For Chinese opera troupes, the show must go on

There are three criteria for making it big in Chinese opera, according to Yong Poo Hiong, treasurer of the Yuet Wan Cantonese Opera Association.

“First is the voice. Second comes the face. Third is in stage presence where skills such as martial arts and acrobatics come into play,” affirms Yong, who has been in the arena for 30 years.

The heyday of Chinese opera can be traced back to the 1980s, says Yong, who owns a dental supply company.

The two states that saw the most shows were Perak and Penang, where troupes could be seen performing all 365 days of the year.

“These were mostly temple shows with the hottest period being the Hungry Ghost Festival where troupes would camp in temple grounds for a whole month,” says Yong, now 60.

The waning of the artform, points out Yong, set in during the 1990s with the proliferation of Hong Kong video series, further exacerbated by the presence of Astro and TV3.

“People preferred to stay home and watch TV instead,” says Yong.

This has caused the art to suffer and today, Yong reveals there are only about 20 truly professional performers left in Kuala Lumpur. These are the people who can perform at the drop of a hat. Those who qualify as amateurs only number a little over 100.

These days the most popular troupes in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur, she says, can only report some 100 days in performance bookings per troupe.

“In the heyday, we got bookings for 14 days in a row. Now, three days is the norm,” says Yong.

The current rate to invite a troupe to perform may start from RM3,800 a night.

Yong reveals that getting the show on the road requires at least 30 people, including stage hands, musicians and a cast of actors. Salaries may range from RM50 for the role of an extra up to RM200 for a supporting actress.

“For survival, some troupes have reduced the number of people in a show to 20. Sometimes, instead of presenting an entire show that can last up to four hours, they will present excerpts where only certain parts of a song is performed,” says Yong.

In 2012, veteran singer Yeow Kong Sang, 67, attempted to present Chinese opera with a modern twist during a performance in Suria KLCC by singing the lyrics in English and Malay. Though the audience’s reaction was warm, Yeow who reported getting paid between RM1,500 and RM2,000 for the job felt it wasn’t quite right.

“I felt like I was mashing tradition. It was like neither water nor soup,” says Yeow who has since retired from showbiz due to health problems.

Yeow appeared on stage with Ong May May, 66, who used to work for the Statistics Department. Ong took up opera singing after retirement. A show will need at least three musicians and payments can range between RM100 and RM300 a night depending on who is appearing. A professional drummer like Lee Pei Chew, who accompanies the practice sessions at the association, will command about RM250.

The cost of costumes is mostly borne by the performers.

“The costume for a main actress can cost between RM500 and RM600. The costliest get-up will be for the emperor part which can cost up to RM3,000. This does not include headgear. The ones with the long feathers can come up to RM1,000,” says Yong.

However, the priciest element is a special kind of gel obtained from a tree bark. This is used to give the fake hair pieces a special kind of shine, an effect not achievable with modern gels.

“This bark is specially imported from China and has to be soaked to obtain the sap. The price of this bark was close to RM100 per kilo the last time I asked!” says Yong.

Having studied the art at age 20, Yong, mostly sings for supporting or starring roles in popular Chinese opera classics. Considered a well-known name in the circle, she commands about RM700 to RM1,000 a show.

To keep the art alive, some 10 students gather at the 15-year-old association twice a week to learn the art of opera singing. On hand to coach new blood is Cheng Fu Zhu, 69, formerly of the Guangzhou Cantonese Opera School, whom Yong had invited to teach music and singing. Yong also helps organise annual concerts to raise funds for the association. Last year, tickets sold for RM70 per person. Proceeds went towards paying the RM2,000 rent for the association’s headquarters on Jalan Loke Yew.

Association president Yap Kam Fei dispels the horror stories of Chinese opera instructors subjecting their charges to rigorous regimes, saying that things are very different today.

“We are handling new students with kid gloves. This is to encourage them to continue the tradition. If they go off, there will only be the old people left,” says Yap.

One old-timer who has withstood the test of time is Choy Him Heong, now 80.

Choy was only seven when she began performing in a Chinese opera troupe. During the Japanese Occupation, her parents had to abandon their coffeeshop in Ampang. Having lost their livelihoods, her father, Choy Kam Kou, latched on to a performing troupe and the whole family tagged along.

“During the Japanese Occupation, there were no cinemas or television. For entertainment, people went to entertainment halls and parks that offered attractions, like gambling booths and stage shows like Chinese opera,” recalls Choy.

The family found work in Bentong, Pahang, with Chen Koi, an entertainment hall owner.

“I started as an extra or ‘ping chai’ (little soldier in Cantonese). As I was so young, the question of salary never cropped up. This was also because my father was the manager of the performing troupe. As long as I got three square meals a day, clothes on my back, shoes on my feet and a roof over my head, I didn’t complain. That was how people were in those days,” says Choy who left all business affairs to her father till she turned 30.

Though she did not possess the shrill voice so prized in Chinese opera, she made up for it with her prowess in her martial arts performance.

“At the age of 13, I went under the tutelage of a kung fu instructor who went by the moniker of ‘Broken Mouth Durian’, after a knife attack left him with a permanent joker’s grin. I then took up sword lessons from Wong Si Kot. I heard, for just Wong alone, my father paid up to RM600 a month, a princely sum in those days,” recalls Choy.

Though Choy no longer performs, her troupe members appear in 120 shows a year, a majority of the stagings taking place in temples to celebrate the many Chinese festivals.

“The question of fees is never a subject of open discussion because many Chinese opera practitioners are motivated by interest instead of monetary gain. In fact, the performers should be paying me instead for giving them an avenue to perform!”exclaims Choy.

Case in point is Leong Tuck Meng, 53, an air-conditioning and refrigeration specialist from Klang. In his case, payment is in the form of ang pows presented by Choy. The sum is never questioned.

Leong was discovered by a voice teacher during a karaoke session seven years ago.

“This voice teacher heard my falsettos and thought my voice would be suitable for the female roles,” recalls Leong.

The entrepreneur whose company, United Air Cond, generates revenue of around RM1mil a year, has since made up his mind to retire in the next few years to indulge his passion for Chinese opera.

“After so many years of hard work, I think I should reward myself by doing the things I like,” says Leong who will be handing the reins of a 50-year-old family business to his son while he pursues his dream of becoming the emperor’s nightingale.

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