Story by Juliette Yu-ming Lizeray
Boarding a ferry boat to Pulau Ubin on a quiet Wednesday during the seventh Lunar month, Prudence Roberts may seem like a regular tourist setting off to the island for a bike adventure. But the 32 year-old is nothing like what you’d expect.
A lawyer by training and writer by passion, this svelte and smiley Australian from Sydney is the first ang moh to join Singapore’s oldest Teochew opera troupe: Lao Sai Tao Yuan. On that ordinary Wednesday – just another day for her – she performs at the island’s Fo Shan Teng Da Bo Gong temple.
To be part of a Chinese opera troupe is a kind of childhood dream for Roberts. Her first encounter with this mysterious and enchanting world was at the age of 13, when the bright colours, garish costumes and fantastic characters seemed to exist in a mysterious and enchanting world. Since then, she never forgot the magic of it all.
A Singaporean childhood
Roberts and her family lived in Singapore for six months in the late ‘90s, enough for her to finish two terms at the now-defunct St Thomas Secondary School. As the only Caucasian student in the local school, she attempted to befriend everyone, but often felt excluded when her classmates would break out into their non-English Mother Tongues.
School was a huge battle for Roberts, but she now views the experience as a blessing, because she got to live in the ‘real Singapore’, unlike some expat kids who ‘mostly existed in a bubble, shuttling between home, international schools and the Tanglin or American Club.’
Switching easily between different accents and occasionally erupting in advanced-level Singlish, she reflects on her Singaporean childhood: “Attending a local school has made me very curious about different cultures and comfortable with who I am. I realised identity is something that’s so fluid.”
In 1998, Prudence moved back to Australia and eventually pursued a law degree, but as fate would have it, she was drawn back to these shores.
The first performance
In early March 2014, Roberts – now a freelance writer – returned to live in Singapore. This time, she followed the love of her life: An Indian expatriate who had relocated here for work.
One day, during her evening stroll around the Bukit Timah neighbourhood, she chanced upon a Chinese opera troupe: Lao Sai Tao Yuan. Instantly flooded by the opera memories of her childhood, she was transported back in time and stood transfixed, absorbing every detail of the performance.
“I was dying to ask them how I could learn, but they looked so serious and crazy-mad with their eyebrows… like some impenetrable secret Chinese club,” she laughs.
After the performance, she found them on Facebook and wrote in to ask if they offered any lessons in opera. She sounded so eager that actress Carine Lim, who manages the page, replied she “must have done this in [her] previous life”. Lim then invited Roberts to an upcoming Lao Sai Tao Yuan performance in Boon Lay.
On the day of the show, minutes after meeting her, Lim whisked Roberts backstage and gave her an operatic makeover. “Everyone has a chance… once in a lifetime,” she winked, “Now you are a maiden!”
Roberts was then instructed to “follow the first maiden” who, unable to speak English, just nodded knowingly. Confused by the lack of precise directions, but keen on going with the flow, Roberts waited nervously behind the curtains.
And then it was time. The two dainty maidens took the stage riding their imaginary horses and elegantly swishing their whips in the air, their long sleeves billowing. They circled around and took position at the back just as four warriors entered in a flurry of shiny brocade flags and dangling tassels. After a couple graceful hand gestures and demure twirls, the maidens stepped offstage.
Roberts remembers her relieved realisation that only a handful of people were watching the show. She eyed the front row reserved for the ghosts. “What did they think of a random ang moh performing for them? Were they turning around in their graves?”, she laughs. “Or maybe the crowd was going wild… I just couldn’t see it!”
Having performed the same maiden choreography over a dozen times now, Roberts feels more comfortable on stage, although she acknowledges she is “barely a tiny addition to it all” and has so much more to learn. Lim remains her main contact in the troupe by virtue of language.
As for the majority who don’t converse fluently in English, they communicate using bits of Teochew and English, complemented with lots of gestures, smiles and even good-humoured sound effects. Hilarity often ensues. And everyone always laughs off whatever bumbling beginner gaffes Roberts commits, like the time her pants dropped right before she stepped onstage, causing her to freak out and everyone backstage to burst out in giggles.
