Friday, 25 September 2015

Mid Autumn Festival at Esplanade 2015

The Hainan Opera kicked off a series of Mid-Autumn Festival (MAF) that took place in Esplanade - Theatres of the Bay at the west side of Marina Bay. This is the 1st time I watched such a traditional opera in Singapore. I'm glad they're still around.

Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore
Hainan opera on Esplanade

This bought back so much memories, which stretched back to more than 3 decades, and in another SE Asian city of Saigon (former Ho-Chi-Minh City).

Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore
Makeshift opera stage at the Esplanade

These kinda operas were setup during the Hungry Ghost Festival (the name known in Singapore, but in all other SE Asian Chinese communities, the name would likely be different) in Saigon. The makeshift opera (not dissimilar to the one in the photo above) was setup to perform for the invisible guests sitting on the 1st row. Of course, the opera in Esplanade was performed during the MAF for people. So 1st row was occupied by people, and I did sit in the front row during the viewing (and feeling like a VIP).

In Singapore. getai was setup, not opera during HGF. Perhaps, I'm guessing that Chinese operas such as this was setup before. With the waning interests in traditional Chinese operas, modern entertainment like getai took over. I'm guessing.

In any case, the time before Saigon (same Chinese name as the well known place in HK called Sai Kung 西貢 in case you don't speak Chinese) was being rechristianed to Ho-Chi-Minh City, Chinese opera was staged during the Vietnamese equivalence of HGF in District 5. I rarely missed those operas during my pubescent years.

Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore

Since the area I grew up was predominantly populated by Hokkien, and naturally the operas was sung in Hokkien. Since my father speaks Cantonese (and majority of Chinese in Saigon spoke Cantonese), and my mother was Teochew, and so I didn't understand anything the thespian sung. The stage was setup in a basketball court in a high school opposite where I lived. Guess what? The name of school was "Hokkien Middle School" (福建中學).

Actually, even if you're a Hokkien, can anyone honestly say they understand the lines being sung in any Hokkien opera the FIRST time? I doubt anyone can understand everything being sung by anyone in any language once only (with the exception of those songs that really only have 3 or 4 lines that sung over and over again for 3 mins). I did understand some Hokkien dialect, having been living among them for those years.

So it doesn't matter if it's Hainanese opera, Hokkien opera, or even Cantonese opera, they all sounded Greek to me (except for Greeks, then they all sound like Hokkien dialect to them).

And there was no 1st row that was reserved for the special invisible guests that they performed for because there was no seats (as we were living in the 3rd world, and Vietnam still is).

Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore
Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore

My love for the Chinese opera was quite superficial then. To me, the Hokkien opera was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But I was attracted to it by the flashes of colours, movements, music and special effect sounds. TV programs weren't as entertaining as they're today. And with only 2 channels to choose, and they were in grainy black and white, and also spoke in languages I didn't really understand. One was in Vietnamese, and devoted much to propaganda (which could be very entertaining and moving if they're done well), and the other an American run English channel. As you can see, the Chinese opera was a real contender.

Fast forward 35 years later, I actually understood the dialogues in the Hainan opera in Esplanade. This was because the dialogues were shown on the large monitors in both Chinese and English. Especially in Singapore where there're 4 official languages. So for once, some 3.5 decades later, I can appreciate the opera a little bit more than skin deep.

Dialogue screen, Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore
Dialogues for benefit of the multi-dialect Chinese speakers,
non-Chinese speakers and tourists

It's a shame that fewer and fewer people can appreciate this. With the pace of living today and the many choices of not only different media but types of entertainments, this form of art is difficult to survive. They're becoming an endangered heritage. I don't see new faces appear in it.

Having said that, the audience of the getai was composed mostly old folks. It isn't like the youths alone are deserting the traditional art form. The old folks are apparently enjoying pop music and magic acts. To survive, the opera just need to evolve with time. If they're not, they will be listed as intangible culture heritage.

Hainan opera, Mid-Autumn Festival, Esplanade, Singapore
Where are the young audience? Where are the young thespians? Where art thou?

The folks at Moonfest was nice enough to organise a Backstage Tour, which I couldn't make it. It's a shame. I hope they do this next year when I will know this in advance and make time for it.

There were also roving stilt walkers. Unfortunately few kids were here to enjoy their appearances. Because of the forest-fire produced haze from Sumatra and Kalimantan, schools were closed. This also explained the low turn-out for the opera. The haze affects the young and old more severely.

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