公) off. On the evidence of last year’s celebrations, the getai does also draw a sizeable crowd (see a post on last year’s Getai at Watching the stars under the stars) and for the experience of watching the stars (of the local getai circuit), under the stars, it certainly is well worth going over to Ubin on the final evening of the festival.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The temple during one of the rituals.

The ritual sees the appearance of the Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and ...

The ritual sees the appearance of the Camel cigarette smoking Tua Ya Pek (大爷伯) or Bai Wuchang (白无常) and …

... the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair - guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

… the Li Ya Pek (二爷伯) or Hei Wuchang (黑无常). Collectively the pair – guardians of the Taoist interpretation of the hell or purgatory of afterlife, are known as the Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爷伯) or Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常).

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Free boat rides are provided through the period of the festival from 6.30 to 9.00 pm each evening from Changi Jetty (and from 8.30 to 10 pm on the return trip). More information on the festival’s programme can be found at Peiyan’s blog: 12 May – 17 May 2014: Pulau Ubin Celebrates the Tua Pek Kong’s birthday.


[Photos of another ritual, the Pingan Bridge (平安桥) crossing ceremony, done in the belief that it would cleanse the participant of negative energy]

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Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong festival Programme for 17 May 2014:

1000: Teochew Opera Performance
1845: Pulau Ubin Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple’s Night! + Getai Performance
2230: Departure of Da Bo Gong ritual


Some previous posts on festivities at the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and the island:


 

 





Last rites for the Singaporean soul

8 03 2014

The transition from February into March was one where we in Singapore seemed to have lost years rather than a month. That bore witness to the passing of several remnants of times we seem to find little relevance for in the manufactured world we have embraced.

Backstage on the night of 104 year old Sin Sai Hong Hokkien opera troupe's very last performance.

Backstage on the night of 104 year old Sin Sai Hong Hokkien opera troupe’s very last performance.

The last day of February was an especially cruel for those who take joy in celebrating the reminders of those times we have all but forgotten. It was to see two places (see: Last impressions), both which have found their way into the hearts of those who knew them, shut their doors for the very last time. One was a 1970s style kopitiam, Chin Hin Eating House, and the other, Buona Vista Swimming Complex, which also is of the same vintage.

A last look at the script for a last ever performance.

A last look at the script for a last ever performance.

March was to start with further sadness as we heard the swan song of the Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤) Hokkien Opera troupe. Involving four generations of the family of the founder, the troupe has a history that goes back 104 years, and was Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Opera troupe.

A signature scene seen at the troupe's final night.

A signature scene seen at the troupe’s final night.

Dwindling interest in what was a traditional form of street entertainment that had its heyday before the 1970s, and the resulting reluctance of the next generation in continuing the family tradition, has seen to Sin Sai Hong’s passing. And, in spite of there being renewed consciousness in Singaporeans about their many lost or dying traditions, it is unlikely that it would be enough to see the phoenix (凤) in Sin Sai Hong rise from the ashes.

A final offering to the altar.

A final offering to the altar.

Chinese opera performances, or wayangs as they are referred to locally, did once bring in the crowds. Troupes such as Sin Sai Hong would move from village to village, town to town across Singapore and Malaysia, finding audiences not only across the language divide.

The crowd at the Chai Chee United temple where the last performances were held over four days.

The crowd at the Chai Chee United temple where the last performances were held over four days.

My grandmother, who could converse only in Bahasa Indonesia, would often be among the audience and the very first wayang performances I did attend when they did come to Toa Payoh, were ones where I sat beside her and it is always with fondness that I look back to those precious times that I remember more for the reward that did almost always come after.  That reward was one found in the many food and toy stalls that in accompanying the travelling wayangs, provided an almost carnival like atmosphere to neighbourhood.

The wayang stage under the glow of red lanterns at the Chai Chee United Temple.

The wayang stage under the glow of red lanterns at the Chai Chee United Temple.

For many of the opera troupes, the carnival was to end with rising affluence, the distractions of the modern world, and perhaps the self-inflicted crisis of identity that came with the attempts to redefine who we are that made us who we are not. With interest declining over the last four decades, a simplification of traditional religious practices at Chinese temples where wayangs were staged during important religious celebrations, there is little demand for the troupes today. This is seen especially during the month of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival during which a somewhat kitsch, but more popular form of entertainment, the Getai, has largely replaced the street wayang.

Filmmaker Royston Tan who spent over a year with the troupe in the lead up to his 2006 short film on the troupe.

Filmmaker Royston Tan who spent over a year with the troupe in the lead up to his 2006 short film on the troupe.

