While Hokkien opera troupe Xiao Dong Tian may only be a little over three years old, its members  – comprising mostly veterans well into their 70s or older – have been performing for decades. What was once a lively affair that attracted thousands of eager audiences pulling their plastic chairs closer to the front of the stage, the popularity of Chinese street opera has waned in recent years. Yet Xiao Dong Tian soldiers on with the likes of Mdm Gwee Lay Lian, in her 70s, and Danson Ong, 27, stoically championing the stage craft before it becomes a lost art.

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, and it had been raining since early morning. In this wet but pleasant weather, a small boy was snoozing in a makeshift hanging crib, fashioned out of a soft cotton blanket suspended from the truss holding up Xiao Dong Tian’s temporary stage erected on the grass patch in front of Block 517, Bedok North.

Many of the troupe members, like this young boy napping in a hanging crib, grew up in the backstage of Hokkien opera shows. Photo by FJ Sai

A group of grandmothers and grandfathers milled around, some already with their elaborate face paint on, while others had only just arrived, sipping black kopi (coffee) from the plastic packets in their hands. As they greeted each other animatedly and conversed in loud, unabashed voices, the boy continued sleeping through the cacophony of noise and bustle.

Mdm Gwee Lay Lian sat backstage in a corner, applying white foundation on her face. Just like the small boy in the crib, Mdm Gwee’s relationship with Hokkien opera began when she was just a child. She had grown up in the fold of the now defunct Sin Sai Hong, a family-owned Hokkien troupe boasting over a century of history and experience in the craft.

Mdm Gwee recalled her first minor role as a soldier when she was 10 years old. In Hokkien opera, every performer started out as a soldier as it required no regurgitation of lyrics or lines. As a soldier, one simply “followed” the emperor or court officials on stage.

As her parents were already involved in Hokkien opera since young, Mdm Gwee had never given much thought about a life outside of Hokkien opera. When asked if she truly enjoyed performing, she simply said, “I don’t think about whether I enjoy it or not. I just do it.”

“In the past, life in the opera troupe was stricter,” continued Mdm Gwee. “We used to have instructors teach us things like how to hold a sword and how to walk because different characters have different mannerisms. We also had chartered buses to send us to the performance venues. When everything was over, the buses would send us back. We’d have places to stay and when the shows were done, [the instructors] would prepare porridge for us to eat.”

“Now, when the show’s over, everybody goes their separate ways. We all return to our own homes.”

There was a hint of sentimental longing in her voice and a glint of wistfulness in her eyes as Mdm Gwee spoke about the past. “We were more united then. It was good as there was that spirit of togetherness. The bosses took great care of us, and back then if people wanted to meet the performers backstage, it wouldn’t be so easy for them to have access to us.”

We shifted uncomfortably in our seats and recalled how nobody batted an eyelid as we strode up the wooden stairs backstage so easily looking for Mdm Gwee when we first arrived.

“I really miss those times. We’d spend one half of the year in Singapore and the other half in Malaysia, as we had shows there too. We’d all go together. We could do so many shows in a year that I’d lose track of how many we’ve already done. We’d be ecstatic when we had off days. We’d be so busy especially during occasions such as the new year. This was in the 1970s before I got married.”

Costumes all laid out for the performers before a show. Photo by FJ Sai

Among the silver-haired thespians backstage, Danson Ong, with his black hair and booming voice, stood out. At 27 years old, he is the troupe’s youngest performer. Like Mdm Gwee, he grew up in the same environment as his grandmother was a Hokkien opera enthusiast.

“She was a fan of the old Sin Sai Hong troupe, and would take me along when she went to watch the shows or to play mahjong with troupe members,” explains Danson. “With nothing to do backstage and when they suggested, ‘Why don’t you try and perform?’, I just said okay. That’s how my journey with Hokkien opera started, when I was just 11.”

Danson’s godbrother runs Xiao Dong Tian. According to Danson, he set up Xiao Dong Tian following the closure of Sin Sai Hong for the benefit of the older performers, who had nowhere to go after the troupe shut down.

 

For Danson, one of the things he found interesting about Hokkien opera is the improvisation involved in every role he plays.

“In Hokkien opera, we have no fixed script,” says Danson. “Everybody understands what the storyline is, but we don’t have standard lines or words. The performers have to think on their feet. It’s like an impromptu performance  – the storylines are the same, but everybody performs it differently.”

Danson’s favourite role is one that allows him to express his comedic side. “Tonight, I’m playing an honest and simple-minded person who only knows how to eat and sleep. In contrast, my character’s wife is very clever and astute. So I can be a little funnier tonight,” Danson said with a laugh.

An earnest Danson rehearsing to an absent audience before a show. Photo by Adam Chan

Another reason for Danson’s loyalty to the troupe and the craft is kinship. Danson’s godbrother’s aunt is actually Mdm Gwee, whose brother is one of the troupe’s musicians. Although relationships between troupe members may be confusing like a soap opera, , members care for, support and encourage one another as if they are blood relations.

“Over here, everybody is family,” Danson said simply.

A moment of reflection as Mdm Gwee watches the rainfall. Photo by FJ Sai

As we move on to talk about the future of Hokkien opera, Mdm Gwee seemed a little more disheartened than Danson. She confessed that the dwindling audience numbers sometimes make her wonder and ask, “How did we end up in this state?”

Danson, too, admitted that the future of Chinese street opera is bleak, but is assured that as long as there are temples in Singapore organising celebrations, there will be opera shows.

So the next time you chance upon a similar set-up on your way home, do take a moment to watch and appreciate the craft of the few people who are doing all that they can to preserve this traditional art form – one that is so steeped in history – for future generations of Singaporeans.

Written by: FJ Sai

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