Nanyin group preserves early immigrants' songs of longing

Mr Seow Ming Xian, 28, grew up with the sounds of nanyin but did not return to the art form until his early teens.

Now, he has risen to become the general manager and principal artist at Siong Leng Musical Association, and hopes that the association being made a Steward of Intangible Cultural Heritage will help them protect and advance the art form.

He told The Straits Times: "Nanyin originates from Fujian province in China, but it has changed over time to become distinctly Singaporean.

"Now we incorporate a lot of modern and local elements like Malay and Indian instruments and some jazz influences."

Nanyin is a form of Chinese music that is over 2,000 years old.

It involves few instruments - the paiban (clappers), the chiba or dongxiao (bamboo flute), the pipa (a Chinese lute) and plucked string instruments called sanxian or erxian.

It is sung in a Southern Chinese dialect known as Min Nan, which is difficult for even speakers of Singaporean Hokkien - to which it is related - to understand, said Mr Seow.

Siong Leng Musical Association has been performing nanyin since it was established as a clan association in 1941. It transitioned to an arts company in 2008 and regularly puts up performances at Thian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer.

Mr Seow told ST that nanyin was once a form of popular entertainment in Singapore, and even had its own radio channel.

He said: "People use to gather and play nanyin after work and this helped them to remember their home towns."

Performances often touch on stories of loss and romantic longing: "It is often about ladies waiting for their husbands to return from war or their studies."

Mr Seow was introduced to the art form by his mother, who also performed with Siong Leng.

As a child, he would often go along with her to performances, but he was initially trained in Western instruments - the piano and the cello.

He now plays the bamboo flute and has been with the organisation for about 12 years.

To him, the beauty of the art form lies in how much self-expression it asks of its performers.

Said Mr Seow: "The art form is quite informally documented. There are no recorded authors for any of the music.

"This means that whoever plays it brings a lot of themselves to the piece, and the way that you play the piece changes as you change - the way you perform it now will not be the way you perform it in 10 years' time."

Ng Wei Kai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2021, with the headline 'Nanyin group preserves early immigrants' songs of longing'. Subscribe