Crosstalk veteran wins award

Cultural Medallion recipient Han Laoda is the winner of the individual category of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Contribution Award.
Cultural Medallion recipient Han Laoda is the winner of the individual category of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Contribution Award.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM
Siong Leng Musical Association (from far left, artistic director Lin Shao Ling, executive director Celestina Wang and chairman Teng Hong Hai) nabs the top prize in the organisation category.
Siong Leng Musical Association (from far left, artistic director Lin Shao Ling, executive director Celestina Wang and chairman Teng Hong Hai) nabs the top prize in the organisation category.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre honours Han Laoda and Siong Leng Musical Association for their contributions to their art form

Cultural Medallion recipient Han Laoda, who has charmed audiences with original xiangsheng scripts since 1968, received the inaugural Singapore Chinese Cultural Contribution Award in the individual category last Saturday.

He was honoured for his contribution to xiangsheng, or crosstalk, which is a Chinese comedic verbal art form that involves quick-witted banter, puns and allusions.

Speaking in Mandarin, Han, 69, tells The Straits Times: "This award means a lot to me as it acknowledges the promotion of Chinese culture and history. Receiving this award has validated my efforts to build up xiangsheng as a traditional art form."

He received a cash prize of $10,000, another $10,000 in project funding and a trophy designed by contemporary sculptor Yeo Chee Kiong.

The annual award is given out by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. It comprises two categories: individual and organisation.

The winners were chosen from 47 nominations by a judging panel, which evaluated the scope, influence and sustainability of the nominees' contributions.

The award for the organisation category went to Siong Leng Musical Association, which specialises in nanyin performances.

Nanyin, which translates to "music from the south", is an ancient style of Chinese music characterised by melodic and gentle sounds.

Siong Leng Musical Association is no stranger to the uphill battle of preserving a tradition while staying relevant.

Its executive director, Ms Celestina Wang, 50, says: "When the previous chairman of Siong Leng, Mr Teng Mah Seng, started making modern changes to the traditional nanyin style, we received a lot of negative reaction from nanyin musicians locally and abroad."

However, she says Siong Leng's decision to combine nanyin music with seemingly contrasting elements, including jazz, Malay and a cappella music, has been vindicated by this award.

Han has also experienced many challenges in his artistic journey, the chief of which was when he made the transition from writing plays to crosstalk script-writing in the 1970s.

"The biggest challenge when I first started practising xiangsheng was writing a proper xiangsheng transcript. In the past, the audience wouldn't laugh even if a joke was funny as our techniques were quite preliminary and the content was rather dated," says Han, who started the Sin Feng Xiang Sheng Society in 1968.

"However, after more interactions with the actors and understanding how they expressed the dialogue, I was able to make improvements in the language and the expressions in my work."

Quintessentially Singaporean works characterise his repertoire, which includes scripts about coffee-shop debacles and a hilarious reimagining of Sang Nila Utama's naming of Singapore.

At the Shanghai International Crosstalk Exchange in 1990, he also ended a performance with an Indian love song.

"Xiangsheng can and should reflect the multilingual, inclusive nature of Singapore society. The actors were serious about learning the song properly and the audience found it fresh," says Han, whose wife is former stage actress Koh Hwee Peck.

He hopes to use the $10,000 in project funding to stage a series of performances featuring 30 years of his works.

"When I learnt about xiangsheng in the 1970s, I realised that it could make people laugh and contemplate philosophical questions and social issues.

"Since then, xiangsheng and play writing have become, in a way, my brothers. They have become a part of my life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Crosstalk veteran wins award'. Print Edition | Subscribe