I’d written before on the captivating energy of the lion dance – as an outsider looking in, the clamour of the gongs and cymbals and the colour and vigour of the dancers seem like a hallmark of cultural artistry to some, and a fantastic spectacle to most. It was only after I had gotten a chance to join the lion dancers at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (岡州会馆) along New Bridge Road that I gained a tiny glimpse into the world that really exists behind these performances. Continue reading
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.
A statue of Tudigong (土地公) sits overlooking the Ghim Moh Food Centre and Wholesale Market. Here he is known by his more formal title of ‘Just God of Prosperity and Virtue’ (福德正神) and wears a traditional governor’s hat, on top of a flowing yellow cape–with yellow being both the colour of royalty as well as of the element of Earth. In an area belonging to small-business-owners and dealers in fresh produce, he was appropriately chosen for his association with financial and agricultural success. Throughout the day he is visited mostly by the elderly, who will offer him a few sticks of incense before going on their way, while he continues to smile and preside over the daily activities of all those hard at work.
One morning, a group of kindergarteners–from a nearby international school, judging from their uniforms–with their parents and teachers in tow approached the altar. The children gleefully posed, grinning, in front of the statue while the adults took pictures. This spectacle was made more jarring by the arrival of a devotee, who as a result became part of the attraction as they continued snapping photos whilst she was praying. Immediately, I felt repulsed. It just seemed degrading to me, even if they didn’t practice the Chinese folk religion the deity belonged to. By treating the altar as a piece of scenery for a good photo-op, they were violating the sanctity of that space and the revered tradition that it represented to the scores of devotees who visited it everyday.
The same reaction comes upon me when I see Buddha heads being sold as house ornaments in interior decorating shops. It might be tantalising for some observers to market or trivialise such images as exotic curiosities, while ignoring the centuries of religious and cultural significance that underpin such depictions. There is a line that must be drawn between appreciation and disrespect, and all too often it is easily ignored for the sake of amusement.
An tight, expectant buzz hung over Telok Ayer Street this New Year’s afternoon–which also happened to be the eleventh day of the eleventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar and the date on which the newly-refurbished Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor was to be opened to the public. The 170-year-old monument, having recently been renamed and having completed her facelift in December, seemed to take on a regal demeanour that day as she sat before the crowds above a table laden with offerings to numerous deities. Her door, festooned with an opulent red ribbon, was closed, only to be opened on very special occassions. Taoist priests in their flowing blue and black robes mingled with and slid in between special guests in white Chinese tops as well as ordinary on-lookers, engaged in a frenzy of activity as greetings and signals were exchanged before the start of the temple’s official consecration to the fiftieth anniversary of modern Singapore’s independence.
At the emcees’ announcement of the first phase of the ceremony, there was a collective perking-up of the assembly. Spectators (and some priests) brandishing cameras and smartphones surged towards the other end of the street as a cacophony of cymbals and drums erupted onto the road. Lions in bright hues of yellow, green and orange made a collective series of bows to the side gates before bounding away with wild energy, while a red-and-white dragon followed with vigorous cartwheels in his never-ending chase of his pearl. Soon after, they stilled, to make way for the procession of priests standing at attention to perform the rites that would bestow good luck upon the temple.
Solemnly, silently, the procession of priests and musicians in their colourful, resplendent garments proceeded to the end of the road where the lion dancers had gone. At an almost imperceptible signal they started their slow march towards the main gate of the temple, each step as measured as the next. Seeing them, next to the on-lookers with all their vestiges of modernity, made me consciously aware of the mingling of old and new, tradition and progress, that underpins the essence of this island and yet continues to give strength to the veins of Chinese tradition that seemed to run through the members of the procession that day.
The procession reached the main gate of the temple. A taut silence ensued. With the same wordless grace, the members of the procession spread out as the five most senior priests in purple took their positions before the table of offerings. The musicians intoned a throaty chant to the beat of metal cymbals and a muyu (‘wooden fish’, a Chinese percussion instrument). The crowd watched breathlessly, some with palms placed together before their faces in deep reverence. The most eminent priests, denoted by the golden ornaments on their headpieces, raised long thick joss sticks billowing with smoke before their faces in moments of intense devotion, before leading the others in bowing and standing again in a show of respect to the gods. One of the priests received a rectangular wooden board from an attendant and held it out in front of him, his sleeves billowing on either side of him like the wings of a bird. He then proceeded to bless the temple in circular, waltzing steps. Perhaps, I thought, he was waltzing for the deities themselves.
Towards the end of the ceremony, a petition written on yellow paper and wrapped around a metal frame was burnt under the solemn gazes of the senior priests, sending wishes for prosperity skywards. I left that afternoon with the chorus of the procession ringing in my ears, and the pulse of tradition and religion brought alive by the ceremony feeling it was still pounding through my heart.