Wayang (Chinese street opera)
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Wayang, a Malay word meaning “a theatrical performance employing puppets or human dancers”, commonly refers to Chinese street opera in Singapore, though it is also used in reference to other forms of opera such as wayang kulit. In Mandarin, Chinese street opera is known as jiexi (“street show”). This traditional Chinese dramatic form was brought to Singapore by immigrants from China during the 19th century as part of their religious rites. Since then, the popularity of wayang has waxed and waned, in no small part due to modern developments. Wayang is now considered an icon of Chinese heritage and culture, and is performed by both professional and amateur opera troupes.
Although the first recorded use of the Malay word wayang to refer to Chinese street opera was in 1887, the earliest description of wayang dates back to as early as 1842. Wayang is a form of Chinese musical theatre which incorporates a wide range of art forms like song, dance, mime, acrobatics and martial arts. It was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants who arrived in the later half of the 19th century.
These Chinese immigrants later built temples for worship and wayang would be staged outdoors on temple grounds for the amusement of deities and as a form of respect during the celebration of deities’ birthdays and customary festivals. Such performances were probably free to watch, as professional opera troupes would be engaged and paid for by wealthy Chinese businessmen or clan associations. Consequently, wayang became the cheapest and most accessible form of entertainment for the Chinese community.
The popularity of wayang soon rose to such a level that the large crowds at these performances worried the authorities. The government attempted to restrict wayang through measures such as the 1856 Police and Conservancy Acts which restricted assemblies, processions and street operas. However such measures were met with protest, and wayang continued to flourish as the controls were eased.
By the late 1800s, wayang’s popularity had prompted the building of dedicated theatres. They were located mainly in Chinatown, such as Lai Chun Yuen at Smith Street (which the Cantonese colloquially called Hei Yuen Kai meaning “theatre street”) and Heng Wai Sun and Heng Seng Peng at Wayang Street (which is now called Eu Tong Sen Street).
Chinese opera continued to be performed at indoor venues and in the streets through the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), but the depressed economy and social and political unrest of the 1950s and 1960s contributed to its decline. In the 1970s, with Singapore’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the staging of wayang was permitted only in designated sites in the government’s bid to limit the public disturbance caused by the noise and traffic congestion arising from these performances. As a result of these post-war developments, coupled with the government’s push to replace dialects with Mandarin as the lingua franca among the Chinese, the westernisation of the population, and the ageing and dwindling of its core audience, wayang is no longer a form of mass entertainment for the Chinese community.
Characteristics of wayang
The three main genres of wayang in Singapore are those of the three largest Chinese dialect groups in Singapore: fujianxi (Hokkien opera), chaoju (Teochew opera) and yueju (Cantonese opera), each with distinctive features.
Gezaixi (“folk-tune opera”), the most popular type of fujianxi, is based on folk tales of the Fujian province and is described as having a characteristic “crying" melody. Chaoju is based on folk ballads and dances, and is known for its clear and tender singing style, fan-playing and acrobatic stunts. Yueju is based on tales from Chinese history, literature and mythology, and is said to be easy to understand and reflect reality.
Stage and props
Wayang is performed on a makeshift wooden stage that can be easily assembled and dismantled. A canvas sheet supported by timber or steel poles shelters the stage from the elements. The backstage where performers dress and rest is separated from the main stage by a scenic backdrop called shoujiu which is made of embroidered silk. The orchestra is seated at the front corners of the stage.
Stage props, known as qiemo, are kept to a minimum and often used symbolically whereby a horse whip represents a horse while flags and banners with wind prints represent gales. Stock props include chairs and tables, flags and banners, lanterns and candles, wine jars and cups, and fans.
Music and singing
Wayang music is loud and distinctive. Live music is provided by a six- or seven-member orchestra which is divided into two sections: the wen (“civil”), consisting of stringed and woodwind instruments such as the huqin (spike fiddle), erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and suona (oboe); and the wu (“military”), consisting of percussion instruments like the bangzi (clapper), luo (brass gong) and bo (cymbals). The wen instruments accompany the performers’ singing and provide mood-setting background music, while the wu instruments provide rhythm, set the pace of the music, and heighten the mood in acrobatic action or fight scenes.
Chinese operatic roles generally fall into one of four main categories: sheng (male), dan (female), chou (clown) and jing (painted face). Each category has several sub-types usually classified by age, status and/or personality. For example, sheng roles are broadly classified by age – lao (“old”) or xiao (“young”) – and status – wen (“scholarly”) or wu (“military”); among the dan roles, the huadan is attractive and spirited while the caidan is a comic and/or villainous character who is usually ugly.
Makeup and costume
In any Chinese opera, each performer’s makeup reflects the traits of the character being portrayed. There are two distinctive styles: the junban (“charming makeup”) which is applied lightly at the brow and eye areas, usually on sheng or dan characters, and the distinctively patterned caiban (“colourful makeup”) which is worn mainly by jing characters. Certain colours convey specific meanings. For example, red is used to symbolise bravery, loyalty and uprightness, while gold and silver usually indicate that the character is a god or spirit.
A performer’s costume generally consists of a headdress, robes, shoes and an artificial beard for a sheng or jing character or hair accessories for a dan character. Attires vary between characters and give hints to their personalities. Every costume is intricately embroidered and/or beaded and very expensive. Some costumes have long flowing sleeve extensions known as shuixiu (“water sleeves”), which performers use symbolically to express their characters’ emotions.
Wayang in modern Singapore
Wayang has survived modernisation and continues to be performed in Singapore, partly due to efforts of the government and various community associations to preserve and promote it as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage and partly due to the resurgence of performances by troupes from China and the revival of local amateur troupes. Professional troupes still perform regularly in religious festivals and ceremonies, usually in public spaces in residential neighbourhoods such temple grounds, carparks or vacant plots of land. On the other hand, amateur troupes put up performances in highly publicised government-sponsored events like the Hong Lim Park Chinese Opera series staged annually at Hong Lim Park between 1978 and 1985, and the Singapore Street Opera Festival held in 2004 in the main business, shopping and tourist districts.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.