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.

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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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