THE LIFE! INTERVIEW WITH AARON TAN

Top getai organiser Aaron Tan wants to take the unique heartland shows to the Istana

Mr Aaron Tan, who has two sons Kayden and Jayden with getai singer Yuan Jin, took getai to Orchard Road (above) in 2011. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF AARON TAN
Mr Aaron Tan, who has two sons Kayden and Jayden with getai singer Yuan Jin, took getai to Orchard Road (above) in 2011. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF AARON TAN
Mr Aaron Tan, who has two sons Kayden (above) and Jayden with getai singer Yuan Jin, took getai to Orchard Road in 2011. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF AARON TAN
Mr Aaron Tan, who has two sons Kayden (above) and Jayden with getai singer Yuan Jin, took getai to Orchard Road in 2011. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF AARON TAN
Mr Aaron Tan. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Mr Aaron Tan. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Getai organiser Aaron Tan has brought so many innovations to the scene that there are now copycats

British singer Adele's hit tune Rolling In The Deep is one of the most covered pop songs in the global music scene. But to hear someone sing it at a getai show in the heartland? It seems a little out of place.

Not so, if the show is helmed by Mr Aaron Tan, 38, a getai organiser known for the many innovations he has brought to the scene to modernise the industry.

And, yes, that includes introducing English pop hits such as Rolling In The Deep to an industry more closely associated with songs and stage banter in Hokkien and other Chinese dialects.

Mr Tan admits that many getai performers have questioned his song suggestions.

"The artistes will be like, 'This one really can be sung at getai meh?' They have this fear because the idea is just so uncommon for a getai show," he tells Life! breezily over a two-hour interview in a mix of English and Mandarin.

Getais are free concerts traditionally held to entertain and appease spirits that are believed to be roaming Earth when the gates of hell open during the Hungry Ghost Festival, which runs from July 27 to Aug 24 this year.

Getai organisers are paid a lump sum by clients who believe putting on such shows will make the spirits happy enough that they do not disturb the living.

A show typically costs anything from $4,000 to $16,000 and the money is used to cover everything from the performers' fees to stage, lighting and music equipment set-ups. The organisers then take a cut of whatever funds are left.

For Mr Tan, spicing up the song set list is just one of many fresh ideas he has introduced to the scene.

Unlike the typical getai show of yore for which the stage is made of simply constructed, rickety plywood, his shows are often lavish affairs complete with proper domed stages, expensive sound systems and fancy LED lights. Fail to pay attention and you may even mistake his shows for modern pop concerts.

He is also believed to be the first to actively promote getai on social media, putting up show schedules on Facebook and his company website. And who can forget how, in 2011, he took getai - traditionally a heartland affair - to the heart of Orchard Road, where he organised a show outside Ngee Ann City and drew a crowd of more than 10,000?

He says: "I always think we can try new things in getai to keep it fresh. And you know, the audiences love it."

He must be doing something right.

After all, his business has increased multiple-fold over the years - from putting together only three getai shows in his debut year in 2001, he now organises almost 300 shows a year.

Over the month-long Hungry Ghost period this year, he will be putting on 60 shows. Throughout the rest of the year, he organises shows commissioned by temples, organisations and corporations.

For the past five consecutive years, he has snagged the award for Most Popular Getai Show Organiser at the Shin Min Daily News-Wanbao Getai Awards, an annual event that recognises the top names in the industry. In 2012, he received the Top 100 Singapore Excellence Award 2012/2013 for "having demonstrated exceptional accomplishments in the business field", a nod to entrepreneurs' success in Singapore that is handed out by publishing and media consultancy Singapore Enrich Group.

He has become so successful that novice getai organisers have started imitating the look and style of his shows.

"I should be angry at them, right? But I'm not because they are fulfilling my long-time dream. The reason I started doing this is I had hoped that by changing and revitalising the getai industry, other people would come on board. I don't ever wish to see getai die out.

"So if the way I do things has attracted other people to enter the getai business too, then I'm happy."

He estimates the number of organisers has gone up from 30 when he started to more than 60 today.

He quickly brushes off the notion that making too many changes to the scene risks ruining the essence of getai.

"I'm not changing the reality of getai, just changing the look of the shows. It's like how you cannot change your house, but you can still renovate it, right? When you look at a 30-year-old flat from the outside, you'll think it's so old. But when you go inside, it can still be modern and you'll feel even happier with it. That's how I feel lah."

But is there anything about getai that can never be changed?

He pauses to mull it over.

"Yes, I think it's the bond between the audience and the people who work on the show, whether it's the performers or the backenders. You know, getai is all about 'ren qing wei'," he says, using the Chinese term that loosely refers to showing hospitality and empathy.

"Getai audiences are always very warm. They know that we work very hard and they'll buy chicken essence for us or a simple box of nasi lemak, which touches our hearts. Getai is free entertainment and the audiences really owe us nothing. Yet, the aunties and uncles always show appreciation for us and they'll remind us to take care of ourselves and rest well.

"That's what will never change in the getai scene, no matter what the performances are like - the 'ren qing wei'."

It is a rare wistful moment for a man usually brimming with bravado. In fact, he often makes blatantly cocky declarations and says them in such a matter-of-fact way that others will find him either grating or refreshingly honest.

"People always say, 'What would the getai scene be like if it weren't for you and all your changes?' Honestly, I don't know the answer to that," he says with a shrug and a grin in what seems like an immodest attempt to take credit for the thriving getai scene.

