Huayi festival: 80 years on, Siong Leng is still taking risks to keep nanyin alive

Ng Kang Kee (centre), Music Director, Composer and Arranger, Seow Ming Xian (right), Assistant Creative Director and Principal Artist, Seow Ming Fong, Assistant Artistic Director and Principal Artist.
Ng Kang Kee (centre), Music Director, Composer and Arranger, Seow Ming Xian (right), Assistant Creative Director and Principal Artist, Seow Ming Fong, Assistant Artistic Director and Principal Artist.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - 2020 may have been cancelled thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but some shows will get another shot at this year's Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts. The festival, a programme mainstay at the Esplanade since 2003, returns with a smaller hybrid programme this year, including the revived Citizen X, one of the first casualties of last year's theatre shutdown. The Straits Times highlights three productions at the festival, which runs from Feb 19 to March 14.

The pandemic year has been the most challenging in Siong Leng Musical Association's history, says its general manager and principal artiste Seow Ming Xian.

And the association has seen a lot of history - it is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year.

Plans for a fund-raiser to under- write commemorative events this year, including concerts and a youth symposium for nanyin music, all had to be shelved.

But at least one plan has come to fruition: Siong Leng will present Fantasia - Nanyin Reimagined at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Feb 26 and 27, as part of the venue's annual Huayi - Chinese Festival of Arts.

The hour-long programme will be a musical journey recapping Siong Leng's storied history. It will feature some adventurous music making.

Seow, 28, says: "It will be a multidisciplinary performance with Western instrumentation, live looping and theatrical elements such as sets and lighting."

Composer, arranger and music director Ng Kang Kee, 46, confesses: "When I started this project I didn't have a good feeling about it."

With both older and younger generations of musicians offering contradictory reactions to experimenting, he admits to feeling a little like a diplomat in the middle of a warzone.

"Eventually, I had fun with it," he adds. "It opened up things I never thought of. For example, in using the latest music software, I never thought of using distortion, but it can be paired with nanyin music."

He enjoyed the challenge of weaving Western music traditions with nanyin melodies, such as in a mash-up of a nanyin tune about the four seasons and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.

Seow says the experimental nature of the concert is in keeping with the tradition set by Siong Leng's late chairman Teng Mah Seng.

The Cultural Medallion recipient revitalised the form in the 1980s and 1990s when it was in danger of being forgotten. He composed contemporary nanyin songs and shortened pieces to make the music more accessible for audiences. He also organised South-east Asian nanyin symposiums and helped nurture a global reawakening of interest in the music.

Since then, Siong Leng has kept up with this spirit of experimentation, such as by introducing Malay drums into the ensemble.

While nanyin was inscribed as an intangible cultural asset by Unesco in 2009, its practitioners still face challenges. Seow says: "Often, when we put on traditional performances, nobody appreciates them. When we put on fusion performances, people question us. This cycle is quite hard to break."

The company is still dedicated to grooming the next generation of nanyin musicians. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The pandemic year has been the most challenging in Siong Leng Musical Association's history. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The upcoming concert might push some buttons, he acknowledges. "We have to take this risk because we have to rebuild. We want to experiment, to see whether this is something that modern audiences or audiences in Singapore wish to see, and show how nanyin has developed."

Despite the challenges, Seow and his brother Ming Fong, 25, Siong Leng's head of programming and also a principal artiste, are determined to carry on.

They managed to raise about $20,000 last year, $5,000 of which came from a campaign and the rest from older supporters who, Seow says wryly, told them they did not know how to donate online and wrote them cheques instead.

In the wake of the pandemic, Seow says: "We always think of the worst case scenario now. We do not just have Plan A and Plan B, but Plans C, D and E."

The company, which has eight full-time artists, five of whom also hold management roles, and five part-time associate artistes, is still dedicated to grooming the next generation of nanyin musicians.

They currently have six apprentice artistes aged between eight and 15, who receive free training and performing experience.

Ng, as an older practitioner who has seen the siblings grow in the company since they were teenagers, says these young musicians have made this ancient Chinese music form their own. "They grew up in Singapore speaking English. But the tradition has rooted itself in Singapore."


WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: Feb 26, 7.30pm and Feb 27, 3pm. Live stream on Feb 26, available till March 14, 12.59pm

ADMISSION: $58 and $88 from Sistic (call 6348 5555 or go to




This puppet production by Paper Monkey Theatre for kids aged five and above tells the story of a clever young man named Niu who fails his court entrance examinations in a corrupt kingdom. When his beloved kingdom is invaded, Niu has to figure out whether to use his smarts to rescue his country or be disheartened by his earlier failure.

WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: Feb 27 and 28, 11am and 3pm

ADMISSION: $50 for one adult and one child from Sistic


Become part of choreographer Ricky Sim's work exploring space in a socially distanced era. Audience members are invited to move through this immersive installation during a 20-minute period, in which they will be filmed. The resulting video will become part of the work.

WHERE: Esplanade Annexe Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: Feb 19 to 28, various timings

ADMISSION: $14 from Sistic


Musical trio Musa join forces with other artists in this concert which presents eight musical movements centred on the idea of transience.

Musa, which comprises twins Clara Tan Su-Min (zhong ruan) and Sophy Tan Su-Hui (guzheng), and composer/arranger Dayn Ng, are rooted in traditional Chinese music. They are collaborating with the likes of sound artist and multimedia designer Mervin Wong, playwright Isaiah Christopher Lee and voice-over artist Andy Pang.

WHERE: Esplanade Recital Studio, 1 Esplanade Drive

WHEN: Feb 20, 8pm; Feb 21, 2pm

ADMISSION: $38 from Sistic



Classical music ensemble re:mix and ACSO String Ensemble each play Chinese composer Huang Ruo's new work in two concerts. A musical meditation structured like the Tibetan sand mandala, this 60-minute work was written by the composer in response to the pandemic and meant as a space for hope and healing.

WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall

WHEN: Feb 21 (re:mix), Feb 28 (ACSO), 5pm; Sistic Live stream till March 14, 11.59pm

ADMISSION: Free by registration. Go to