Staging for the Next Generation

Posted by on Aug 5, 2018 in Campaigns | No Comments

When Aaron Tan founded Lex(s) Entertainment at the age of 25, he became the youngest getai organiser in Singapore. Aiming to rejuvenate the aging getai scene and tradition, Aaron works tirelessly to manage performers to provide extraordinary getai experiences for audiences today.

In the past, the word getai (歌台; live stage performance) would probably conjure up images of old men gawking in front of a getai stage, emcees making risqué jokes, and sequin-clad performers belting out dialect songs. Getai has come a long way since those days, but still we weren’t sure what to expect when we spoke with Aaron Tan, a man whom the media credits for the revival of the local getai scene.

With his wavy slicked-back hair, luminous earrings and trendy T-shirt-and-jeans combo, Aaron stands in stark contrast to the old-fashioned stereotypes most Singaporeans have of getai organisers.

Now 41, Aaron has over 16 years of experience in the getai industry since he founded Lex(s) back in 2001. While there are many aspiring young entrepreneurs, not many will consider entering the getai industry. The media had proclaimed the industry a dying trade, or, as Aaron puts it, “in Stage 4 of cancer”. In light of that, Aaron shared that he did not want an important part of Chinese culture to be lost.

“I want to preserve our Chinese culture. To do so, having these customs [getai] around is vital,” Aaron explained. “This is the direction I started with because that’s how the Hungry Ghost Festival tradition can continue to be passed down from generation to generation.”

Aaron admitted that changes had to be introduced in order to grow the existing consumer base and attract a variety of audience. Reminiscing about his entry into the getai industry in 1999 when he volunteered to help the late Lin Li, a famous getai emcee, sell CDs at various getai shows, Aaron noted the stagnation and lack of innovation. He confessed that, back then, he would rather loiter around the nearby basketball courts to watch basketball games instead of the getai performances, and would only return to the show when it was time to sell the CDs.

Aaron admitted that while he had been vocal about the lack of appeal in getai shows, he had done nothing to change the situation. It was only after a friend who had grown disgruntled with his complaints challenged him to back up his talk with action, that he sprang into action. Being young and foolhardy then, Aaron accepted the task of organising his first getai show for his friend. That was also when he decided to form his company Lex(s) Entertainment Productions, focusing on programme scheduling and stage production for getai.

Perhaps it was the media’s declaration of the death of getai that emboldened Aaron to push ahead with the changes he had in mind. He said gamely, “Since it was already predicted to die, we can’t really do any more harm, right? Let’s just do it then.”

A gallery of some of the shows that Aaron has organised since Lex(s)’s incorporation in 2001. Photo courtesy of Aaron Tan

Aaron’s grand plan for change started from changing the aesthetics of the promotional materials. He shared that promotional materials used to be printed with a rainbow coloured scheme, matching the rainbow planks of plywood used for getai shows. He said, “I used chrome stickers for the wording and outlined it to mimic the aesthetics of old TV programmes. With the shiny silver stickers, it feels different.”

Inspired by the clean and elegant design of street stages he saw when he visited Dongdaemun in South Korea, he brought in metal trusses to construct the stage, replacing the rainbow plywood. The stage was further outfitted with custom LED lights that can switch between a spectrum of colours. Aaron also made space for the band on stage, giving them their due recognition. Aaron decided that they should no longer hide behind the scenes, and thus positioned them at the front of the stage.

A revitalised getai stage. Photo source: Facebook page of Lex(s) Entertainment

Explaining his reasons for this change, Aaron said, “Because they used to hide backstage, they didn’t have to be presentable. They could eat while playing. There was no pressure, and because of that, people would naturally slacken. I decided to expose the band to the crowd. Being under public scrutiny forced them to perform.”

Aaron also introduced the idea of providing time slots for each performer. Previously, there had been no schedules and everything played out on a first-come-first-served basis. Performers would often compete among themselves to sing first because they would be able to finish early and could rush to another getai show – more shows meant more commissions for the performers. This often led to quarrels, resulting in what Aaron dubs the “table settlement”, where the parties involved would sit down and hash it out.

However, being first in the lineup could also be a double-edged sword. There was an unspoken rule in getai which dictated that the performer on stage could only stop when there was another person next in line to replace him or her. Aaron thought that this was an unfair and messy way to schedule a show, so he implemented a cap of 20 minutes per performer, with a timeslot for each performer. This allowed him to plan and tailor his shows accordingly to showcase a variety of styles.

Unfortunately, Aaron’s decision to implement such an incredible amount of changes to a traditional industry was met with considerable resistance, and sometimes even threats.

“There was a lot of negativity. I had senior organisers threatening me, trying to stop me. They complained that these changes were affecting their own shows, as some singers couldn’t attend their shows because they were scheduled for mine,” Aaron shared. “They were angry at my methods, saying that wasn’t how the business was run. Every time I tried to explain myself and how the old methods were not working out, it would only lead to more arguments. I stuck by my rules and schedules, and getai singers were told not to accept offers for my shows.”

But realising that Aaron had their best interests at heart, the performers did not boycott his shows. Coupled with the growing popularity of Aaron’s flashy and updated stage productions, the other getai organisers had no choice but to adapt to his methods, eventually gaining acceptance in the industry.

Despite his numerous achievements, Aaron is not one to rest on his laurels. From embracing the rise of technology by live streaming his getai shows, to organising getai in popular youth hangouts such as Orchard Road, Aaron is clearly targeting the younger crowd. He is getting them involved so as to change the perceptions of getai, and to pass down this age-old tradition.

Aaron showing how people can catch up on his getai shows, thanks to technological advancements and the rise in the use of smartphones. Photo by Lynette Lee

While Aaron has achieved considerable success in his business, there was a hint of regret as he shared about the toll it had taken on his personal relationships.

“I feel that I have short-changed my family sometimes, because getai has always been my priority,” said Aaron. “I sacrificed time with my family to achieve what I have now.”

Aaron has thought of taking a backseat in his business, but he does not feel that there is a worthy successor yet.

According to Aaron, passion is missing from his potential successors. That and人情味 (“human touch”), an indelible part of the getai culture, have kept him going in this industry.

“It’s always been about relationships,” said Aaron. “Never about the money.”

Speaking with Aaron, it is clear that his passion for the trade is still burning within him.

 

Written by: Shaun Chew

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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