ONE of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world, the Chinese opera – or more precisely, the Fukien opera – may no longer enjoy the glorious days that it had in the past decades, but the Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic Association strives to keep this traditional performing art alive.
Way back in the early days, whenever the Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic performers put up a show or two at the ‘Da Guan Tai’ (grand stage) facing the Hong San Si Temple at Wayang Street in Kuching city centre, it would always pull large crowds.
In those days the people, the Chinese folks mostly, watched Fukien opera perhaps due to lack of other choices of entertainment then, or that they simply enjoyed the show.
Today, the performers no longer stage a show for the general audience.
“Gone are the days when people would come in big numbers to watch our opera. These days, we mostly perform just for the deity, or to mark the deity’s birthday celebration.
“We don’t get much crowd these days, but this does not dampen our spirit to keep our opera going,” Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic Association chairman Wee Bu Wue told thesundaypost when met at the association’s premises near the Song Kheng Hai Football Field recently.
The 71-year-old has been heading the association for 30 years – and counting.
Ever since he took over the chairmanship, the number of performers has been on a decline despite all continued efforts to recruit new members.
Such low recruitment has nothing to do with his leadership, as people have diverted their attention from Fukien opera to other forms of entertainment.
Wee admitted that there were not many newbies joining the association to learn about Fukien opera.
“We did get a couple of newcomers but they, especially the female performers, chose to quit halfway. They might have a good start but along the way, as they decided to settle down and have a family, they left us.
“To be frank, we have not seen any new performers for at least 20 years. The ones we have left are all the veteran performers, aged between the 40s and the 70s,” he said.
Dire shortage of new performers
Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic Association was set up in 1950, and is still standing after seven decades.
Today, it has a little over 15 performers to stage opera at the Da Guan Tai during selected periods.
Wee, who used to perform many years ago, said it worried him a lot that there was a severe shortage of new performers.
“Imagine all our veteran performers either call it a day or touch wood, leave us one day, our traditional art of Fukien opera would be lost for good.
“For now, we’re hanging in there, while trying our very best to recruit young performers, groom them to succeed us and keep the culture well alive,” he said.
According to him, many other dramatic or opera associations have opted for playing the cassette for the music accompanying the show.
For Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic Association, it continues to uphold the tradition of playing the physical musical instruments for every show, which is part of the cultural elements of the Fukien opera.
According to Wee, the play is in the Hockien dialect, and this could be a reason why the association has failed in its recruitment of new young blood.
Based on his observation, many of the younger ones today, under the influence of the current education needs with the focus having shifted to learning English, do not speak their own dialects.
“Our opera is conducted in Fukien and even though the population of Fukien isn’t too small, not many young people want to join us and learn Fukien opera.
“It is not that we do not welcome those from the Hakka, Hainan or Foochow dialectal groups, but accent does matter a lot. We need performers to speak accurate Fukien,” he stressed.
Challenges and obstacles
Wee said the association had been working closely with the youth sections of the Federation of Kuching, Samarahan and Serian Divisions Chinese Associations, and the Kuching Hockien Association, to look into the recruitment of youths to be groomed for the Fukien opera.
According to him, many youngsters would rather go for lion dance or wushu – both also a part of the Chinese culture – instead of Fukien opera.
This is because lion dance is relatively easier to master than the Fukien opera, which requires performers to not just speak accurate Hockien dialect, but to memorise the scripts as well.
Wee believed that such an undertaking might pose a challenge to today’s youngsters, who were spending more time on technological gadgets such as mobile devices.
He said the association had also tried to recruit students such as those from Chung Hua Middle School No 3, but these teenagers seemed to be more interested in lion dance.
“We really need to bring in new blood to keep our traditional art of Fukien opera going for many more years to come. Frankly, our most veteran performer is already 75 this year.”
‘Passion, dedication, focus’
Wee pointed out that one would first have to be keen in learning Fukien opera in order to last long.
“Interest and patience have to go well together; otherwise, we would keep seeing quitters.
“We have to do all we can to make sure that our Fukien opera is, and will stay, alive,” he said.
Still, Wee admitted that at times, he would get discouraged especially when any effort to recruit new performers had gone futile.
“Perhaps young people these days prefer other cultures such as karaoke and street dance. This makes it even more challenging to get the young people to join us.
“Whatever it is, we will not stop trying. We will give our best to preserve this Chinese traditional culture, although we are well aware that the successors are not easy to come by.”
Wee, however, did ponder the possibility of the young people considering joining the association if the medium for the opera were to change from Hockien to Mandarin.
He felt that this could make it easier for the newbies to pick up the skills as they would not have to worry too much about mastering the Hockien dialect.
On this, he remarked: “It’s just a thought, because we wouldn’t want to compromise the quality and the authenticity of our Fukien opera.
“Let’s stick to what we have first, and see how things would develop later.”
‘Of costumes and musical instruments’
On the association’s premises, the association has held ownership of the property since 1968.
Wee said before this, they rented a shoplot at Jalan Padungan as their temporary premises.
The current place is where they store, among other things, their costumes.
As one steps further inside, one would spot an altar dedicated to the deity, Xiang Jiang Ye.
It is said that Xiang Jiang Ye is the deity worshipped by most opera performers and those from the associations.
According to Wee, the association has a good collection of over 100 pieces of various costumes, each to suit a specific need in every opera show.
In the old days, the association would go for local tailor-made costumes but as the time changes, they now procure the items directly from China, Taiwan and Thailand – some pieces could cost hundreds of ringgit.
When met at the premises, the association’s secretary Sim Soon Hock said he joined the team around 30 years ago.
The 72-year-old musical instrument player said he used to play ‘banhu’ (a bowed stringed instrument with a thin wooden soundboard) for the performers. The ‘banhu’ was later replaced by ‘kexian’ (a two-stringed vertical fiddle).
Before becoming a part of the Fukien opera team, Sim had played the ‘erhu’ (a two-stringed bowed musical instrument, widely known as the Chinese violin) for another opera association.
He said these traditional musicians were so attuned to the opera music that they did not even require any musical notes to play their instruments.
Sharing similar sentiments with Wee, Sim also stressed about the need to keep the opera music going.
“We play without having the need to refer to any musical notes. Our skills are passed down from our predecessors. Listen to the music, and learn to play along with it.
“We have discovered that if we want the young people to continue what we have been doing to preserve the culture and the art, we would need to come up with music scores so that more people can learn together.”
In this regard, Sim said they had completed the music scores for over 10 songs, adding further that such an effort would continue on.
“It’s not just the music and the songs that we have to prepare for. Before any opera performance, there’s a lot of work to do – from decorations, to costumes, to make-up.
“In fact as the modern day sets in, we also go for electronic organ to play our music, apart from the traditional instruments,” he added.
‘Mainly for elderly folks nowadays’
The traditional Chinese opera is a form of musical theatre, with roots going way back to the early periods in China.
Consisting of various art forms that existed in ancient China, it has been gradually evolving for more than 1,000 years, reaching maturity during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Music, songs, dances, martial arts, acrobatics, costumes and make-up artistry were all incorporated to form traditional Chinese opera.
It is said that the performers would have to practise for many years just to have an understanding of their respective roles.
In the 20th century, the Peking opera gained popularity and emerged as the ‘national theatre of China’, but there were other genres as well, including the ‘Yue’ (Cantonese) opera, ‘Huangmei’ opera and ‘Sichuan’ opera.
For centuries, Chinese opera had been the major form of entertainment for both urban and rural folks in China, as well as the Chinese diaspora.
Among many young people of today, however, it is no longer a part of the current popular music culture.
It seems to remain as an attraction mainly for the elderly folks.