Under a tent near Block 23 Hougang Avenue 3 last Friday, Malaysian getai singer Jacqueline Chong struts her stuff in a sexy, sparkling black outfit, flanked by local getai duo Bao Bei Jie Mei.
“Chase, chase, chase/Chasing your heart/Chasing your body,” she sings in Hokkien, enchanting hundreds of residents – mostly in their 50s and older – with her strong pipes.
A male fan approaches to shake Chong’s hand and present her with a hongbao. A woman, swept up in the catchy tune, gets on her feet to dance.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, which occurs in the seventh lunar month, takes place this year from Aug 11 to Sept 9. It is a time Taoists believe the gates of the netherworld open and spirits are free to roam among the living.
The month sees boisterous, colourful performances put on by temples and other organisations to entertain the dearly departed, as well as offerings burnt to appease them.
In the past, traditional dialect operas were the mainstay of the festival, before they were overtaken in popularity in the 1990s by the snazzier getai.
But today, with more entertainment options and a smaller percentage of Singapore residents identifying as Taoists, even getai players are facing challenges in getting Singaporeans excited about the annual event, and some residents say the festival’s allure is waning.
Madam Peh Suan, 55, a housewife who watched the Hougang getai performance alone, says she used to attend performances every weekend with her friends five years ago during the seventh lunar month, but only one or two in the whole month in recent years.
“I am watching this show because it is near my house,” says the Hougang resident. “If it were further away, I wouldn’t bother. I’d watch TV at home instead because I’d rather not leave the house.”
She did not ask her daughter, 28, or son, 26, to accompany her to the show, saying: “I know they will not be interested. They are usually in front of the computer watching Hong Kong or Korean serials online.”
One getai organiser, who has eight years of experience in the industry, says demand for getai events during this year’s seventh lunar month has fallen by 20 to 30 per cent, compared with the same period in previous years.
The organiser, who declined to be named, says: “I think it is increasingly hard to organise getai in neighbourhoods, especially those with many young families, such as Sengkang and Punggol.”
There are no overall statistics available on the number of Hungry Ghost Festival activities.
But the Singapore Land Authority, which issues non-renewable occupation licences for the use of the state land it manages for oneoff events, says it has issued about 25 such permits for a duration of not more than three months annually over the last two years for Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations.
Chinese paper Shin Min Daily News’ associate local news editor Wong Keng Yap, 36, who has been tracking the number of getai shows over the years, estimates that around 300 getai shows are performed every year during the lunar seventh month, with at least 100,000 people keen to watch such entertainment.
Others, however, feel interest in the festival is holding steady.
West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay, 46, is attending 10 Hungry Ghost Festival events, such as dinners, getai performances and auctions this year, similar to previous years.
Tampines GRC MP Baey Yam Keng, 47, says he gets invited to five or six Hungry Ghost Festival events every year in his Tampines North ward and this year is no different.
Keeping getai alive
Noting that some news reports claim fewer getai performances are now held during the seventh lunar month, he adds: "This could be because getai is becoming more mainstream and held at other times throughout the year. On the whole, I don't get the sense that the traditions are dying out or waning."
In any case, getai organisers are adding fresh elements, such as switching up song choices and grooming a new generation of getai singers to gain more fans (see sidebar on the right).
At least one getai organiser is even streaming the shows online.
In 2016, Mr Aaron Tan, director of Lex(s) Entertainment Productions, began streaming some of his getai shows on Rings.TV, a live streaming Web platform.
This year, the 42-year-old decided to stream the shows live on his personal Facebook page instead, and also allowed this stream to be aired on the Facebook page of Shin Min Daily News. A performance near Block 362 Yung An Road on Aug 12, for example, has attracted more than 150,000 views on both platforms combined.
Mr Tan says: "Even at my biggest shows, the physical crowd size is only about 8,000. Live streaming allows the shows to reach more people - including overseas viewers and those who cannot leave their homes - which is good for the getai community."
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says live streaming is a logical way to reach fans or enthusiasts, the younger ones in particular, who are heavy digital device users.
"The question is whether, in the absence of live streaming, the intended audiences of live streaming make their way to the live shows? I doubt so," he adds.
Another Hungry Ghost Festival practice being updated is the burning of offerings, such as joss paper, in public areas or places of worship.
In recent years, calls for environmental protection have led some community organisations to ban the burning of bulky offerings. For example, since the beginning of this year, Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng columbarium in Bishan has disallowed people from burning bulky boxes.
Its general manager, Mr Liu Khee Fang, 63, says: "This decision was made due to pollution and environmental concerns, as well as to allow more people to use the burners, since some bulky boxes took a long time to burn."
