Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Malaysia's Tong Gek Lau Choon Teochew Opera Troupe

Today I went to Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Tong Temple to catch Malaysia's Tong Gek Lau Choon Teochew Opera Troupe (中玉楼春潮剧团) in performance. According to some sources, this troupe is a very famous troupe in Malaysia which had performed in various states across the Malay peninsula. The moment I reached the temple at about a quarter past seven, the troupe had already started performing, and I was surprised to find out that only very limited seats were left for their opening night's show!

The troupe started off with a "ban xian" operatte. Unlike the Hokkien opera which usually had "The Eight Immortals" (醉八仙, 八仙祝寿) or "The 3 Devine Stars" (三星会) as the opening sequence to the "ban xian" operatte, Teochew opera's "ban xian" (think only applies to South-east asian countries) had "The Premier of Six Kingdoms" (六国封相) as the opening to their "ban xian". Tong Gek Lau Choon's "The Premier of Six Kingdoms" were a disappointment to me; firstly, the actors acting as the horse boys were actually wearing "Carlsberg t-shirts over their red opera pants, and they didn't even bother to tie any scarfs or wear headgears over their hair! And then, it seemed like many of the actors involved did not really know the lyrics and dialogues to the show. I wonder how could that be, especially when "ban xian" operatte is the most important thing for an opera troupe performing for temple fairs. In some instances, the whole temple celebrations and rituals would have to be postponed if a travelling opera troupe is not able to turn up on time for their "ba xian" operatte! Our troupe's loyal fan Eric was at the show too, and he echoed the same sentiments as me. Luckily, the main show for the night was much better, much to my relief.

The show for the night was titled "Showdown at Fan Yang City". At first glance it sounded like some swordsfighting show, but it is not. This is a typical action-packed opera based on imperial settings. The story tells of a Chinese general who was under the spell of a babarian Princess during his conquest to the barbarian kingdom, resulting him to lose all his memories and tricked into believing that he was the Princess consort of the babarian kingdom. Meanwhile the treacherous villain made use of this incident to brainwash the Emperor into believing that the general had betrayed the imperial court by surrendering to the enemy forces. The furious Emperor wanted to execute the entire clan of the general, but they were spared after a loyal subject begged the Emperor for forgiveness. The wife of the general, together with his younger brother and sister, decided to travel into the barbarian kingdom to look for the general. Of course, the general could not remember anything, and the babarian Princess, being afriad that one day her consort might just remember everything, decided to send her men to kill the trio. Fortunately, they were later saved. After a twist of events, the trio learnt martial arts from various masters seperately and saved the Emperor from being harmed by the treacherous villain and the evil Empress. The Emperor then passed his throne to the Crown Prince, and the young Emperor sent the general's younger brother to launch an attack on the babarian kingdom. The war was a success, and the general was finally captured and regained his memory. After being trailled, the Emperor realised that the general was doing things beyond his wishes, and therefore decided to pardon him, and the general was finally reunited with his wife and family.

To be real honest, I do not feel that this show is of good quality in terms of script, as the first half of the show was too draggy, whereas the pace second half of the show was simply too fast and confusing. I supposed this show was intended to be acted over 4 to 5 hours, all the way till past midnight, as like how they were acted in Malaysia, Thailand or even Hong Kong. However, I think they can be forgiven, because they might not know the rules and regulations of public performances in Singapore, and they've "compensated" with good acting and singing from some of their actors. One thing I like about them is their loud gongs and drums, as I felt that this is the essence of Teochew opera. If a Teochew opera troupe's gongs and drums are not loud, it just feels empty. They also have got a relatively large casting strength, and having quite a number of young actors, the troupe appears more "appealing", in terms of packaging as well as being able to stage shows with lots of fighting sequences.

The troupe is performing till 4th of July, and tickets are priced at $5, available at the temple's admin office.

Scenes from "Premier of the Six Kingdoms"

The overwhelming crowd

This is one of the better actresses who has a very good sense of rhythm and her singing is not bad; however I overheard someone next to me said "She has a good voice, but she should go lose some weight!"

The Chinese opera circle is indeed very small; the actor on the left is Nop, an ex-opera colleague of my Thai friend Oh, who used to perform Teochew opera in Thailand

The female lead of the show

Video from "Premier of the Six Kingdoms"

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Multiple Faces of Hokkien Gezi Opera: The “O-Pe-Ah” Style

Among all forms of Chinese opera genres, The Hokkien Gezi opera, also known as Xiangju in mainland China, is one of the most unique kind of all. Other than being the only opera form which was bored outside mainland China, there weren’t many opera genres which take on many different forms and styles, depending on geographical location and cultural differences. In Taiwan, there is even a style of Gezi opera called “O-Pe-Ah”, which is unheard of in other Chinese genres.

“O-Pe-Ah”, the Hokkien translation of the Japanese term “O-Pe-Ra”, which was in turn a loan word from the English word “opera”. “O-Pe-Ah” style of acting is very different from traditional Chinese opera in the sense that it is very heavily influenced by Japanese culture and contemporary music and theatre. Imagine this: the leading roles of the show (obviously ethnically Chinese) churns Taiwanese pop songs to the accompaniment of modern musical instruments, and at times walk around the stage in kimonos, wearing Japanese clogs and brandishing samurai swords. Sounds bizarre? Well this was partly a result of Taiwan’s troubled past.

In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, Taiwan was annexed under Japanese territory, and under the influence of the Japanese imperialism laws at that time, the Taiwanese people were forced to abandon their traditions and assimilate into the Japanese culture. Taiwanese Gezi opera wasn’t spared either; opera troupes had to either adapt themselves to Japanese culture, or get banned from performing. There was this classic example whereby “The Case of the Leopard Cat” (狸猫换太子) was adapted into Japanese setting; actors wore Kimonos, the role of the Emperor became “General manager” while the role of Concubine Liu became “the Mistress” etc. This kind of acting styled carried on until the end of the Sino-Japanese war, and opera troupes were finally able to revert to the old ways of performances. However, due to the immense growth of performing arts shortly after the war ended, opera troupes had to find new ways to attract audience. One of the innovative ways then was to incorporate some of the essence of Japanese occupation period’s way of “renovated” Gezi opera performance into their shows, and this is how “O-Pe-Ah” style of Gezi opera came into existence.

“O-Pe-Ah” style of Gezi opera, being deviated from the traditional style of Chinese opera, has a completely different repertoire of shows as compared to other opera forms. As such, one will not see historical stories or classic Chinese folktales in “O-Pe-Ah” shows, but mostly swords-fighting or family-orientated (cross-generation feuds, love-triangles, etc.) stories which are not independent of time and era. By traditional opera’s point of view, the “O-Pe-Ah” style of Gezi opera may sound like an absurd form of opera, but if one were to treat it just like contemporary entertainment without too much seriousness, such forms of performance can be rather entertaining.

(Video footages taken from Xiao Fei Xia Gezi Opera Troupe’s performance at Lor Koo Chye Temple on 21 May 2007, titled “The Twenty-Year Feud”; apologies for the poor video and audio quality as it was recorded off a mobile phone’s camera)