This expressive bamboo sculpture of the Chinese God of Wealth, dressed in a Qing dynasty official’s cap and magua jacket with an abacus under one arm, was one of the many wooden sculptures I found within the Singapore Chinese Opera Museum. The museum was tucked away in a tiny lot on the first floor of Sultan Plaza, and I had arrived hoping to learn more about traditional Chinese opera forms. Instead, the first thing that leapt out at me upon my arrival were the rows of wood sculptures neatly arranged on tables and shelves lining the premises. The heady smell of camphor incense wafted through the air, accompanied by the soft lilt of qin (zither) music playing over the sound system.
These sculptures were all part of the personal collection of Mr Bian Huibin, a soft-spoken man in his forties and the museum’s owner. I first saw him quietly drifting in and out of the museum, while his wife Mdm Huang Ping attended to a small steamer at a side table surrounded by bowls of rice and pickled vegetables for his lunch. “I looked for and imported these all myself,” he told me, speaking in Mandarin as he ushered me into the area, beaming with barely-concealed pride over each of his valuable pieces. “The middle row,” he said while pointing to a line of dark-coloured Guanyin sculptures in the centre of the room, “are from Indonesia, and the rest are from China. There’s one sculpture in the corner that’s about 200 years old, but the rest are fairly new.” He admitted that as a Chinese opera instructor he used the space to conduct classes on the weekends, but seemed to take an especial interest in these artefacts. When I asked them why he collected them, he told me with a simple sincerity, “I like them. I like all forms of art.”
As I surveyed each of the sculptures, Mr Bian followed me steadily, eager to share his knowledge of each of these pieces. Each of them had been carved in the likenesses of various Chinese religious or historical figures, infused by the artist with a startling liveliness in their vivid expressions or the flowing creases of their robes. All of his sculptures gained a deep, soft lustre in the glow of the museum’s fluorescent lights. He picked each of them up in turn, flipping them over to reveal the rings that signalled each sculpture’s beginning as a humble block of wood. When I asked him in halting Mandarin which of them was his favourite, he answered within a heartbeat. “It’s this statue of Zhuge Liang at the back,” was this enthusiastic response as he moved swiftly to a sculpture that had been prominently displayed on a pedestal at the back of the room. “Zhuge Liang symbolises of wisdom in China, and this carving is so lifelike. It’s also very heavy, and I enjoy feeling its weight.” He went on to elaborate on the special features of each of the different types of wood used to carve sculptures, and how the density of each sculpture was indicative of its worth. I began to have a sense that he was taking pride not just in his role as a collector, but also in his efforts to highlight Chinese culture.
It took some scrutiny to find signs of the stated focus of the museum – Chinese opera. I had to peer past the statues to see the information on the histories of different types of Chinese opera on the walls. Each dialect group in different regions of China has its own variant of opera – besides the ubiquitous Beijing Opera there are other styles such as Fujian, Teochew and Cantonese (Yue) opera that have historically been prominent in Singapore due to its large southern Chinese diaspora. I looked at the pictures of actors and actresses in flowing, richly-embroidered brocade costumes; their faces heavily made up in the standard white and deep pink that is characteristic of the genre. Chinese opera is a demanding art, involving not just singing and choreography for distinct roles, but also martial arts training for the many mythological and historical tales that are the subjects of many a traditional play. It was also a vanishing tradition, with many troupes seeing slowing demand and a lack of young actors. I thought that he would have been more openly proud of this particular tradition that he was helping to safeguard.
And yet Mr Bian was modest, if not reluctant, about mentioning his involvement in the Chinese opera scene. “You must enjoy looking at my pictures,” was his only wry comment when I came to a series of framed newspaper clippings at a corner. In bold Chinese characters, it proclaimed the couple’s status as one of the leading promoters of Chinese opera in Singapore, and mentioned the many shows they had participated in. His wife, herself still an active performer and instructor, gave no indication of the recognition she enjoyed in her hushed conversations with her husband while I was in the room. And yet under his mild-mannered exterior, Mr Bian had an eclectic of talents. He had published a photo album on the stray cats of Singapore and held his own exhibition, and a drinks menu pasted above a register referenced the opera-themed cafe he had opened along Kandahar Street.
“It’s tiring,” he put it bluntly. “I’m a musician. I also run photography classes and opera classes. It’s a rich life, yes. A rich life, but busy.” He appeared a man of simple desires, content to avoid the trappings that fame would have wrought upon him. Perhaps he delighted more in the joy he gained from his hobbies and the joy of an honest conversation than his hectic career as a Chinese opera instructor. The museum was in itself a product of his subtle but refined tastes, and reflected well who he appeared to be. Small and nondescript, but brimming with a rich and understated cultural life.