Music, dance and soya sauce: The new Stewards of Singapore Cultural Heritage

(Clockwise from top left) Madam Tan Poh Choo, playwright Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim, Nanyin musicians from Siong Leng Musical Association, Mrs Santha Bhaskar. PHOTOS: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

SINGAPORE - The National Heritage Board (NHB) announced last Wednesday (Sept 1) that playwright Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim, a director and producer of bangsawan operas and Malay poetic forms, and Madam Tan Poh Choo, owner of Nanyang Sauce, have been awarded The Stewards of Intangible Cultural Heritage Award.

The other two winners of the prize, given to those committed to passing on their knowledge and skills, are Bhaskar's Arts Academy for Indian dance forms and Siong Leng Musical Association for Chinese musical art nanyin.

The four are the second batch of recipients of the award launched in October 2019.

As award recipients, they will be able to tap an NHB grant of up to $20,000 for initiatives that further their projects.

Teaching others to appreciate handmade soya sauce

Madam Tan Poh Choo began brewing soya sauce when she was just 16. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

A sniff of Nanyang Sauce's light soya sauce immediately awakens the senses: Its fragrance can be smelled even before the stopper is removed.

Madam Tan Poh Choo, second-generation owner of brewery Nanyang Sauce, describes the manufacturing process as one of gestation. "Like pregnancy, it takes nine months," she said.

"We use traditional handicraft that relies on natural fermentation. There are very few chemicals involved."

The brewery, founded in 1959, is now 62 years old.

Madam Tan, 64, began brewing soya sauce when she was just 16, following in her father's footsteps, and now has 48 years of traditional sauce-making experience.

She said the job is "backbreaking work" but has never once looked back. When asked if the thought of quitting ever crossed her mind, she replied firmly: "Never."

About 40 per cent of Nanyang Sauce's staff are young, and many are volunteers, Madam Tan said, making her a suitable candidate for the National Heritage Board's (NHB) award, which recognises efforts made to pass on cultural practices.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, she organised four to six workshops per month, teaching participants how to appreciate local, handmade soya sauce.

During these sessions, attendees learn how to identify handmade sauce and are given a short tour around Nanyang Sauce's factory in Chin Bee Avenue to see the vats and take home soya beans so they can watch them ferment.

"I want them to know that they are not just eating soya sauce, but (also learning) the story behind it, the history behind it," said Madam Tan.

"Hopefully, the award will shine more light on the craft of traditional, artisan natural soya sauce. We are often seen as a sunset industry."

Her son, 37-year-old Ken Koh, is also in the family business. Madam Tan said she initially did not want him to join the trade but relented after he insisted.

With the NHB money, she hopes to continue conducting workshops for those who are interested in her craft. She also wants to improve the facilities in her factory and make the packaging of her bottles more attractive.

Nurturing Indian dancers and musicians across the globe

Mrs Santha Bhaskar won the Cultural Medallion - the highest accolade for the arts. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

Mrs Santha Bhaskar, co-founder of Indian dance and music school Bhaskar's Arts Academy, was hesitant about performing on stage after marriage.

"Although people did not explicitly say I shouldn't, I was brought up with quite traditional values and felt the pressure on me to stop," she recalled.

"Dance was a taboo for married women. My uncles and aunties used to ask why I didn't pursue singing instead. It affected me subconsciously."

But the dancer and choreographer persisted, and later won the Cultural Medallion - the highest accolade for the arts.

Her husband, the late Mr K.P. Bhaskar, had set up Bhaskar's Arts Academy in 1952, and she joined him three years later. Together, they focused their efforts on nurturing the next generation of Indian dancers and musicians.

Today, their students are practitioners and teachers worldwide, including in Malaysia, Germany and the United States.

"I realised that this art form is very divine, and that sharing my knowledge gave me a sense of fulfilment as it is my roots.

"I could have been a teacher of maths or science, but feeling this divinity in me when I dance is very different. It's like tasting sugar - you can't really get the feeling elsewhere once you have a taste."

Bhaskar's Arts Academy has more than 400 students learning dance and percussion weekly.

The school even holds classes for children as young as three, although Mrs Bhaskar acknowledged that sometimes, keeping the attention of these toddlers is difficult.

She said the ideal age to start is about five to six years old. Many of her students begin young and stop in their teenage years, before later continuing with the classes when they are of working age or sending their own children to the school. "It feels like a family and that is what I love about it," she said.

Her daughter is a full-time dancer and has set up a school under the Bhaskar name in California. Mrs Bhaskar's students have also started Bhaskar branches in Arizona and Germany. Pre-Covid-19, her students got regular exposure at international performances in South-east Asian countries, India, Australia and the US.

"With the NHB grant, we will be able to get more students to perform. Dancers must dance to improve, but we often lose money (holding performances) since Singaporeans won't pay too much for tickets," Mrs Bhaskar said.

She also hopes that she will be able to hire more full-time teachers. "This is a tremendous boost for the arts industry, especially at this time during the pandemic," she said.

Stage veteran plans to write book on bangsawan pioneers

Mr Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim fell in love with bangsawan when he was a child, watching various troupes performing it on the streets of Singapore. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

For his contributions to Malay arts over the past 50 years, Mr Almahdi Al-Haj Ibrahim,75, has won almost every award in Singapore, from the Cultural Medallion to the Anugerah Tun Seri Lanang.

With his latest award from the NHB and the project grant that comes with it, he hopes to help document and shed new light on the art he holds dear - bangsawan.

The director and playwright told ST: "I plan to use the money to write a book about the art form and interview some pioneer practitioners whom I looked up to but are now somewhat buried in time."

Bangsawan is an old art form rooted in Malay culture that combines elements of poetry, theatre, dance and song into operatic stage productions. Storylines range from those taken from folklore and tales about royalty to those involving modern subjects.

Productions often make use of traditional Malay poetic forms like the pantun - or rhyming quatrains.

Mr Almahdi fell in love with bangsawan when he was a child, watching various troupes performing it on the streets of Singapore.

Productions were much simpler then, he said, often staged with just a green cloth behind performers to set the scene in a jungle or a palace.

To him, the art form is a wellspring of Malay cultural knowledge and customs: "Bangsawan preserves and communicates a lot of values and customs like respect for elders and others, which I do not think are lost but certainly are important for the young to know more about."

Mr Almahdi, whose stage name is Nadiputra, continues to be involved in large-scale productions.

In 2016, he directed a production of Raden Mas, which follows royal intrigue in the East Javanese kingdom of Kediri, at the Esplanade.

He said bangsawan can continue to be relevant and enjoyed in Singapore if enough investment is made into its production.

"Bangsawan is complicated and expensive to make. There is a lot to handle logistically and artistically, but when done well, it is grand and entertaining. All this will be lost if we allow it to disappear."

He hopes more young Malay theatre practitioners can consider putting together a bangsawan production at least once a year.

He said: "While people say that bangsawan is a dying art, I hope we can take responsibility for it and try to get more youth to understand its importance and relationship to Malay culture and art."

Nanyin group preserves early immigrants' songs of longing

Siong Leng Musical Association has been performing nanyin since it was established as a clan association in 1941. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

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 ST: "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."

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