“Look, the philosopher is picking his nose again! Make sure you get that in your sketchbook!”, a giggling deity instructs me from her chair, putting down the newspaper she’d been reading. The entire room bursts into laughter.
My timing isn’t perfect though. When I look up, the philosopher has paused his excavation (or perhaps found gold) and gives me a sheepish look. Different people seek different means to calm their nerves before appearing on stage, so I quickly dismiss his antic as a means of personal solace and avert my eyes.
Since 3 in the afternoon, I am at the backstage, observing and recording the hair and make up process of a group of Teochew Opera performers in my sketchbook. In a span of six hours I have watched these 21st century men and women metamorphose bit by bit into ancient Chinese officials, philosophers, scholars, lovers, courtesans and further back in time, into celestial beings such as deities of wealth, success, longevity and such.
I had arrived to a room full of opera performers scattered at various make up stations. Javier, one of the performers who’d invited me backstage was poised motionless on a chair, while her face was being powdered and eyes shaded with a black pencil. Still clad in pyjamas and sneakers, she was a deity in the making, who’d soon be summoned by Kim Bor – the ‘queen mother of the west’ to celebrate her birthday on stage.
Javier will be acting as a deity in the play “A Celestial Birthday”
While Javier was getting ready for Kim Bor’s party, five feet away the queen mother herself was having her hair done. Two hairstylists were folding a bunch of hair strands and sticking them on the birthday girl’s forehead in a semicircle using starch and water. ” It will last for a day, but if I had to make it last longer, I’d mix starch with vinegar. Doesn’t stink and lasts for three days!” said one of the hairstylists expelling her trade secret to me.
I don’t ask her why it needs to last for three days. Do celestial birthdays last that long?
“Also the hair we’re using here is real because false hair is too stiff”, explains another, when she catches me gaping at her make up paraphernalia that has taken up an entire table. Hair of all shapes, sizes and designs from fringes to buns to braids; crowns with exquisite stone settings, necklaces, hairpins, clips, hair bands, hair nets amongst many others lay in neat compartments inside transparent plastic boxes. Four opera groups that are performing today at the ongoing Teochew Cultural Festival, are keeping them on their toes.
Before the performance, I meet with Mr. Lim Chunheng, the events manager to know more about the Teochew people, their culture and more precisely about their opera. Mr Lim starts by pointing out Chaoshan province on the map of China, from where the Teochew people originated, carrying their language, culture and tradition to all the places they emigrated to.
Talking of the Teochew Opera which is a genre of the Chinese opera performed in the Teochew dialect, Mr. Lim says, “This 450 year old art form is beautiful, unique and worth preserving.”
The Teochew Opera was greatly influenced by Nan Xi, an early form of Chinese drama that can be traced back to the Song dynasty in the 12th century AD. Over the years, by integrating Teochew folk music coupled with the unique intonation of the Teochew dialect, Teochew opera evolved as a distinctive art form. Mr. Lim tells me, of the seven characters, the Dan (female) and Chou (clown) roles are the most artistic and well defined in Teochew opera. And the stories evolve around the themes of love, family and ethical relationships.
Kim Bor – The queen mother is getting her hair done
“Teochew Opera involves stylised body movements, facial expressions, vocal modulations and many other subtleties that takes time to master”, says Mr. Lim. “Youngsters these days don’t want to put in that much effort in learning an art form. So through cultural festivals like these, we want to create interest and awareness in them about their own heritage.” he adds.
Another deterrent responsible for the dwindling popularity of the Teochew Opera, as Mr. Lim points out, is the Teochew dialect. Though Teochew remains the ancestral language of many Chinese in Singapore, Mandarin is slowly replacing Teochew as their mother tongue, especially among the young population.
The performers having ‘Bee Hoon’ for lunch
At the backstage, everything comes to a temporary halt, when lunch arrives in takeaway boxes. Performers, volunteers, makeup artists gather around and fill up on Bee Hoon. The queen mother extracts herself from the hairstylists and joins the group. In the next few hours, tiny microphones are distributed to the performers to be attached to their bodies, flamboyant costumes in the most elegant colours with matching shoes are donned, headgears from small to large, simple to the most exquisite adorn the heads.
One of the deities approaches the hairstylist, holding her head in pain. “Too tight, the headgead’s too tight!” This headgear like many has two tiny holes on either side and comes with a matching pin as long as a chopstick that is passed from one end to another, through the hair bound in a bun, and wound a couple of times like a screwdriver, till the headgear fits the head snugly. The hairstylist fiddles with the screw and fixes the problem.
Javier from Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association, Singapore
As the deadline approaches, performers are getting themselves in the zone.
The queen mother and the scholar’s wife are pacing up and down the room in their flowing costumes; the deities are shaking their heads to check the fit of their headgear or humming quietly with their eyes closed; Javier is reading a newspaper and the scholar is relaxing his vocal chords by breaking into high pitched songs.
The philosopher is digging his nose, but I am not judging.
The scholar and his wife perfom in “Reunion at the capital”