Where in 1988, there were an average of four wayangs (including puppet troupes) being staged on any one day (see: “Weird, wonderful wayang”, The Straits Times, 23 June 1988, Page 3) which kept troupes busy for most of the year, it would be considered good if professional Chinese opera troupes are booked for a third to half of the year.

Another view of the stage.

Another view of the stage.

Hokkien opera, other street Chinese opera genres such as the Teochew and Cantonese opera, as well as the many once common sub-cultural expressions, have always played a huge part in giving Singapore its multi-faceted soul. It is in losing them and troupes that promote these expressions such as Sin Sai Hong that we lose a part of who we are, and sadly for all of us, it is only a matter of time before we lose that soul in its entirety. 

Tradition meets technology.

Tradition meets technology.


More backstage and onstage photographs from the final night

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The faces of Chingay 2013

24 02 2013

If anyone reading this appears in any of the photographs below (or in this album), I would be pleased to extend a higher resolution copy of the photograph to you if you can drop me an email.


Photographs from what was certainly a feast for the senses, Chingay 2013, which was held at the F1 Pit Building over two evenings on 22 and 23 February 2013. The annual event, touted as “Asia’s Grandest Street Parade”  is organised the People’s Association. In its current incarnation, Singapore’s Chingay was conceived as a street parade to celebrate the Chinese New Year in 1973 in the wake of the ban on the tradition of letting off fireworks, the parade has evolved over the years into the spectacular celebration of Singapore’s rich multi-ethnic mix and includes participants from many other countries. The event wouldn’t have been a success if it wasn’t also for the efforts of many participants and volunteers, to whom this post is dedicated to:

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The transformation of Chingay over the years

5 02 2013

The Chingay Parade in Singapore as we know it today had its beginnings in the wake of the total ban on firecrackers which once were a must-have at any Chinese New Year celebration.

That was back in 1973 – the parade was a relatively simple one which had been put together by the People’s Association and the Singapore National Pugilistic Federation, and it saw a procession of lion dancers, giant flag bearers, dragon dancers, stilt walkers, clowns and juggling acts down a 3 kilometre route from old Victoria School to Outram Park.

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An early Chingay Parade through the streets. Chingay was revived as a street parade for everyone in 1973 following a total ban on firecrackers.

Being very much connected with Chinese New Year, it was a Chinese-centric procession and passed through some of the streets of Chinatown. The first procession was a resounding success, prompting the decision to make it an annual affair and the four decades of it, saw a transformation that had it move into the housing estates (starting with Toa Payoh in its second year), before it was moved to Orchard Road in 1985.

In that time, the parade also took on first a multi-cultural flavour and then an international flavour – moving from being a street parade not just for the man on the street but also for visitors to the island.

The carnival -like street parade Chingay is today. A less than traditional looking stilt-walker seen during the rehearsal for Chingay 2013.

The carnival -like street parade Chingay is today. A less than traditional looking stilt-walker seen during the rehearsal for Chingay 2013.

Stilt walkers from a Chinagy Parade in the 1980s seen along Orchard Road.

More traditional stilt-walkers from a Chingay Parade in the 1980s seen along Orchard Road.

The origins of Chingay were actually not in the carnival-like street parade that we are treated to today.

Chingay in its original form was what had been described as a Hokkien Chinese tradition, held in conjunction with religious festivals with a parade of deities. It is this form that it the celebrations of Chingay across the causeway still take. One example of this takes place in Johor Bahru on the 21st day of the Chinese New Year. The parades were held in Singapore as far back as in the 1880s, and saw the participation not just by the Hokkiens, but also by members of the main Chinese dialect groups.

The annual event has over the years taken on a multi-cultural and more international appearance.

The annual event has over the years taken on a multi-cultural and more international appearance.

The Japanese community  in Singapore has been well represented over the years.

The Japanese community in Singapore has been well represented over the years.

A Straits Times report of 1 February 1902 gives us an idea of the Chingays of the early days. It describes the parade as “being accompanied by all the usual banners, flags, toms toms, bands, magnificently and grotesquely made out individuals, and figures”.

The report further describes the parade: “barbaric splendour was manifested to extravagance and thousands of spectators flocked to all points to witness it. Numbers of pretty Chinese girls brilliantly and richly dressed sat on perches ten feet high, surrounded by flowers, and borne on the shoulders of bearers”.

The early parades in its more recent form would typically feature traditional performers such as flag bearers.

The early parades would typically feature traditional performers such as flag bearers.

Chingay in 1985 seen passing Peranakan Place.

Chingay in 1985 seen passing Peranakan Place along Orchard Road.

Parades in their original form were ones, which perhaps were an expression of identity and on which no expense was spared, were discontinued after December 1906. That was when at a meeting of the Hokkien clan, it was decided that the raising of public funds would better serve the promotion of children’s education instead.