Despite such restrictions, stores selling joss paper and paper models remain unfazed, continuing to update their product offerings. Some are even selling paper models of modern tech gadgets (see sidebar below).
Meanwhile, town councils and the authorities continue to manage the balance between the festival's rituals and social disamenities, such as noise and pollution. Tampines Town Council, for instance, is progressively replacing traditional burners with low-emission joss-paper burners throughout the estate and has deployed about 530 new burners to date.
Similarly, Nee Soon Town Council has also ordered new low-emission burners and put up advisory notices reminding residents to burn joss paper in small quantities and not on the ground or on grass patches.
A spokesman says: "We will continue to work with all parties to be mindful of each other's actions in the larger and best interests of all."
Mr Louis Ng, 39, MP for Nee Soon GRC and Nee Soon Town Council's chairman, says: "Balancing the observation of tradition and culture with the activities' associated disamenities requires all parties to accommodate one another."
Young and hungry to perform
Getai tends to attract older audiences, but a number of the shining stars onstage are only in their teens.
With powerful voices and an arsenal of different songs, this new generation of getai performers is eager to keep the traditions alive and, of course, entertain.
Malaysian singer Angel Law, for example, is only 17, but already has some impressive accolades under her belt.
She won the most popular newcomer award at last year's Shin Min/Wanbao Getai Awards and made it to the top six in this year's Getai Challenge, a Channel 8 singing competition for current getai singers.
Fluent in Mandarin and Hokkien, and equally adept at fast or slow numbers, she nonetheless recalls feeling struck by nerves when she first entered the industry in 2016.
She says: "I often felt stressed because my boss wanted me to sing some new songs at every show."
This forced her to build up her repertoire, which now consists of more than 100 songs, ranging from the Hokkien ballad Drunken Life to the Mandarin number Happened To Meet You.
She says: "In one night, I can perform up to 15 different songs across three shows."
Another performer, Jayner Teh, 18, whose first stage experience was in 2015, says performing getai has helped her grow in confidence.
The Singaporean, a second-year student at Temasek Polytechnic, admits to being rather shy offstage, adding: "Onstage, sometimes, I feel a bit more free to express myself, as if I am playing a certain character or persona."
In her short getai journey, her fondest memory so far is performing with her mentor, getai veteran Wang Lei, at his concert two months ago at the Resorts World Theatre in Sentosa.
They sang the Hokkien ballad Love Is As Deep As The Sea, together with another of Wang's proteges, Jasrene Choo, 15.
Both Teh and Choo say they make $120 for each stage performance, regardless of the number of songs they sing.
Choo, whose older sister Anderene is also a getai singer, adds: "I usually try to finish all my homework before I perform. With good time organisation, it can be done."
Getai has brought her many rewards, adds the Singaporean, a Secondary 3 student at Sembawang Secondary School.
"It has given me a chance to learn and practise my dialect - Hokkien. And of course, I get to sing my heart out for others, which I love to do."
On being associated with a tradition that is struggling to reach out to younger Singaporeans, she says: "I don't mind it. I think it is important to preserve the getai tradition because it is part of our culture."
Burnt offerings keep up with the times
Look closely at the items being burnt as offerings this Hungry Ghost Festival.
You might spot a paper version of the latest high-tech e-scooter. Or a stress-relieving fidget spinner, a faddish toy which took the world by storm last year.
Useful? Maybe. On trend? Definitely.
Together with paper models of drones, smartphones and luxury yachts, such products have been spotted in shops here selling joss paper and paper models burnt as offerings to returning spirits from the netherworld.
For example, Po Pi Kim Zua Online Store (po-pi.com.sg), which has a physical shop in Geylang Bahru, stocks several of such quirky models.
A box set of gadgets, which include an iPhone X, an Apple Watch and a portable Wi-Fi device, costs $4. An e-scooter will set one back $13. And for $20.80, you can get a 50cm-long model of a yacht with a luxurious lounge and a captain to steer the vessel.
The models are mostly made in China.
Mr Lionel Leong, 33, a co-owner of the business, says: "We try to keep up with the times. Since there are new products hitting the market every year in real life, we want to reflect this in our offerings.
"Many people say this business is dying, but I think we just need to adapt to the present.
"We want to reach out to younger customers, and selling these new products is one way to do so."
Some new products have proved quite popular. Since becoming available in March this year, about 70 e-scooters have been sold.
Mr Leong says: "As times change, so must we."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2018, with the headline 'Hungry for fresh ideas'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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