Thursday, 16 July 2020

Photo essay: A night at the opera on Singapore’s Pulau Ubin

The Malay word wayang typically refers to a puppet theatre performance – wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, perhaps being the most famous among them – but in Singapore, wayang can be something quite different.

Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Here, wayang is also the term for Chinese street opera, a name acquired when the artform arrived in the city-state with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. The three forms of wayang indicate the origins of these early Chinese Singaporeans: Cantonese opera from Guangdong province, Hokkien opera from Fujian province and Teochew opera from the Chaoshan region within Guangdong.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Backed by a traditional orchestra playing instruments such as the erhu and the yangqin, performers act out legends and folk tales, blending song, dance and acrobatics in their artistry.

Wayang’s origins are tied to faith. Performances were held on temple grounds for the entertainment of deities and as part of festivals, and while the intended audience was celestial, crowds would gather on earth, too. Over the years, wayang became a fixture of life in Singapore, serving as a popular form of entertainment in the first half of the 20th century.

Its popularity has waned in the years since independence, but wayang remains part of the country’s identity, featuring in two recent local films, Wayang Boy (2014) and The Wayang Kids (2018), as well as the 2020 television series Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star, which was based on a 1994 play.

Though wayang is often spoken of with nostalgia for days long gone, and there are recurring lamentations that the artform is facing its final act, it is not something that exists in the past tense. Across the country, about a dozen troupes are keeping wayang alive, according to a 2017 report in the Straits Times. Founded in 1864, the Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe is the oldest among them, and it’s showing a way forward.

Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Facing closure in 2017, Lao Sai Tao Yuan was taken over by local actor Nick Shen, whose grandfather once performed as a drummer for the troupe. Today, the troupe – made up of about 30 dedicated and talented artists – is active on social media and performs regularly throughout the year.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
There is, however, one particular time of year when wayang regains more of the public’s attention, and it’s linked to its religious roots. As Buddhists and Taoists observe the Hungry Ghost Festival (held in September in 2020), also referred to simply as the “seventh month” for its place on the Chinese calendar, wayang gets its time in the spotlight – even if that spotlight must be shared with getai, extravagant stage shows featuring more modern music and dance. A fixture of both is a front row of empty chairs, reserved for “visitors” from beyond this realm.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Pulau Ubin, an island just northeast of mainland Singapore, is a beloved repository of the country’s forgotten charms. Its rustic “town centre” is filled with age-old wood-and-zinc buildings, the most prominent of which is a wayang stage.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Normally a quiet isle where the loudest sound is the cackling of hornbills, Pulau Ubin is teeming with activity this evening as it commemorates the Hungry Ghost Festival. Devotees make their rounds at the small temple in the island’s main settlement, while waitstaff are hard at work setting up tables. A sumptuous meal which includes dramatically plated lobsters will soon be served, and preparations are underway at the wayang stage.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
Normally a quiet isle where the loudest sound is the cackling of hornbills, Pulau Ubin is teeming with activity this evening as it commemorates the Hungry Ghost Festival. Devotees make their rounds at the small temple in the island’s main settlement, while waitstaff are hard at work setting up tables. A sumptuous meal which includes dramatically plated lobsters will soon be served, and preparations are underway at the wayang stage.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
The artists of Lao Sai Tao Yuan are models of concentration as they apply their own makeup, pausing to chat and laugh with each other and to rehearse lines from the performance.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
The whole meticulous preparation process – including the donning of elaborate costumes with headdresses and artificial facial hair – takes two to three hours.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
The show begins, but the attention of the crowd is drawn in all directions. Dinner is served, and a raucous auction is held to the left of the wayang stage, punctuated by popular music played at full blast. Only a handful of devoted fans sit close enough to the opera performance to actually hear it.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
It’s easy to look at this scene and think that wayang is on its last legs, unable to attract the regard of an audience even in its primetime slot. Looking at the intensity and focus of the performers, their genuine love for their art and their willingness to welcome anyone who’s interested in what they do, however, you see a different story. And, after all, the earthbound audience isn’t their primary concern.
Pulau Ubin opera photo essay
As the night begins drawing to a close, a young girl sneaks up the stairs behind the stage to take a peek at the performers. The look of intrepid curiosity on her face soon turns into a beaming smile. Wayang might not have the role it once held in the lives of Singaporeans, but as long as troupes like Lao Sai Tao Yuan keep reaching out to pique curiosity, the show will go on.

SEE ALSO: Photo essay: The serenity hidden within the temples of Bagan

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