Lao Sai Tao Yuan
As one of the oldest troupes in Singapore, Lao Sai Tao Yuan came into existence in 1800s mainland China, and has been active in Singapore since the 1850s. Most of the 30-odd members are now above 60. The oldest performer is the bubbly Madam Tan Hor Moy who, at the ripe old age of 76, plays a majestic emperor that all the fearsome warriors kowtow to onstage. Tottering on her legs yet resolute in her path, this brave lady often takes the Pulau Ubin ferry unaccompanied and climbs up and down the steep stage steps without batting an eyelid.
The troupe mostly perform at Chinese temples on days of religious festivities. They often take the stage at Pulau Ubin’s Fo Shan Teng Da Bo Gong Temple, which is about as old as the troupe itself. At the peak of their popularity, the demand was so high that they would split into two groups to perform at different locations. Nowadays, they only have a few engagements per month.
But the downward trend isn’t unique to them – it has been equally felt by all opera troupes in Singapore, many of which have been forced to retire. With waning interest and no young blood to sustain the tradition, most practitioners believe this precious living heritage is teetering on the brink of disappearance.
Times weren’t always this hard. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Chinese street opera was very popular as a source of secular entertainment and for religious (mainly Taoist) festivities. Many venues across the island would hire Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese troupes to perform, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival. But from the ‘60s, the arrival of TV and the boom of the Hong Kong film industry dealt a huge blow to this scene.
Another reason for the decline is been the rise of getai — Chinese musical shows — performed during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Their flashy showbiz style and scantily-clad songstresses have largely conquered the eyeballs and short attention spans of the younger generations. Getai groups also tend to be more affordable, which is why they’ve been beating Chinese opera troupes for gigs at community venues.
The absence of youths among both audience members and opera actors is a huge obstacle to the survival of Chinese opera in Singapore. Unlike TV and getai shows, the ancient art is often incomprehensible to those not fluent in the dialects recited. And quite a sizeable portion of Chinese youth in Singapore are unable to speak their ancestral tongue, let alone understand it in operatic singing.
New times, new strategies, same passion
Despite this bleak scenario, Singapore’s opera troupes remain steadfast and dedicated to their art. Whether they’re performing before a crowd of five or five hundred, Lao Sai Tao Yuan do it with equal gusto — after all, the real VIP guests of this party are invisible (yet very much present).
Chua Kim Yong, a troupe member who plays a Qing Dynasty warrior, explains that during the Hungry Ghost Festival, it is their duty to “entertain the ghosts.” And they take this responsibility very seriously, packing a truck load of costumes and props, heading to temples across the country and setting up the entire decor from scratch.
It takes a whole morning to rig the lighting, arrange the curtains, backdrops, and musical instruments, as well as put on makeup and costumes… only to do it all in reverse after the evening show and return home around midnight. Sadly, their take home is only just enough to cover costs each time – staging a Chinese opera is nothing short of a labour of love.
But passion isn’t enough anymore. Today’s remaining troupes understand the need to advocate for their art and find new ways to attract public interest. Some groups, such as the Cantonese-language Chinese Theater Circle, resort to screens that project English and Chinese subtitles in an effort to draw younger crowds. Others welcome photographers and filmmakers who wish to document their practice. As for Lao Sai Tao Yuan, adopting Roberts as their ang moh maiden is a sign of the changing times. As the troupe strives to reach a wider, even international public, Lim, for one, hopes that Roberts will help them perform in Australia some day.
Back on Pulau Ubin, the performances and offerings at Fo Shan Teng Da Bo Gong temple are over. The actors are in high spirits as they peel off their costumes and face paint. Some gather to play mahjong. Others sit and grab a well-deserved bite to eat.
Sharing a small plastic mirror with Lim, Roberts wipes off the remaining makeup from her face. The transformation is complete: From docile maiden to a cheerful, happy-go-lucky woman offstage… until the next Lao Sai Tao Yuan show in Singapore.
“Even though I am not Teochew and I don’t speak the language, the troupe has been amazingly open and welcoming. They make sure I have water and food, they ask, ‘Are you coming next time?’ I even got a few grunts of approval from one elderly uncle!”, she laughs, then stretches out her arms as if to embrace the whole stage. “I feel at home here. They have only shown me warmth and support, and for that, I’m grateful.”