GEORGE TOWN, Aug 31 – Elaborate costumes and make-up, exaggerated expressions, dramatic movements, and storytelling through singing are the things one can expect of a Chinese opera performance.
Back in the days before television, this performance art was the height of entertainment, typically performed by travelling troupes. It is now a dying art, with just a handful of opera troupes still actively performing and even then, their appearances are usually limited to celebratory occasions like the Hungry Ghost Festival.
This year’s George Town Festival happens to coincide with the festival but that wasn’t the only reason attendees had the opportunity to feast their senses on this ancient visual and audio spectacle. The Festival featured not one but two different genres of Chinese opera, each with a unique twist.
Ramayana: A Cantonese odyssey
Prince Rama, Princess Sita and Prince Lesmana are on the run after being banished from the palace by the scheming Queen Kekayi, who had forced King Dasaratha to make the 16-year-old Prince Bharata the Crown Prince. Adventures ensued during their years in exile, including encounters and duels with Rawana, the 10-headed monster.
The Ramayana, one of two great Indian epics, is a story well told but even those familiar with it were in for a treat when it was staged at the Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang Town Hall last weekend. The Nanning City Theatre Troupe from Guangxi, China delivered it in the form of an opera in their mother tongue, Cantonese.
They stayed true to the storyline but instead of traditional Indian costumes and dances, this version saw the performers resplendent in the intricate, colourful costumes that are typical of Chinese operas, complete with heavy headpieces and thick facial make-up that uses mainly the colours white, black and red.
The classic tale was brought to life through dialogue, theatrical singing accompanied by traditional Chinese music, and with humour and acrobatic moves thrown in. The scenes involving Hanuman, a monkey-like humanoid and a faithful devotee of Prince Rama, and Rawana’s followers were particularly riveting as they battled it out through a display of deft agility and balancing skills.
Hanuman is one character that the audience, made up of mostly local Chinese with a handful of foreign visitors, was most familiar with – the Monkey God from the Chinese novel, Journey to the West. The Ramayana had been widely circulated among Chinese literati as far back as 2,000 years ago and left its influence on many classic works from the time.
The cross-cultural influences between Indian and Chinese literature are, in fact, well established. According to Dr Chua Soo Pong, the founding director of Singapore’s Chinese Opera Institute who wrote the script for this opera and acted as artistic advisor to the troupe, there have also been Indian adaptations of The Butterfly Lovers, the Chinese equivalent of Romeo & Juliet.
Dr Chua himself was inspired by the wayang kulit and wayang wong performances he had enjoyed as a young boy in Jakarta when he wrote the Chinese script for Ramayana. It premiered as a Teochew opera at Germany’s Stuttgart International Theatre Festival in 1991, and went on to perform at 11 countries and has been seen by 60,000 people to date. Subsequently, Dr Chua had also rewritten it as other Chinese operas, including Hokkien, Huangmei, Li Yuan and Wu.
In its debut Cantonese version, the opera sought to showcase four role types: Sheng, or male roles such as that of the princes; dan, female roles; jing, painted faces such as that of Rawana; chou, or comical roles.
For the benefit of those who did not speak Cantonese, two large screens flashed summaries of each of the eight key scenes in Chinese and English. Much of the dialogue and nuances may have been lost on those who had to rely on the translations, but the other elements of the 90-minute production was riveting enough for the audience to stay glued to their seats throughout.
Teochew puppetry: No strings attached
The stage was set towards the back of the three-month-old Teochew Puppet and Opera House on Lebuh Armenian, a “box” of about 7 feet high with a rectangular opening and draped in embroidered Chinese silk. A bamboo armchair and a short ladder, both miniature-sized, sat on the stage like furniture in a doll house and it became apparent later what these props were for.
The museum is dedicated to all things concerning Teochew puppets and opera, and for one night last week, they hosted a “live” presentation of the subject matter. The Teochew puppet opera show was performed by the Ming Yu Feng troupe founded by Madam Ooi Siew Kim, a recipient of the Living Treasures of Penang Award.
Madam Ooi has been perfecting her craft for over 50 years now, ever since she learnt the art of puppetry from her grandfather when she was just 14. The troupe is made up of members of her family and these days, it is her daughter Goh Hooi Ling who leads as the main puppeteer.
Growing up in a family that were masters and mistresses of the trade, Hooi Ling took to it easily, first dabbling in the art when she was a mere eight-year-old. Now 32, she still enjoys working with the iron rod puppets that she and her family makes by hand. “We also perform regular opera and I had even set up my own troupe a few years ago,” said Hooi Ling. “These days, I find puppet opera to be more interesting as not only is it more traditional, it’s also more challenging. In regular opera, each actor is capable of moving about on their own whereas these puppets need to be moved by controlling the iron rods. That requires real skills.”
Watching Hooi Ling during the show is a testament to that; her finely-tuned skills is evident in the way she animated each puppet to ensure that they move with human-like gestures while making good use of the stage space and props. In The Wood Shed, the first of two extracted plays performed that night, Hooi Ling played the part of travelling merchant Li Laosan who was disturbed by the ghost of Mo Er-niang. In his fright, Li “ran” up the stairs before somersaulting to the ground, and later rested on the armchair while shaking his legs out of nervousness. The movements were fluid and fast, and Hooi Ling’s hands never stopped moving as she adroitly manipulated the three iron rods – one for each arm, and one to hold up the body – attached to the puppet.
Each puppet easily weighs several kilogrammes and takes about two or three weeks to make, something Hooi Ling and her family still does. Her mother has about 100 of these puppets in her collection and while the costumes – richly detailed, just like those of a regular Chinese opera performer’s – are newly made as required of each character, the body of the puppets are original moulds she inherited from her grandfather. That would make them at least five decades old and are usually made of wood (older puppets used tightly-packed bundles of hay).
What’s even more impressive is that while Hooi Ling was playing the Li character, she was voicing that of the ghost, speaking and singing as the script required. The voice of Li, meanwhile, was provided by her brother backstage while also playing one of the traditional music instruments used by the troupe. Gongs, drums and er hu were part of the orchestra as were cymbals, played by Hooi Ling’s 12-year-old niece.
The latter represents a beacon of hope for this vanishing trade – the talented family is believed to be the last remaining Teochew puppet opera troupe in the country – that doesn’t typically draw the interest of the young, but events like George Town Festival are helping to change that. “Nowadays, people are more appreciative of our heritage and this Festival has helped to bring these traditional craft to light, increasing awareness and interest,” said Hooi Ling.
The Ming Yu Feng troupe used to see their performances as simply a means of earning a living but can now take comfort in the increasing value of their profession. Judging from the audience’s response to the show that night, it’s clear that Teochew puppet opera has found a place among aficionados of the performing arts.
Just like the Ramayana, even though most could not understand the dialect or every element that was played out on the stage, the appeal of the unique performances was such that the language barrier disappeared altogether. Instead, those in attendance focused on the artistry and finesse of the ancient art forms.
The Ming Yu Feng troupe performs occasionally at the Teochew Puppet and Opera House at 12 Armenian Street, George Town, Penang. Follow them on Facebook for updates: www.facebook.com/TeochewPuppetAndOpera
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor, and founder of travel & lifestyle website http://thisbunnyhops.com/