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Getai: Not a lost act

Facing a dearth of dialect speakers among today's youth, the getai industry sees a glimmer of hope in Anderene Choo, who continues to juggle her passion for Hokkien songs and her studies.

While her peers have their noses buried in their books in preparation for school examinations this month, 19-year-old Anderene Choo is busy juggling the dual role of student and getai singer.

She is used to it. For the past four years, the Chinese seventh-month Hungry Ghost Festival has coincided with her N-level and O-level examinations at Chung Cheng High School (Yishun), and then end-of- semester exams in the first and second years of her diploma course in integrated events and management at Republic Polytechnic.

But the chance to perform on a getai, or song stage, is too much fun to pass up.

On her busiest night, Ms Choo, whose stage name is Zhu Hui Zhen, can be on stage at five shows in three hours.

This year's Hungry Ghost Festival is from Aug 22 to Sept 19. It is believed that the gates of the netherworld open during this month for spirits to roam the living world.

The getai used to be a stage for traditional opera and puppet performances meant to be enjoyed both by the dead and the living.

But it has evolved to include performances by singers and entertainers who have become heartland celebrities in their own right.

A getai singer gets paid between $80 and $200 for a performance, depending on his or her experience and popularity. Ms Choo can earn up to $6,000 during the seventh month. She now does an average of 70 shows, compared with 33 when she started out at the age of 14.

LIFE'S A STAGE

Some people have the perspective that getai is not a very appropriate place for youngsters. However, it really gave me life experiences that I would never have got from textbooks, such as managing interpersonal relationships, showing sincerity towards the audience, and being polite and respectful to veterans in the industry. I am thankful for what I've been given.

MS ANDERENE CHOO, on how getai has helped her grow up.

Besides supporting herself, the money she earns also goes to help with her family's household expenses and her older sister's university education.

Her passion for singing Hokkien songs began early. "When I was young, Hokkien songs were played in the car. That was how I got acquainted with them," says Ms Choo.

She lives in a three-room HDB flat in Yishun with her parents and two sisters. Her father Choo Beng Hai, 49, is a mechanic, and her mother Cheng Sok Pheng, 46, is an office administrator. She has an older sister Fong Ying, 22, and a younger sister Jasrene, 14, who also performs.

In this business, connections are everything. A friend introduced her to getai veteran Wang Lei, 56, who took her on as a protege and introduced her to the industry.

"I have 14 proteges now and I hope I can nurture them to take over one day. The main criterion is simple. They have to love getai," says Mr Wang.

Ms Choo fits the bill all right.

"If I don't sing, I feel like I am missing out. Even if I'm having exams, I want to perform," she says.

Her mother plays the supportive role of manager, driver, occasional singing teacher, photographer and videographer. She has never had to worry about her middle child, who manages her time well.

Although Ms Choo has been heckled by drunks in the audience, this has not doused her passion.

"Some people have the perspective that getai is not a very appropriate place for youngsters. However, it really gave me life experiences that I would never have got from textbooks, such as managing interpersonal relationships, showing sincerity towards the audience, and being polite and respectful to veterans in the industry. I am thankful for what I've been given," she says.

VIDEO

Watch Anderene Choo take to the stage as a getai singer. http://str.sg/getaigirl


The Shining Sisters, comprising 22-year-old twins Thien Si Si and Jia Jia, at a getai in Hougang last Wednesday. The twins, who sing in Hokkien, bemoan the lack of dialect speakers among the younger generation.
ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM


Ms Choo performing with dancers at a getai in Toa Payoh on Aug 29. While most of her peers from her secondary school days know she is a getai singer, Ms Choo prefers to keep a low profile in polytechnic. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


Ms Choo and getai veteran Wang Lei rallying the audience at another Hougang show. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


Incense paper and offerings on a getai’s front-row seats which are reserved for returning spirits. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


An exchange between Ms Choo and getai host Qi Xian during a show in Aug Mo Kio last month has the audience in stitches. Despite efforts by the local getai community to appeal to the younger masses, the older generation still forms a large part of the audience at shows. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


Ms Choo maximises time by putting on her make-up in the car while travelling to a show. The car is also her changing room – and study centre. She revises for her exams in whatever time she has while travelling from one show to another. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM


Ms Choo (left) and her younger sister Jasrene praying behind a getai before the former’s performance at a field in Yung An Road last month. Following the advice of her mentor Wang Lei, Ms Choo prays before her first performance every night. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


A member of the audience snapping a photo of Ms Choo at a getai in Ang Mo Kio last month. On her busiest night, Ms Choo, whose stage name is Zhu Hui Zhen, can do five shows in three hours. She now does an average of 70 shows, compared with 33 when she started out at the age of 14. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM


Ms Choo revising for an upcoming examination using the torchlight from her mobile phone. “I get carsick putting on make-up and studying. Sometimes I’m so tired I just doze off in the car getting from getai to getai,” she says. ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM 


The Shining Sisters performing Hokkien songs at a getai in Hougang Street 51, on Sept 6, 2017. 
ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 


Ms Anderene Choo, 19, performing in the Toa Payoh Industrial Park area, on Aug 29, 2017. 
ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 


Ms Choo performs at 608 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, on Aug 29, 2017. 
ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 


A performance at Block 608 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, on Aug 29, 2017. 
ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 


41-year-old getai organiser Aaron Tan (right), who runs LEX(S) Entertainment, briefing hosts Xu Qiong Fang (back facing camera), and Lin Ru Ping (seated in black) at 1002 Toa Payoh Industrial Park on Aug 29, 2017. Ms Choo (in white) pays attention to the brief. 
ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Not a lost act'. Print Edition | Subscribe