The colourful celebration that is today's Chingay.

The colourful celebration that is today’s Chingay.

Chingay these days has perhaps come a full circle – at least in the sense of the extravagance.

Each parade is now one to look forward to and involves preparations that begin as early as some fifteen months ahead and are no longer the spontaneous street celebration it once had been. Many rehearsals are required so that the delivery is made “perfect” and what can be seen to be more of a staged performance – much like our National Day Parades.

For photographs of a preview of Chingay 2013 – please visit my previous post on Chingay 2013.

Stilt-walkers resting along the Orchard Road route in 1985.

Stilt-walkers resting along the Orchard Road route in 1985.


Some highlights of Chingay 2013:

  • Grandest Cultural Opening – 文天祥之“正气歌” Song of Righteousness by renowned Wen Tian Xiang, Song Dynasty (Cultural collaboration between artistes from Singapore and Fuzhou), with Chingay Taichi Sword Showcase
  • World’s Biggest Peach Blossoms, “桃夭” Performance
  • First-Ever Combined Chinese Opera Performance of Lady Generals of The Yang “杨门女将” jointly presented by Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese Opera Groups in Singapore
  • Programme will involve at least 5,000 students and Singaporeans to write calligraphy based on the poem “Song of Righteousness” 五言诗:正气歌





Fire in snow lights up the Lunar New Year

4 02 2013

While many in Singapore feel that the annual Chingay parade, now in its 41st year, has moved away from its original purpose of a street parade for the masses first celebrated in 1973 to make up for a total ban on the long held tradition of letting off fireworks during the Lunar New Year, the parade is without a doubt still very much a celebration of what Singapore is and what perhaps Singapore has become. The parade has in its recent editions become a show of the spectacular, combining a street-like parade in which the people from all major races and from all walks of life participate, with a well-orchestrated show of lights, music and effects which never fail to dazzle the audience. The theme of this year’s parade, “Fire in Snow”, will on the evidence of Saturday’s rehearsal, no doubt be as dramatic, if not more so, than last year’s water show was, with the opening scene seeing some 3000 performers light pots of fire, which turns the 360 metre parade route at the F1 Pit Building into a spectacular sea of light. The parade’s dramatic opening is matched by an equally staggering finale during which the parade’s audience and participants will be showered in falling “snow”, in which falling soap and pieces of paper brings the parade to a sensational close.

Chingay brings together members of the various communities in Singapore in an annual street celebration.

Chingay brings together members of the various communities in Singapore in an annual street celebration.

The opening scene sees the lighting of pots of fire.

The opening scene sees the lighting of pots of fire.

The spectacular closing sees "snow" falling on the parade.

The spectacular closing sees “snow” falling on the parade.

Saturday’s rehearsal, which was opened to members of the media, also had some 8,000 students in its audience. The students, representing some 56 schools, were there to participate in a National Education (NE) show to educate students about multicultural harmony. This is the first time students an NE show, usually associated with National Day Parade rehearsals, is being held in conjunction with the Chingay Parade rehearsals. The six-part parade will see some 10,000 performers representing some 120 organizations and will include a Chinese classical featuring 450 young performers from Singapore and China; a combined Chinese Opera Show with 300 members of local Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese opera troupes who will perform to the strains of Phantom of the Opera; Tai-chi Swordmasters; and the participation of a 1,000 strong PAssion Zumba Community which includes the youngest participant in the parade who is only 4.

The largest Chinese Classical Dance in the show's history sees 450 young dancers from both Singapore and China peform.

The largest Chinese Classical Dance in the show’s history sees 450 young dancers from both Singapore and China peform.

A close up of the Chinese Classical Dance segment.

A close up of the Chinese Classical Dance segment.

Tai-chi swordmasters.

Tai-chi swordmasters.

The parade will be held on Friday 22 February and Saturday 23 February this year. More information including that on ticketing can be found at the Chingay 2013 website.

Members of the Queenstown CC Cantonese Opera troupe pose for a photograph before the rehearsal.

Members of the Queenstown CC Cantonese Opera troupe pose for a photograph before the rehearsal.

Student performers dressed in Chinese Opera costumes practicing before the parade.

Student performers dressed in Chinese Opera costumes practicing before the parade.

The youngest participant who is 4.

The youngest participant who is 4.

Ms Elaine Tjon a member of the PAssion Zumba Community sharing her experience at the media conference.

Ms Elaine Tjon a member of the PAssion Zumba Community sharing her experience at the media conference.

Student participants at the media conference.

Student participants at the media conference.

Mr Nah Juay Hng, Chairman of the Chingay Parade Exco speaking.

