Singing for the Gods

On our way to the wet market at Beauty World last week, Prescott and I stumbled upon yet another mysterious giant tent in the middle of a field.

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My querying the persons inside to find out what the tent was there for resulted in the following responses: “It’s for prayer” (true), “It’s Buddha’s birthday” (not true — that was in May), “It’s some Buddhist thing” (true), and “I have school tomorrow” (probably true — but that’ll teach me to ask a six-year-old). The closest I got to what might have been a helpful answer was, “you know, you have Jesus, and she has a mother — well, this is like that. It’s for Maya.” I was excited by this response, because it seemed like I had finally unravelled the mystery: Maya was Buddha’s birth mother, and they must have been celebrating her in some way. But I did further research, and I can’t find anyone (especially anyone Chinese) who particularly venerates Maya. So I’m still not sure what was going on.

I can positively identify one section of the tent as a makeshift temple. There were altars …

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… and prayer candles …

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… and offerings:

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The walls of the tent were covered in these decorations: IMG_3353

When we first arrived — just after my initial and unsuccessful attempts at understanding this event — two people invited us to join in their large group meal. They explained that all of the food was vegetarian, and that they would be eating only vegetarian food for the next four days. We had a lovely meal of noodles and a delicious curry, followed by mangosteen and some sort of fruit we didn’t recognize for dessert.

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But the best part of the whole day was discovering an opera stage next to the tent! I have seen puppet shows during temple prayers before, but this is the first time I have seen live opera. This kind of street opera, called wayang in Malay and jiexi in Mandarin, is dying out in Singapore. But the performers are are still hired for some prayer days to both amuse and show respect for the deities.

This is the first scene I came upon in the opera tent. I couldn’t get over the guy in the Santa hat, which just looks incredibly out of place to me.

Everything was in Chinese (Mandarin? Hokkien? Cantonese?), so I had no idea what was going on (that was a theme of the day). To me it all looked pretty jokey, but I could have that wrong. And there was no audience — none. I was the only person standing outside in the grass, which seemed unfortunate, because the performance was amusing even if you were clueless. I felt bad that the performers had no one watching except the gods (though maybe that’s not so terrible).

Unfortunately, I caught this act just as it was closing. But then a guy who saw me wandering around invited me backstage. This is not your average backstage experience — it involved climbing a ladder lashed to a rickety platform:

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This wasn’t like any backstage area I’d ever seen before (though I’ll note that most of my backstage experiences have been limited to high school theaters). No one seemed to mind — or even, really, to notice — that I was wandering around.

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Only this musician wanted to pose:

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Wayang music is played by six or seven people, who are divided into two sections on either side of the stage. What you see here is the percussion section, which includes gongs, clappers, and cymbals. On the other side of the tent were musicians who played some sort of a hammered dulcimer and at least one reed instrument.

Going backstage offered me a closeup view of the costumes, including robes …

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… hats …

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… and even wigs!

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As I made my way back down the ladder, the guy who’d invited me up said, “come back tonight, 7:30. Very good performance. Very nice makeup.” From this, I gathered that I had been watching a mid-day teaser, and that there would be a much grander performance in the evening. So I went back — and I’m glad I did!

This time, there was an audience of about twelve people. Most of them were old aunties, and they were surprisingly chatty during the performance. I’m not sure that they were paying any attention to the opera at all; I think they were just hanging out. But I was riveted. This performance had everyone decked out in full regalia (and, as promised, very good makeup). I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the characters were. I’m pretty sure that the woman on the left here was our heroine:

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Chinese opera has changed in many ways, one of the most significant being that women can now appear on stage. Just a hundred years ago, men played all of the roles. But progress, and the fact that they need more actors, means that you sometimes now even see women playing men.

In this scene, our heroine was hanging out with some sort of a high-level scholar or official (on the right). But I was fascinated by the man in the middle, whose long pheasant feathers on his hat indicate that he is a young warrior:

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Another warrior with similar feathers appeared later on — and this one looked like he had butterfly wings:

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For Westerners, Chinese opera is an acquired taste. You have to get used to the nasal singing and the unfamiliar scales and tonality.

But though it may grate on the western ear at first, it’s worth noting that this kind of singing and performance takes years and years of practice. (If you read articles about Chinese street opera in Singapore, older performers recall being caned when they made mistakes as youngsters learning the trade.)

And the performances truly are wonderful:

Like western operas, Chinese opera is long. Because it was a school night, I didn’t get to stay until the end, so I have no idea what happened to our heroine (though I’m not sure what was happening to her when I left, either, except that she seemed to do a lot of pleading). I hope that I get to see an entire performance someday.

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