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Keeping Teochew Opera Alive: An Interview with Tan Wei Tian, Wendy Lee and Teo Meng Hock of Nam Hwa Opera

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This June, Nam Hwa Opera continues their 2018 season with two one night only shows at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre – Teochew Opera film classics《告亲夫》Prosecuting the Husband and《刘明珠》Lady Liu Ming Zhu. Whether you’re a Chinese Opera diehard fan or completely new to the scene, don’t miss this chance to relive the glory days of the past and catch this traditional art form performed by one of Singapore’s leading Teochew Opera troupes. We spoke to three cast members about their roles, their preparation and the state of Chinese Opera in Singapore. Read on for the full interviews with 15-year old actress Tan Wei Tian, who plays the title role in Lady Liu Ming Zhu, Wendy Lee, who plays duplicitous Scholar Gai in Prosecuting the Husband, and Teo Meng Hock, a member of Nam Hwa Opera’s Board of Management and who will be playing roles in both performances. 

Tan Wei Tian

Tan Wei Tian as Lady Liu Ming Zhu. Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: You’re only 15 and yet, already have an 11 year Chinese Opera career on your hands. How different do you think your life might have turned out if you hadn’t taken on Chinese Opera as a child? 

Wei Tian: I think I would just be a normal teenager, spending my time on movie, window shopping or hand out with friends. My life might not be as unique and as exciting as it is now.

Tan Wei Tian as Lady Liu Ming Zhu. Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: You’ve mentioned that you got your start in Chinese Opera due to your grandparents’ love of it. How do they feel now that you’ve gone into Chinese Opera yourself, and do they still attend your performances regularly? 

Wei Tian: My grandparents are my fans and really proud of me. My grandmother likes to share with her group of friends ‘oh my granddaughter does Teochew opera!’ They attend most of my performances and they are always very happy and excited whenever I have a performance.

Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: What are the biggest challenges you face as a young performer in Chinese Opera?

Wei Tian: Personally, I see that there are still not many young people performing Teochew opera or traditional opera in general as the younger generation thinks that opera is something very old-fashioned and weird. They probably do not understand or enjoy it, hence Chinese Opera is slowly becoming extinct. In my opera interest group, I am performing with uncles and aunties that are middle aged or older. Similarly, the spectators are 90% elderly. For that I feel that I have the responsibility to continue and to promote this traditional performing art form. 

Wendy Lee

Bakchormeeboy: How and when did you get your start in Chinese opera, and why did you join Nam Hwa?

I did not start learning Chinese opera with any specific intent. However, I always had an interest in it since young, nurtured from when I accompanied my grandmother to Chinese Opera performances in my youth.

When I was in my 30s, there was a Chinese Opera performance being staged near my house. When I went over to check it out, I befriended a group of aunties who mentioned that they were members of a Chinese Opera group where they took classes and will be performing soon. I then volunteered to help them take photos of their performance.

Over time, I got more involved in their activities and eventually joined their Chinese Opera group. I loved listening to them sing and also enjoyed my time with the people there. I was also involved in some work backstage during their performances, learning how to operate sound and video cues as well.

One day, the teacher of the Chinese Opera group invited me to participate in their upcoming performance in a non-speaking, calefare role. With my background in wushu, I was thankfully able to execute some of the simpler movements and picked up the performance techniques fairly quickly.

I become more involved in performing after I was given the opportunity to take on a male role (小生) when I was called on to substitute one of the key performers who had fallen ill. I took on the role out of a sense of curiosity and fun, only realizing belatedly how complex and difficult it would be!

The performance was particularly memorable as I found myself in incredibly embarrassing situations. It was my first time performing in a love scene, and one of the feedback I received was that my character was as passionate as a pail of cold water with his lover on stage. Due to my lack of training and experience, I was mechanically performing the actions and delivering the lines without engagement with my co-actress.

