Tag Archives: China

Nanyin Concert at Singapore’s Oldest Temple

Sketching has its perks, specially in this country because you get invited to all sorts of interesting events, that you otherwise wouldn’t have a clue about. Well, it might not be entirely true for everybody, considering  how well networked and resourceful some people are, but being an expatriate trying to get intimate with the country she is living in, invitations to events featuring local history, culture, heritage and people in some way or the other is serendipity dropping into your hands like a ripe plum.
And what better way to explore a country intimately than sketching your backyard and writing about it, specially if it’s a diverse 710 sq km city state, that you can cross via subway in less than two hours! The possibilities are endless, although I didn’t harbour this mindset two years back when like many others I was trapped in the hamster wheel of shopping malls, food courts,  boutique cafes and movie theatres. That’s all there is to do in Singapore, I thought.
But somehow, this simple attempt at documenting life through sketching has freed me off the nasty blinkers. Since then, I have befriended locals and heard their stories, observed their diurnal rhythms, their idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, their pidgin lingo, their obsession with food, their materialism and altruism, their traditions and customs – those celebrated widely with pomp across the island as well as those that falter at the brink of oblivion, their collective sense of pride and also their anxiousness,  their self expression, their drive to grow, develop, compete and succeed both globally and locally and also their struggle to conserve their identity and heritage in the wake of urbanisation and immigration.
Not just sketching, but sketching with a purpose has opened my eyes.
My impression of Thian Hock Keng Temple

Artist’s impression of Thian Hock Keng Temple

My sketch reportage of many such events I’d been invited to, though disparate – like recording the make-up session of a Teochew opera group, or trying my hand at wrapping rice dumplings at a Taoist temple, or drinking coffee at a shophouse kopitiam or visiting a heritage Peranakan house and so on – have brought me closer to understanding the country I live in. And what more, the equation is symbiotic – while the invitee gets an interesting premise to sketch and talk about,  the inviter gets to promote a cause or create awareness, which brings me to the courtyard of Thian Hock Keng Temple, on 158 Telok Ayer Street, where I along with other fellow sketchers have gathered upon one such invitation – to sketch and see a Nanyin concert performed on the temple premises only thrice a year by Siong Leng Musical Association.
Sitting in a lone corner in the outer courtyard,  this girl was practicing her flute right before the concert began.

Sitting in a lone corner in the outer courtyard, this girl was practicing her flute right before the concert began.

It is not everyday that you experience centuries old and preserved art form, performed against an equally historic backdrop, so I took the bait the moment it appeared in my newsfeed.  The temple’s location couldn’t have been more incongruous, with sparkling high-rises, nifty eateries and watering holes in the vicinity. I wanted to slow down and process the interesting juxtaposition but instead was taking long strides towards the temple, to catch some of the receding light and start sketching before it hit 7. Because at 7 in the evening, the sun goes down in this country, every single day of the year with such mundane consistency that can only be managed if you’re just a degree away from of the equator.

By the time I post myself by a kerb opposite the magnificent facade of the temple, a gigantic truck plonks itself in front and blocks my view. Cars are zipping past and waves of people are making their way from work, without so much as glancing at the imposing green tiled roofs and the multicoloured motifs, the fiery dragons charging at the sky, the carved pillars and the massive red lanterns. It is amusing to even imagine that in 1820, when the temple used to be a humble joss house, early immigrants from Fukien Province in China,  who’d voyaged across the turbulent South China Sea, flocked in to offer their gratitude to Ma Zhu – the goddess of the sea, even before they went scouting for work and shelter. Before land reclamation of 1880, Telok (bay in Malay) Ayer( water in Malay) was the seafront!
The stage being set up for the concert
From where I stand, I can see plastic chairs being arranged and the stage being set up for the concert. TV crews are interviewing the organisers and the glare from their portable LED light is gushing out through the massive wooden doors and blinding my vision. Dodging the parked truck and the dazzling light, I further shift my vantage point and begin sketching the facade. But darkness has fallen on the city. I struggle to capture the relief patterns on the roof ridges that have been rendered using chien nien technique, a Fujian architectural stylewhich involves breaking unusable pottery and porcelain to create beautiful three-dimensional work.
That’s when Paul, a fellow urban sketcher quipped, “Don’t go for the details, try to capture the essence”. He made it look simple with his casual yet bold strokes that told the story and held it back at the same time for the onlooker to be amused and bemused – a dab of yellow for the blinding light, few sinuous strokes for the temple’s roof, some dark shadows around the threshold and so on. But for some, simplifying isn’t all that simple. The left brain kicks up a storm when you try working at a scene holistically, leaving hints here and there like breadcrumbs leading to a revelation, rather than getting sucked into the details and showing all your cards. The left brain implores you to mark and annotate every stone, tile, wood and all the amazing carvings, intricate sculptures, imposing columns and the decorations with dragons and phoenixes. I try to heed Paul’s advice and try to sketch and paint from what I feel, rather than what I see or straining to see. It isn’t easy.
In the temple courtyard, a stage has been set with mikes, stools, projectors and floodlights, the participants are hustling up, some donning make-up, some straightening the creases of their flowing costumes and fixing their hair. A volunteer hurriedly places the concert schedule on every chair. The musical instruments – pie, pipa, samhen, xiao, lihen are lined at the corner, waiting to be picked up. Guests are streaming in, taking places incoherently. A young girl, away from the action is practicing her bamboo flute and shaking her head in indignation, every time she hits a wrong note.
Nanyin in progress. The audience is enthralled.

Nanyin in progress. The audience is captivated.

Nanyin, which literally means the ‘music of the south’ has originated from the southern Chinese province of Fujian and is one of the oldest music genres of China that still exists. The music is soft, gentle and graceful – something that would seep through the pores of your skin and serenade you and fill your senses to the hilt. As the music trickled into the temple’s ancient courtyard, the audience – a motley crew of young and old, locals and foreigners, residents and tourist – sat enthralled and motionless, which was perfect for sketching.
Understanding the lyrics would’ve heightened my experience, because most of the time it felt like standing at the edge of an alluring pool and not knowing how to swim. Perhaps, my inability kept me rooted to the task at hand without getting emotionally invested. On that night, I let the music guide my pen.
Nanyin performers at Thian Hock Keng

Nanyin performers at Thian Hock Keng

Behind the scenes at a Teochew Opera

“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 playing a deity in the play "A Celestial Birthday"

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

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

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 catching up on local new before the performance

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"

The scholar and his wife perfom in “Reunion at the capital”