When one talks about Chinese opera in Singapore, the conversation is often tinged with nostalgia for a waning tradition. Some may wonder if it is still performed outside of religious events in temples or the Hungry Ghost Festival, the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
In its heyday during the early 1900s, Chinese opera was performed in purpose-built theatres and on the streets. The influx of Chinese immigrants to Singapore fostered the growth of Chinese opera as a means of entertainment. The three dominant Chinese ethnic groups were the Fujian, Teochew, and Cantonese communities. Collectively, the operatic genres of these three communities formed the core of Chinese opera in Singapore.
While the famed Lai Chun Yuen at Smith Street dished out the Cantonese opera genre, the Teochew community had the theatres of Tong Le Yuan at North Bridge Road, Yi Yuan at Merchant Road, and Zhe Yuan at New Market Road.
The introduction of film and amusement parks in Singapore contributed to the decline in Chinese opera. Many Chinese opera theatres were converted to cinemas from the 1920s onwards. A prominent example was the Cantonese opera theatre Tianyan Dawutai, built in 1927 by philanthropist Eu Tong Sen, which was converted to a cinema in 1939. It is known today as The Majestic, a shopping mall at Eu Tong Sen Street.
Amusement parks also proved to be stiff competition for Chinese opera from the 1920s to the 1980s. They were truly the one-stop entertainment venue, featuring game rides, gambling parlours, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres. Chinese opera did find its way into the amusement parks – Teochew opera was performed at the Happy World and also the New World’s Bai Lao Hui theatre.
The Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association is one of the oldest organisations promoting Teochew music and opera in Singapore. Established in 1931, the association made their public debut at Great World amusement park four years later. They have recorded several Waijiang opera albums and were regularly featured on Rediffusion.
They recently celebrated their 82nd anniversary by staging a complimentary-access Teochew opera performance titled The Prodigal Son on 13 and 14 December at the Golden Theatre. I was lucky to witness the preparations backstage.
While professional Chinese opera performances have declined from the 1960s, amateur groups have endured and continued to perform in theatres and other indoor contexts, with support from patrons, their respective associations and membership enrollments. Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association is one of the remaining organisations to still keep the waning Chinese opera tradition alive.