Long live Teochew opera!

Traditional art is past its heyday, drawing much smaller audiences, but it still attracts practitioners both young and old

Mr Glarence Pang, 29, is one of the few younger faces of Teochew opera in Singapore. He represents the third generation of performers in his family.

He first experienced the traditional art at the age of four, and he has been performing it for 13 years.

While performers could make a living from Chinese opera in the 1970s, it has now become more of a hobby for most practitioners.

There are now only three active Teochew opera troupes in Singapore - Lao Sai Thor Guan, Sin Yee Lai Heng and Sin Sin Yong Hua - comprising mostly performers in their 50s or older.

They keep Teochew opera alive with ad-hoc shows, paid for mostly by temples or clan associations.

Mr Pang has a full-time job as a graphic designer but rushes off after work on some nights to pursue his passion for Teochew opera. He performs with the 23-member Sin Sin Yong Hua Teochew Opera Troupe together with his parents.

His mother, Madam Chan Siew Keng, 56, is also an opera performer, while his father, Mr Pang Chye Guan, 58, plays accompanying music on the yang qin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument.

The junior Mr Pang, who usually plays lead roles, is the only one of four siblings who has caught the opera bug.

This is although his parents preferred for him to focus on his studies when he was younger and, later, to concentrate on his career.

He says: "My siblings ask why am I still involved in opera at my age and they say that I am crazy when they see me listening or practising my singing."

Mr Pang has a godsister who also performs: Ms Joey Yeo, 15, the youngest member of the troupe.

She has sacrificed outings with friends to perform and has hardly missed a performance.

She says: "My friends watched me on stage once, and that was because we were going out after the performance.

"They said they couldn't believe I was doing this."

She has been performing in the troupe since she was eight years old and learnt the ropes by observing how her mother and the older members perform.

Mr Pang, who speaks in a strong but slightly gruff voice, says he has performed in countless shows.

He usually reaches the show venue an hour before a performance and sometimes skips dinner if he is running late.

He takes about an hour to put on his make-up and, while some troupe mates say he takes too long to get ready, he says he wants to look his best to "impress audiences or photographers and to be professional".

He says: "I feel terrible if I have to wear a dirty or torn costume."

The audience size for Chinese opera has dwindled over the years. It is not helped by the fact that the shows are usually staged in temples or industrial areas, which can be inaccessible to the wider public.

Younger people do not understand the dialects used, and so cannot appreciate the story being told.

The lack of young performers, coupled with the retirement of seasoned performers, makes the future of the performing art bleak.

Opera enthusiast Ang Chai Soon, who is in his 50s, says competition from getai - concerts staged mainly during the Hungry Ghost festival - is another reason for the flagging interest in Chinese opera.

But Mr Pang, who aspires to run his own troupe some day, says he hopes Teochew opera troupes can one day perform "not only in temples, but also in regular and more accessible venues such as theatres, and that will allow us to reach more audiences".

Those who are interested in Teochew opera can search "Xin Xin Rong He" on Facebook to find the troupe's page, which gives updates on its performances.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2016, with the headline Long live Teochew opera!. Subscribe