By: Gan Ling Kai
GETAI singers can't really sing.
They dress sexily and all they do is attract 'dirty old men'.
When it comes to criticism of her line of work, getai singer Li Peifen has heard it all. 'I feel hurt and sad when I hear such things,' she said.
But that hasn't stopped the 21-year-old from doing what she loves. And she has been doing it since she picked up the microphone at age 6.
She told The New Paper: 'People have often ask me, 'You are so young, why do you want to sing at the getai?' 'Are you going to do that for the rest of your life?'
Peifen and other singers will be honoured at The Straits Times interactive website Stomp's third Getai Awards tomorrow.
They are winners in the People's Choice Awards category, which is picked by online voters. The awards aim to recognise getai performers - some of whom have been in the business for 30 years.
Though getai shows have become such an essential part of our heartland landscape, it isn't always rosy for the performers.
Peifen said there are 'many misconceptions' about getai. She said some people feel that getai has a lot of chee ko pek (dirty old men) in the audience.
'They also say that getai singers can't really sing, and we only know how to dress sexily. And some of them think we work only one month (the Lunar seventh month) throughout the whole year.'
The petite singer, who is currently single, admits that sometimes, fans can get over-zealous.
'Early this year, a man gave me a rabbit, and he instructed me, 'Do not bathe the rabbit, do not shout at the rabbit, do not give the rabbit away.' My friends call him the 'rabbit man'.
'We are both born in the year of the rabbit, and he thinks we are a good match. He even followed me to my doorstep twice, but he stopped doing that after my dad scolded him.'
Creepy as it may seem, Peifen seems unperturbed.
'He works at a cafe, and he gives me many coffee mugs and letters. But other than that, he's harmless,' she said. 'And I've given the rabbit away.'
She also claimed she has been approached by a man who said 'he likes me'. 'He claims he has a bungalow house for me. He would say,'Don't tell your mum about this, but I'm rich and I can take care of you.'
She thinks the propositions are harmless and takes them in her stride.
She also relies on the support of her family.
Her mother, Madam Tey Siew Tin, 54, a housewife, said: 'My husband (an odd-job worker) and I always accompany her when she goes to perform, so we are not worried she will be harassed.'
Added Madam Tey: 'Without these people supporting, how can the getai business do so well?'
Then there's 5-year-old Cody Lee Yi Munn, who made her first TV appearance in the Channel U drama The Perfect Cut II when she was only 4.
Her singing assignments are managed by her aunt, Madam Jenny Tan, 48, a cooking instructor.
Madam Tan said: 'Unruly (getai) audiences belong to the past. They are more well-behaved now.'
Added Cody's mother, Madam Caline Tan, 44, who runs a jewellery shop: 'We are more concerned she will fall off the stage while performing because many people reach out to pass her gifts.'
China-born singer Yoyo Xu Yuman said she finds Singapore audiences generally 'well-behaved'.
The 28-year-old Singapore permanent resident added that the most intimate gesture is when audience members put their arms around her shoulders while posing for photos.
Still, the negative connotations about the industry are probably a result of the flashy and sexy costumes these singers wear.
So why not wear something less flamboyant?
Peifen, who has worn more than 150 costumes, said: 'Of course, we will wear glittery costumes. But it's up to the individual whether she wants to dress sexily or not.
'But you can't wrap yourself up till you look like a dumpling. The main thing is to create a 'showy feel'. '
Peifen also pointed out that the older getai singers, like 881 actress Liu Lingling and Xu Qiongfang, don't wear revealing clothes but still draw the crowds. She said: 'They depend on their stage charisma and humour to stand out.'
Peifen added that despite all the showiness, talent is still a must. Her repertoire includes Mandarin and Hokkien songs, but she can easily whip up English and Malay songs for corporate functions.
'There will always be some singers who are better and some not as strong. This is true for all industries.
'In any case, nobody can lip-synch because we always have to perform with a live band.'
Yoyo, who's famous for her sultry voice and being the butt of crude jokes on stage, said: 'It's not easy to survive. If you can't deliver, you will be struck off quickly.'
She said: 'I have to learn Hokkien, which is tough for me, but you need a wide repertoire, and you cannot get by just by dressing sexily. You must know how to interact with the audience.'
Cody's aunt Madam Tan said: 'Audiences nowadays have very high expectations.'
And getai singers don't just work one month a year. Peifen said they have gigs throughout the year.
She said: 'Many people think we sing only once a year, and then kiao ka (put up one's feet, be very relaxed). We don't just sing at getai, but also at dinner-and-dance functions, residents' committee activities, and during the Mid-Autumn Festival. There has not been a week I don't have any assignments at all.
Madam Tan also said Cody performs regularly throughout the year, even up to seven days a week during peak periods.
But she's quick to point out that Cody, who is in K1, is not being forced to perform as a cash cow.
She said: 'Some people think that we force her, but actually she loves singing so much she will cry if her performances are skipped due to tight scheduling.'
She added that once Cody starts primary school, the focus will be on her schooling.
And the best way to silence getai naysayers? When the dough rolls in, of course.
During the peak period, Yoyo says she can rake in up to $8,000 a month. Peifen declined to reveal her highest monthly income, but said her lowest has been $1,500.
For a standard repertoire of four songs, she collects just under $1,000 for dinner-and-dance performances and $200 for getai gigs.
For new singers like Yoyo and Cody, the rates are slightly lower.
This article was first published in The New Paper.