During a tragic scene involving my character grieving the death of his wife, not only did my headpiece fall off but I also dropped my sword, hand prop and belt. I was practically being stripped “naked” on stage! The audience members’ laughter stunned me. Whatever could have went wrong happened to me all at once during that performance. However, I went on with the performance with what I was taught by the teachers and was both surprised and heartened by the encouraging applause from the audience at the end of the scene.

I surprised myself when I realized that the incident did not make me fear the stage. I still found it fun to perform Chinese Opera, and my interest continued to grow as I got more involved with other Chinese Opera groups over time.

My first encounter with Nam Hwa Opera was during a Teochew Singing Contest they organized. Nam Hwa Opera then invited me to join them in their activities, which started my journey with the group.

Wendy Lee as Scholar Gai (Left). Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: How are you preparing for your role as Scholar Gai?

Wendy: The portrayal of Scholar Gai in Prosecuting the Husband is especially crucial as it will greatly affect the audience’s perception of the other characters. The performer needs to be able to convince the audience that Scholar Gai is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a flirtatious playboy with a scheming and wicked side. If his duplicity does not come across, the audience would not be able to sympathize with Yan Qiu Rong’s plight as she will seem desperately naïve for allowing herself to be deceived by Scholar Gai.

Nam Hwa Opera’s Artistic Instructors, Chen Yuzhi and Li Lvqiao, were crucial in helping me understand the emotional journey and motivations of my character. They offered detailed advice on how I could enhance my portrayal of Scholar Gai through my tone, actions and expressions. They are wonderful at breaking down complex techniques and instructions into laymen terms which I can better understand!

I fear being the weakest link, as I am performing alongside trained, seasoned professionals. I sometimes see myself as a kindergarten student amongst university graduates! However, with the generous support and encouragement from my fellow performers and Director, I am excited to share my interpretation of Scholar Gai with everyone!

Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon


Bakchormeeboy: Why is it important that we keep Chinese Opera alive now and in the future?

Wendy: A traditional art form passed down from China, Chinese opera is not just a form of entertainment but also a livelihood. As an art form, it is not only entertaining but also has great depth and history behind it. There are many aspects to be mastered and learnt within the art form that is not limited to the dialect, but also in its craft. A performer of Chinese Opera learns to engage both sides of the brain. One needs to be ambidextrous in not just how you wield your props and costumes but also in the delivery of a character. There are also powerful messages in the stories told in Chinese Opera which should be preserved and passed on. For instance, Prosecuting the Husband speaks of the importance of qualities such as loyalty, filial piety and righteousness.

As an art form, we must however also keep it up to date with progress in today’s society. Perhaps we must repackage Chinese Opera. Before, Chinese Opera performances emphasized a lot on singing. Now, beside retaining the singing aspect, we must find ways to also make it visually stimulating to capture our audience members’ attention. For Prosecuting the Husband and Lady Liu Ming Zhu, we are featuring performers who are doyens of the art form alongside young performers on the same stage. This presents wonderful opportunities for intergenerational learning and interaction within the art form to keep it relevant. In my opinion, we need to encourage such interactions to infuse a spirit of lifelong learning and continuous growth for the art form to thrive.

There will be people who disagree with me and insist that the art form should be preserved in its purest form. However, I feel that this school of thought runs the risk of the art form becoming irrelevant, as we are not able to engage the future generations to appreciate this art form from their modern viewpoint of life.

Teo Meng Hock

Bakchormeeboy: Why did you first join Nam Hwa in 1988, and what has kept you going all these years? 

Meng Hock: I have enjoyed Teochew Opera since my youth. I sang the songs with my neighbours without knowing what it was really about. We even used to pretend we were opera performers and stage our own shows.

As we grew older, we kept in touch and went to watch performances together, especially the Chinese troupes that would tour to Singapore in the 80s. I also enjoyed the radio plays of Teochew opera. When audio recorders got popular, we would record these broadcasts and practice our singing with it. When cassette recordings and laser discs of Teochew operas started becoming available, we would also collect them and exchange them with one another. This nurtured my interest in Teochew opera in my adulthood.