Mr Nah Juay Hng, Chairman of the Chingay Parade Exco speaking.

Members of the Japanese community.

Members of the Japanese community.

Float carrying more participants from Singapore's Japanese Community.

Float carrying more participants from Singapore’s Japanese Community.

The NE Show audience - schoolchildren expanded a lot of energy during the parade.

The NE Show audience – schoolchildren expanded a lot of energy during the parade.


More photographs from Saturday’s rehearsal:

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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:





A night at the Opera

4 07 2011

Teochew that is! I had the opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do … get up close and personal with the performers at the back of the wayang stage, and with the kind invitation of the URA’s Marina Bay Singapore and the Select Group’s Singapore Food Trail, I got to do just that over the weekend. The behind the scenes visit allowed a group of us to watch and photograph performers of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association backstage (on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin opera troupe) as they went through their routines in getting dolled up for the evening’s performance. The performances were part of the Singapore Food Trail’s initiatives to bring back the good old days of Singapore in what was termed as “A Night of Nostalgia” to bring us back to the heyday of Teochew Opera on the streets of Singapore in the 1960s.

The Singapore Food Trail aims to bring the atmosphere of the streets of the Singapore of the 1960s with authentic street hawker fare in a 1960s setting under the Singapore Flyer.

The colours that the various genres of Chinese operas (often referred to locally as “wayang”) brought to the streets of the Singapore of old, if not for anything else, always were a visual treat. They were a huge draw, bringing with them the entourage of mobile vendor providing a carnival like atmosphere each time they came to the area. My maternal grandmother with her lack of the command of any other language other than her native Bahasa Indonesia was a huge fan, often dragging me along in my early years as her companion. And even when I could never sit quite still below the wayang stage as the performers went about their routines, I was a more than willing companion to my grandmother as I could never resist the reward of a drink from the bird’s nest drink vendor which more often than not was a sweetened drink with bits of jelly in it which was made to taste like the real thing, and also a visit to the toy vendor from which I could get my hands on items such as a sword made of paper mache that split into two lengthwise when it came out of the paper mache scabbard.

Street operas were a favourite of my maternal grandmother. Performers from the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Associationare seen performing an excerpt from The Fragrant Handkerchief on an authentic stage at the Singapore Food Trail.

What sometimes fascinated me on the stage were the costumes and the make-up of that the performers had on. The painted faces sometimes terrified me, so much so that back then, I never could never muster up the courage to peek backstage where the performers would have their make-up done well before the performances started, even as many boys in my neighbourhood did. That was something that I thought I would never be able to do again as I grew up, wayangs became less common as Singapore’s rapid urbanisation resulted in many traditions being lost to modernisation. When I had heard of the troupe that is still performing on Pulau Ubin earlier, I had actually wanted to visit Pulau Ubin, even though I am not what one might consider to be a big fan, to immerse myself in atmosphere of being around once again, which perhaps I hope will transport me back to the carefree days of my childhood, and I was plesantly surprised when I got an invitation to watch one at the Singapore Food Trail and at the same time sample the street fare that I imagined was long lost. What was a huge bonus was the opportunity provided by the organisers as well as with the kind permission of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, to watch and photograph the performers as they got their faces painted and hair done up on an authentic wayang stage. Being backstage was fascinating and I took it all in with the excitement of a child … taking lots of photographs some of which I have added to this post. What was equally fascinating was watching the performances which I thoroughly enjoyed and have perhaps Pei Yun of Oceanskies to thank for enlightening me on the excerpts that were being performed. I can also say that at the end of the evening performances I have become a little bit of a fan … Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association I understand in celebrating the 80th anniversary this year – I do hope that they are able to see at least another 80 and many more years to allow them to continue the excellent effort in keeping what is a dying tradition alive for our future generations.

The scene backstage about 3 hours before the performances.

A make-up artist helping a performer with her make-up.

The eyes have it ...

Two performers having their initial make-up done. Lipstick would be applied after dinner.

A peek backstage ...

A performer having make-up around her eyes done.

A peek outside ...

More eye work ...

A mirror to the face of a performer.

The hair is done after the initial make-up is applied.

Make-up and hair done ... but not the lips yet.

A male performer having his make-up done.

A female performer applying her initial make-up.

The hair being done for another performer.

Finishing touches on the hair.

Two performers sharing a lighthearted moment ...

Another performer relaxing during the preparations.

Putting her headdress on.

The female lead performer all dolled up.

The scholar ...

A female performer.

Full battle order.

The audience were treated to Teochew melodies before the Teochew Opera performance.

The performances were on an authentic wayang stage borrowed from the Pulau Ubin troupe.

Audiences young and old were enthralled.