The final act

29 09 2015

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

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

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

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

A ritual at the temple related to the Monkey King.

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

Last words ....

Last words ….

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

Sentiments expressed by a puppet?

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

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Behind the stage door

27 09 2015

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

What goes on behind the stage-door.

What goes on behind the stage-door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backdrops are an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

Backdrops – an important part of the Chinese opera stage.

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

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

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

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

The headdress for the character of a scholar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Traditional musical instruments.

Traditional musical instruments.





The last puppet show

25 07 2015

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

Words that may no longer be sung.

Words that may no longer be spoken.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

Controlling the Teochew Rod Puppet.

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

Fading with time ...

Fading with time …

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

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

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

Strange bedfellows.

Strange bedfellows.

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

Music accompanies the performance.

Music accompanies the performance.

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

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The Chee Chung Temple.

The Chee Chung Temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.

Part of the festival rituals at the temple.



Other forms of puppetry once commonly seen in Singapore:





Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

5 11 2014

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.

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Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.

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The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.

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I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .

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The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.

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Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.

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While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.


Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance.

Prayers offered before the performance.

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Preliminaries

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During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse.

Men becoming one with the horse.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

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The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

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The Barong

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Performers being brought out of the trance

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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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