Veteran getai performer Liu Lingling, 50, who performed at Tan's first show in 2001, says in Mandarin: "Being young, quick-witted and handsome, Aaron is a getai organiser who stands out from the rest because he knows how to package his brand and the look of getai. Some people say he's too young to understand all the history and tradition that comes with getai, but he has passion and an eagerness to learn.

"Would getai be as robust if Aaron didn't make any changes? We won't know. At least his changes have attracted younger and newer audiences."

Despite Mr Tan's apparent selfassurance, there is no denying that his achievements are derived from pure hard work.

Even after 13 years in the industry, he insists on remaining hands-on in all aspects of the business, including the most menial of tasks.

He lets on how, on the day before this interview, he had time for only a single meal around 10pm as he had been too busy traversing the island, personally handing out show banners and posters to clients and organisations.

"I started in Jurong West and went to the north, then ended the day at 2am in the east. Of course, I could get a dispatch to do all this, but that's just too commercial.

"When I hand out these things myself, I end up chatting with the clients. My clients are like my friends and we have mutual trust in each other - so how could I just send someone else to do this? Remember, getai is all about 'ren qing wei', so I should do these things myself to show I'm sincere."

Building such relationships, it seems, is a key factor for success in the world of getai. For Mr Tan, certainly, his ability to make fast friends with the right people was what got him started in the business.

The elder of two sons in the family, he left school after completing his N levels and found work selling car insurance and peddling various wares as an outdoor salesman. Both jobs allowed him to "learn a lot about working with people", but he never felt any passion for them.

That is, until his neighbour and friend, the late prominent getai host Lin Li, asked him to be a personal assistant during show times. He readily accepted the offer, believing he could "pass some time while learning a new thing or two".

Over the next year on many evenings, he would do everything for Lin, from getting water to carrying his costume bags. In between, he would sit backstage, watching getai performances and taking mental notes.

"When I was watching those shows, I thought, 'No wonder young people don't like getai.' It's just been done in the same way for so many years. From Bedok to Jurong, the shows all used the same old concepts and same old style so, of course, young people would feel bored.

"There's no excitement when there's no variety. But I felt it would be such a pity if getai just dwindled away like this. I've watched getai shows since I was young and I always felt it should be preserved because it's such an important part of Singaporean culture."

He started giving his newfound friends in the industry all sorts of suggestions on how "getai should have this and that" - until a getai client-turned-friend commissioned him to organise his own show.

"That friend gave me my first getai show, which I'm very grateful for. I kept talking big but my parents always taught me that actions speak louder than words, so I decided to do it."

With a production budget of $3,000, he held his first show at Nam Sieng Dragon And Lion Dance Activity Centre in Tessensohn Road, where he lined up several big-name performers such as the late John Cheng, better known as Ah Nan, as well as the veteran Liu.

Instead of using the typical rainbowhued stage design, he decided to go with silver laser decals as he found them "more modern-looking".

He set up his company Lex(s) Entertainment Productions in 2001, and by 2005, he would be organising more than 100 shows a year.

"I was 25 when I started out, very young compared with all the veterans in the business at the time. People did not have faith in me and they always thought I would be gone in a year or two. Now, they're like, 'S***, he's still doing this and he's gone far ahead of us.'"

He does not, however, take well to the suggestion that he received a leg-up in the industry because clients give him "face" for being the son of Mr Tan Thiam Lye, chairman of the Taoist Federation (Singapore). His mother, 60, is a housewife.

The elder Mr Tan, 64, says he has never pulled any strings to help his son's business. "It's easy for me to call in favours from friends, but I would never do that. Neither would Aaron ever want me to do that for him. All I told him was he should work hard and show people what he can do. If he does a good job, people will go to him."

Liu says: "Of course, it is in his favour to have someone so prominent for a father, but Aaron must have been hardworking enough and done a good enough job on his own to become so successful over the years."

Film-maker Royston Tan, who roped in Mr Tan as consultant for his getai-themed hit movie 881 (2007), says the show organiser is certainly "not one to bulls***".

The 37-year-old director adds: "If he said he'll give you something, he'll do it. I don't think 881 could have happened if he didn't work hard to give me really invaluable, neutral advice about getai. It's clear that he's very passionate about getai and I think he injected new life into it."

Says the film-maker with a laugh: "Sometimes, the words that come out of Aaron's mouth sound very harsh, but he says those things only because he cares for his friends. He is honest and loyal and definitely someone I can count on for anything, whether it's regarding work or personal stuff."

After being inundated by noise, music and crowds all day, Mr Tan cherishes going home, a five-room HDB flat in the east where he lives with his parents, to see his two sons aged four and five.

"Whenever I can, I try to be a home boy," he says with a laugh. He is married to Shanghai-born getai singer Yuan Jin, 39. "During the day, even if I have only half an hour of free time in between meetings, I will rush home to talk to the kids before rushing to my next appointment. "

His wife has greatly reduced the number of gigs after becoming a mother.

With work, marriage and family all in the bag, he seems to be at the top of his game.

Yet, he still harbours big dreams for getai.

Grinning, he says: "We've taken getai to so many landmarks these past few years, from Orchard to the Esplanade and, in doing so, we've spread awareness of getai to a lot more people.

"All we have to work on now is to keep them interested. So for the next location, I wish to bring getai to the Istana. Now wouldn't that be a getai show you would want to watch?"

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee