Taboos aplenty in Chinese opera

Spirited: Chinese opera performer Lim Choo Leong and his wife, Jenny Hee Yit Ooi, in a scene from the opera, Emperor Li's Tryst With Empress Xiao Zhou.

Spirited: Chinese opera performer Lim Choo Leong and his wife, Jenny Hee Yit Ooi, in a scene from the opera, Emperor Li's Tryst With Empress Xiao Zhou.

Chinese opera performers observe a gamut of rituals and superstitions to ensure a smooth show night after night.

Chinese opera performers are governed by taboos and superstitions. Rituals are a necessity to pay respect to patron opera deity Wah Kong Seen See (in Cantonese) and also beings from the nether world. Many performers observe these rituals for protection and a smooth performance.

During the Hungry Ghost Month, Chinese opera performances, and puppet and modern variety shows are staged in predominantly Chinese areas to entertain “the good brothers” (a respectful Cantonese term for spirits of the underworld). Businessmen, market stallholders and resident associations staged such performances in the hope that the appeased spirits would not bother them.

On the opening night, a Cantonese opera troupe has three customary performances prior to the actual show, said Lim Choo Leong, 32, a part-time Chinese opera performer. The first act depicts a birthday celebration by the Eight Immortals in heaven. It pays respect to temple deities, underworld spirits and ushers in good fortune.

However, the Chinese opera fraternity likes to draw attention to the second act, Six Kingdoms: Installation Of The Premier (Luk Gok Dai Fung Seung in Cantonese).

“In the olden days, the Installation act took up a whole night as it was about four hours. These days, the act is shortened to 45 or 90 minutes,” said Lim, an administrator of Sun Qing Yuet Cantonese Opera of Kuala Lumpur. “The Installation act shows off the troupe’s full cast and grand costumes. It’s also a courtesy greeting to the public and the spirits, and to implore the supernatural beings not to disturb the troupe.”

The imposing sight of the six generals bearing military flags on their backs was said to keep supernatural beings at bay. In the olden days, parents forbade their children from watching Chinese opera performances during the seventh lunar month, particularly the Installation act, said Yoong Poo Hiong, chairman of Yuet Wan Cantonese Opera, Kuala Lumpur.

“This was to protect the children from harm so that they would not unwittingly offend the spirit beings,” said Yoong.

All the opera troupe members pay homage to Wah Kong before each performance. They light up joss sticks and place them on both sides of the stage and back stage.

“The performers must not kick the wardrobe boxes and should take their own seats at the dressing table instead of sitting at someone else’s place to avoid any hitches during the performances. Breaking any taboos can result in a performer fumbling his lines, losing his voice or tripping on stage,” said Yoong.

A scene from Hungry Ghost Ritual, a directorial debut by award-winning Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung.
A scene from Hungry Ghost Ritual, a directorial debut by award-winning Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung.

Cleansing ritual

There is a ritual to cleanse a place which has not hosted any Chinese stage opera before, said Lim’s mother, Chan Wan Heng, 70. “For this, the troupe will perform a customary daytime show, Yuen Tarn Taming The Tiger. Yuen Tarn is a black-faced general in Chinese history and a deity in Taoism,” explained Lim.

Certain prohibitions are observed for this ritual. Nobody is allowed to talk or summon another person. It is believed that calamity would befall the one who responds to such a summon.

“The person who is portraying the Tiger has to hop out facing the front stage to symbolically repel the surroundings’ negative energy. It is also customary for the performer to throw a piece of raw fatty pork through a hole on the makeshift stage so that it falls under the stage,” said Lim. 

“No one is allowed to touch or step on the meat. The person who breaks this taboo might inexplicably suffer from a swollen leg. Even insects and wild animals would not feed on this meat. A dog was said to have died after devouring the meat.” Back in the early 1990s, Lim’s mother told him to keep away from the stage for 30 to 45 minutes until this ritual was over.

Chan, a Chinese opera performer of 57 years, is the art director and consultant of Sun Qing Yuet Cantonese Opera. She is also the opera mentor for Yik Sang Amateur Musical Society. Chan explained another superstition: Chinese opera performers do not eat steamed buns (pao) before a performance.

“My father told me that in ancient times, spectators hurled pao if the performance was poor. So to this day, some performers avoid eating steamed buns before a show for fear of a poor performance,” she said. Another superstition, she said, prohibits the killing of animals and insects before a performance.

Local Cantonese opera veteran Elizabeth Choy Him Heong, 81, recounted that in the early days when a cook travelled with her troupe, killing was forbidden when preparing meals. “We even avoided pulling grass or killing insects before a show. Nowadays, this is easily resolved as we can opt for take-out box meals,” she said.

On a cleansing ritual, Choy said: “We had to appease the White Tiger deity (Pak Fu), complete with firecrackers and fatty pork at a film location which used to be a funeral home. Once, after such a ritual, a crew member fell and sustained a minor injury. Fortunately, all was well because bloodshed was seen as symbolically preempting any serious mishaps.”

After each performance, Choy said, the statue of Wah Kong deity is kept in a sun seong (deity chest). Women are not allowed to touch this box.

