Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Singing the praises of traditional arts and Teochew opera

By Paul Tan, Published The Straits Times, 11 May 2015

ONE of the perks - or duties, depending on how you look at it - of my work as deputy chief executive officer of the National Arts Council (NAC) is that I get to experience a broad swathe of Singapore's arts offerings, including arts exhibitions, theatrical productions and book launches.

One recent production not only proved deeply enjoyable, but also provided additional food for thought. It was a Teochew opera whose name loosely translates as "One Household, Three Scholars", staged by Nam Hwa, an amateur troupe that is well-respected by the Teochew community here.

The opera revolves around Madam Sun, whose two sons are taken away when she is unable to repay debts incurred to fund her husband's journey to the capital to take the imperial examinations.

She faces great personal hardship, and is unaware that her sons have grown into accomplished scholars. The opera ends on a joyous note - she is united with both her husband, now a high-ranking official, and her two sons.

The arts can ask tough questions, shine a light on the shadows and margins of society, or make you shift uncomfortably with provocative ideas. But this opera doesn't do that.

Instead, it reminds one of the fundamental ability of the arts to please audiences, as well as reaffirm a shared identity and universal truths. This, too, has its place in our cultural landscape.

The homespun values underpinning the operatic narrative - such as unconditional familial love and filial piety - might seem simplistic to some but, in my mind, they are deeply resonant, no different from Shakespeare's celebrated comedies.

These plays feature protagonists facing insurmountable odds, almost incredulous coincidences and, amid the chuckles elicited by "clown" characters, the reunion of separated lovers or family members.

Of course, a happy ending is de rigueur. At some deep human level, we like our narratives to end on an uplifting note, with the loose ends tied up, even if we accept that real life is far more complex, even morally ambiguous.

Centuries-old art form

LITTLE wonder that the largely Teochew - and white-haired - audience was hugely appreciative, crying out "Good show!" during the curtain call.

To me, the show, staged at the Drama Centre, is also a validation of a 450-year-old art form, and it stirred the memories of many in the audience, who must have watched such shows growing up, probably in less formal settings.

Perhaps more amazing is that the cast is largely amateur, although trained by an opera veteran from China. I had feared I would drift off, given my lack of exposure to full-length Chinese operas, but the performers were engaging, aided by a melodious chorus - apparently a unique feature of Teochew opera - and gorgeous sets.

(As a far-from-fluent Teochew speaker, I could imagine how the older audiences felt when they heard the emcee announce in effortless dialect the arrival of the guest of honour. Were the feelings of collective familiarity also tempered by sadness at the impending loss of a beloved patois?)

Notwithstanding the high quality of the production, and the strong audience turnout, the Chinese opera connoisseur is an ageing demographic.

This has deep implications for the next generation of audiences and performers. For example, who will be able to speak the dialect well enough to sing on stage?

One surreal moment during the opera took place when the maids of a wealthy household made their first appearance. Delicate, even coquettish in manner, they are meant to be played by young lithe actresses but, in this production, the roles fell to women of, shall we say, a more mature vintage.

Although it was startling initially, one eventually forgave this casting decision, given the earnestness and industry of all the actors.

But the question of finding new audiences and people to succeed pioneer generation artistes is a real one for Singapore's traditional arts. The NAC can do its best to make sure that these troupes are meaningfully supported by, for instance, helping them to modernise their shows without losing the core of the craft.

Subtitles in English and Chinese are obviously necessary, but what else?

Bridge to ethnic groups

THIS dilemma applies to much of the traditional arts across our ethnic groups. How are such traditions relevant to Singaporean youth today? Contemporising the art form, while respecting its heritage, isn't easy - but surely this could also be an opportunity, challenging the more ready groups to innovate? It could even build new bridges to other ethnic and language groups, and expand audiences.

The truth is that, without a community to draw energy from, productions - no matter how professionally staged - will play to empty houses.

That would be a parlous state of affairs. Without the collective largesse of individual patrons and corporate aficionados, these groups might also become overly reliant on only one source of support - the state.

It is easy sometimes to be dazzled by the glitz and glamour of today's contemporary arts, especially those that hail from rich Western traditions.

Even as Singaporeans become more sophisticated in the appreciation of the arts, from provocative theatre to experimental performance arts, it is worth reminding ourselves that our heterogeneous citizenry hankers for all kinds of artistic stimulation.