Hong Kong also started to produce opera films. There were also rental shops that would put up these films for rent. With the rise in popularity of recording devices, we could copy those films at home and also learn the operas ourselves.

A friend who knew about Nam Hwa invited me to watch their shows. Though I was sceptical at first, being a Singaporean Teochew Opera group, I was impressed by what I saw. Nam Hwa then also had teachers from China guiding its members. When I went to watch their performances, I was surprised to find that they had a full house—the crowd was so big that there were even police cars and ambulances on standby! Though they were not as polished as the Chinese performers, I still really enjoyed myself.

I saw an advertisement in their programme booklet inviting people to join them as members. I decided to send in an application. I benefited from the guidance of fellow members and their trainers.

During that period, members would act in whatever roles that were needed. I’ve performed in roles such as the Painted Face and Clown. Though it felt strange to have to continuous switch roles from performances to performances, it was really fun. I was motivated to keep learning to improve my skills further.

Since 1993, I have been involved as a member of Nam Hwa’s working and management committees. I particularly enjoyed my experience in creating Nam Hwa’s anniversary publications. It is a wonderful in contrast to my regular occupation! I was involved in contacting the printers, content contributors and information about Nam Hwa’s shows for the year. I enjoyed my time with Nam Hwa as I really learnt a lot!

I am also involved with a singing group at Nanyang Pu Ning Hui Guan, where I honed my singing skills with a teacher I have learning from for about 7 to 8 years. I saw a marked improvement in my singing skills after learning from him, which also benefits my performances with Nam Hwa.

I am very happy to stay with just these groups, contributing and learning where I can. I feel that staying at one place really helps me keep my focus. It also allows us to follow the teachers, and they can also help us track our growth as students. Hence, I have stayed at Nam Hwa and Pu Ling all these years.

Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: There is a lack of male Chinese Opera performers in the scene. Do you see the solution as getting women to play men’s roles, or is there a way to attract more men to join troupes as performers?  

Meng Hock: If women can play a men’s role naturally, there should be no reason to not allow them. It becomes a style of performance. There are also some men who are great at female roles! You really need to see the individual’s appearance etc. For example, some female performers have deeper voices. You can’t expect them to convincingly perform delicate female roles!

Also, it is not about the gender but more about nurturing more people to be interested in joining troupes as performers. Perhaps, Nam Hwa could conduct more classes just for learning the Teochew language. From there, we can then invite them to join a Teochew Opera class. Competitions are also a good way to attract new talent. From these initiatives, we could perhaps then attract some new people to take on the art form.

Photo Credit: Tan Lye Soon

Bakchormeeboy: You’re on Nam Hwa’s Board of Management, how do you see Nam Hwa continuing to develop in the years to come – is there a need to change in order to stay ‘relevant’, or is the beauty and tradition of Chinese Opera alone enough to sustain it in future? 

Meng Hock: The perception now is that traditional arts is for the old, and not really for the young. But we need to change that. We do it now a little, like teaching students and going to schools. But we can do more!

We could have perhaps open a library of DVDs and other resources dedicated to Teochew opera. Nam Hwa has a lot of these resources and we should make this available to the general public as much as possible. But we must also make sure that we protect these resources!

Our younger students should also have access to these video resources, especially those of the Chinese troupes. We should also platform them more in our quarterly events like Nam Hwa Blazes, and give them more opportunities to perform. It is most important that they keep coming for classes.

Ultimately, the spirit of continuously learning and growing with the times is important in keeping the art form alive. Having younger and older actors performing together, like we are doing with our upcoming show, is also important as it is an opportunity for them to learn from one another.

《告亲夫》Prosecuting the Husband and《刘明珠》Lady Liu Ming Zhu will be staged on 22 and 23 June 2018 respectively, 7.30pm at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Auditorium in Teochew with English and Chinese surtitles. Tickets available via phone at +65 63235528, or e-mail namhwaopera@gmail.com.

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