Chan Wan Heng playing the role of a lady general during her heyday as an opera performer.
Chan Wan Heng playing the role of a lady general during her heyday as an opera performer.

Sealing the mouth

Choy served as Chinese opera consultant for multiple award-winning Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung’s recent directorial debut, Hungry Ghost Ritual, which revolves around a traditional Chinese opera troupe spooked by vicious ghosts. The movie, shot in Malaysia last year, illustrates many taboos observed by opera troupes.

In a scene from the movie, the troupe’s clueless new leader Zhonghua (played by Cheung) is tricked into writing some Chinese characters without being properly briefed on local taboos. He gets a shelling from the troupe’s fadan (the prima donna, played by Annie Liu) when he unknowingly “seals the mouth” while writing the Chinese character, kat (auspicious).

Choy explained: “Chinese opera practitioners always leave the ‘mouth’ open (to avoid losing their voice when singing) when writing kat on notices and banners displayed around the stage.”

There is another scene in which the troupe leader is scolded for trying to move a box (containing the troupe’s opera gear) using his foot. Said Choy: “Some performers will chide you for kicking or stepping on these boxes. I’m not particular about this as I’ve never lost my voice on stage.”

Choy, however, would never eat pao before a performance. “Whether it is dau sar pao (red bean bun) or char siu pao (barbecued pork bun), I will steer clear of them. Every time I ate pao, I would encounter all sorts of problems while performing on stage, from forgetting my lines to failing to catch my spear.”

Members of the Perak Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association staging the classic act, Six Kingdoms: Installation Of The Premier.
Members of the Perak Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association staging the classic act, Six Kingdoms: Installation Of The Premier.

‘Living’ doll

When a doll is used for a performance, it must be treated with respect as if it has life. In The Seventh Fairy Returning The Infant Son To Her Immortal Husband (a customary show performed during the temple deity’s celebration), a doll is used in place of a live baby.

Lim said: “The doll is put in a special wooden chest known as the ‘deity chest’ which also doubles up as a prayer altar. It is placed in a sitting position in the chest together with a statue of Wah Kong deity. It is handled with care to ensure that it is not dropped (to avoid any hitches during the performance).”

“In the 90s, a black woodcarving of a doll was used and special garments were sewn for it. These days, the wooden doll is replaced by a plastic doll,” said Chan. 

Of all the Chinese opera characters, the most distinctive has to be Guan Di (Chinese God of War). “The performer who portrays this deity must use new make-up. After the show, the red face paint is removed with incense paper before washing the face,” explained Chan.

Chinese opera performers believe that when taboos are not observed or the spirits are offended, strange things can befall the troupe. Yoong said the troupe members were spooked when a performer fainted on stage. Later, he claimed to have seen a ghost among the spectators.

Chan recalled an unforgettable episode two decades ago in Slim River, Perak. “Our troupe was performing during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival and we had to observe a strict vegetarian diet while at the temple grounds. One performer broke the rules and hid eggs behind the mirror at his dressing table,” she recalled.

“I was performing on stage and heard a ruckus back stage towards the end of the show. Later, we discovered that a medium in trance discovered two eggs back stage. The guilty performer knelt in front of the medium to apologise. He also had to make his way to the temple to beg for forgiveness from the deities.”

The pomp and pageantry of the Chinese opera is principally for the entertainment of the spirit beings.
The pomp and pageantry of the Chinese opera is principally for the entertainment of the spirit beings.

Protector of opera troupes 

Chinese opera stalwart Elizabeth Choy Him Heong, 81, worships Wah Kong (Cantonese name for the opera deity) before her performances and also at her home in Kuala Lumpur. She would offer joss sticks and sometimes fruits to the deity the night before she goes on outstation gigs with her troupe. “I would pray for a safe journey and a smooth performance,” she said.

Third generation Chinese opera performer Lim Choo Leong, 32, of Kuala Lumpur, explains why Chinese opera troupes pay respect to this deity.

Legend has it that Wah Kong was sent down from heaven by the Jade Emperor to burn down the opera stage as the latter was angry with mankind for insulting deities and immortals by depicting them in their performances. But Wah Kong forgot about his mission as he was engrossed with the performers’ acting. He even stood in to play a percussion instrument when the actual percussionist failed to deliver on stage.

The deity had a change of heart about destroying the opera stage. Instead, he advised the opera performers to burn incense to create thick smoke. When the Jade Emperor saw the billowing smoke, he thought that Wah Kong had carried out his command. The deity had spared the lives of the mortals with his clever plan. The Jade Emperor never found out the truth. Hence, opera performers pay tribute to the deity because he not only saved their lives but taught them how to play percussion.

In Cantonese opera, there are three musicians playing percussion instruments. “One is the percussion leader (the drummer), while the other two play cymbals and gongs,” said Lim, who plays all three instruments.

There is also a belief that only men should occupy the lead percussionist’s seat. “These days, there are also female percussionists although they’re quite rare,” explained Lim. “This drummer’s seat is regarded as the throne of the opera deity,” said Lim. Hence, the lead percussionist is usually a male out of respect for the deity. — Majorie Chiew