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Teochew opera veteran hits the high notes

Madam Lim has devoted nearly 50 years to her art, and hopes to win new audiences both on and off stage, through teaching and attracting younger audiences. She will play the lead role in Dreams And Reality, to be presented by the Thau Yong troupe at t
Madam Lim has devoted nearly 50 years to her art, and hopes to win new audiences both on and off stage, through teaching and attracting younger audiences. She will play the lead role in Dreams And Reality, to be presented by the Thau Yong troupe at the Drama Centre on June 17-18.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Teochew opera veteran continues to pour her heart into preserving its rich heritage

She was 15 and still in school when she crossed the threshold into the premises of the Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association in Bukit Pasoh - and the world of opera.

English was the medium at her school but, being Teochew, she was fluent in the Chinese dialect. A neighbour was so impressed when he heard her singing Teochew opera in her Tanglin Halt flat that he took her to Thau Yong for an audition. That was in 1968.

Now, 48 years later, Madam Lim Soo Hiang, 63, is a core member of Singapore's second-oldest Teochew opera troupe. As lead actress, vice-president and trustee, she plays a key role in helping to keep the traditional art form alive.

Thau Yong, now based at a 2½-storey house in Geylang, was formed by a group of enthusiasts in 1931. The oldest Teochew opera troupe here is the Er Woo Musical and Dramatic Association, set up in 1912.

To mark Thau Yong's 85th anniversary, Madam Lim will headline two nights of opera performances at the Drama Centre in the National Library Building on June 17-18.

Thau Yong will present a full-length opera, Dreams And Reality. Guest artists from the Guangdong Teochew Opera Academy in China will put up opera excerpts.

Madam Lim will play the xiaosheng, or male lead, as a scholar who becomes disillusioned after passing the Imperial examinations and becoming a court official.

Recalling how she first got involved with Thau Yong almost half a century ago, she told The Straits Times: "I was cleaning the windows in my flat and singing Teochew opera. My neighbour, Mr Ting, heard me and took me to Thau Yong. The teachers there praised my voice and told me I had the potential to be a good Teochew opera performer.

"I was very excited, but I was still in school, so I could start regular lessons with them only after my O levels in 1969."

The troupe's then honorary secretary Lee Giam Poh got her a day job as a clerk at his spectacle frame distributor firm after she left school in 1971, so her evenings would be free for lessons and rehearsals.

The following year, she married Mr Lee's younger brother, businessman Lee Chek Poh, so her ties with Thau Yong became even closer.

Now, the couple's daughter, Ms Javier Lee, 36, is Thau Yong's deputy honorary secretary.

Madam Lim made her maiden appearance with the troupe during its annual performance at the then National Theatre. She played She Taijun, the grand dowager in the opera Lady Generals Of The Yang Family.

"That was a memorable performance - I was only 19 but had to play a 100-year-old woman warrior," said Madam Lim, who got married in the same year.

Since then, she has played mainly xiaosheng roles, performing in numerous operas with the troupe here and overseas.

Some 20 years ago, she started teaching Teochew opera in the heartland after Punggol Community Club approached her to start a class. She later extended the classes to the Sengkang and Teck Ghee community clubs, and to Teo Ann Huay Kuan, a Teochew clan association.

"I like teaching because I can help pass this traditional art form on to a younger generation," she said.

Many people have asked why she chose to spend a lifetime practising and promoting Teochew opera when she is English-educated.

"I told them it was my passion . I am Teochew and speak the dialect well, so taking up Teochew opera was not a problem for me," she said.

But many younger people today no longer speak Teochew, she said. Professional dialect opera troupes here have found it hard to survive and are winding up because of dwindling audiences, she said.

She noted that most of the 100 members at Thau Yong and her CC students are in their late 40s or 50s.

She said: "We need to attract the young, and amateur groups like Thau Yong can only do so much. The Government must help, with more funding or by providing affordable housing and performing venues."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Infusing new life into a vanishing art form'. Print Edition | Subscribe