With our modern outlook and increasingly English-speaking disposition, we should make more effort to remember the cultural diet our pioneers were weaned on, and celebrate how these art forms, through years of appreciation, have become integrated with a sense of being, and how they could be the start of our own artistic discoveries.

The writer is deputy chief executive officer of the National Arts Council, and a published poet.

Hungry Ghost Festival, Halloween-style
How to make traditional arts contemporary
By Kalinga Seneviratne, Published The Straits Times, 15 May 2015

THE deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council (NAC), Mr Paul Tan, wrote in a May 11 commentary in The Straits Times that "with our modern outlook and increasingly English-speaking disposition, we should make more effort to remember the cultural diet our pioneers were weaned on".

As someone involved in the tertiary education sector here in the mass communication field for the past 15 years, this is an issue that concerns me.

We have in Singapore three of Asia's leading cultures - Chinese, Malay and Indian. Yet, young people here tend to think these cultures belong to the past and not the present. For example, I have often seen students' productions at polytechnics, universities or arts colleges here that are copycat versions of Western cultures rather than those of Asia.

Here are some of my ideas on how Singapore could develop a strong contemporary traditional arts sector.

In March, the Government announced that $25 million of funding will be pumped into the traditional arts in the next five years. Much of this will be allocated for arts education. I hope that part of it will be spent on helping arts teachers get better exposure to teaching traditional arts, perhaps by funding exchange programmes with leading arts institutions in countries like China, Indonesia and India.

I have often watched Chinese opera performances, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival, where the audience comprises just a handful of very old people. Perhaps addressing historical stories may not be that attractive to young people.

Why don't we use Chinese opera to address social issues relevant to contemporary society, such as alcoholism, drugs, gambling, raising a family and romance? This could be done without diluting its cultural presentation - I once saw a performance in Chinatown where the singing was in English, but the style was traditional Chinese opera.

I have noticed that students are encouraged to do creative things for Halloween that adopt mainly American cultural expressions. Can we do the same during the Hungry Ghost Festival using Chinese cultural expressions?

The Esplanade has done a great job in developing the arts scene. Yet, there is a lot it can do to promote local cultural expressions. It has very good festivals during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Deepavali to promote the three ethnic cultures. But it is yet to come up with a festival where different Asian cultures can interact.

Last month, in countries in our neighbourhood, there was a celebration of the dawn of a new year, based not on any particular religious teachings, but on ancient astrological knowledge.

It is also a harvesting festival. The Esplanade (or the new Singapore Indoor Stadium) could have a cultural programme around the theme of a harvest festival with an Asian flavour. Using the arts, this could focus on Asian agrarian societies and educate young Asians about how their cultures developed.

A good example of how contemporary cultural life could be Asianised is the Chingay festival. At first, its performances were mainly "modern" items reflecting global Anglo-American culture. But over the years it has evolved into a community arts festival with a high percentage of Asian cultural expressions, in a contemporary setting with a lot of community participation.

Recently, I had a discussion with a group of Buddhists on why Vesak Day is celebrated mainly within the confines of Buddhist temples and how we could have a cultural festival during this time that could bring together Buddhists of various cultural backgrounds here, such as Chinese, Myanmarese, Sri Lankan, Thai, Taiwanese, Cambodian and Laotian.

We thought an annual street procession (similar to Chingay but with a different cultural flavour), perhaps from Chinatown to the Padang, may be a good idea.

Some time ago, the NAC funded a radio station called Passion. I hope it can be revived, but in a community radio format. You could work with local artists, community groups and special-interest cultural groups. Young people could be trained and encouraged to create special entertainment programmes with an Asian flavour and senior citizens could produce programmes that reflect their cultural tastes.

With much talk about Asean community-building, it is time to look at how to give these ideas teeth.

Indeed, one of the topics at this month's meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be on how to rekindle the spirit of the cultural flow through the ancient Silk Road.

Singapore is in a good position to create modern cultural productions and festivals to promote this idea and create new cultural links.

Some of the ideas above to develop our cultural traditional heritage can not only enrich the local community - especially the young - but also benefit future generations in terms of having a unique cultural identity, one not imposed by the West. Modern Singapore's development of a strong traditional arts sector could be a role model for other Asian countries.

The writer teaches international communications at Nanyang Technological University and is a former head of research at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre.

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