Thirty Going On Auntie: Junior's a getai fan

Thirty Going On Auntie: Junior's a getai fan
INFECTIOUS MELODIES: A getai performance at Pasir Panjang Food Centre on Aug 20. The writer took her 5¾-year-old son to one such free concert in a first for her family.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

THE getai is visible from where I am in the car, engine idling, waiting for the lights to change. It is housed under a white tent, like a jellyfish shooting forth purple laser lights.

I drive past, rubbernecking a little, then dial home from the carpark at the foot of my block. My 5¾-year-old son picks up the phone.

"Free concert!" I say. "Want to go and watch a free concert? If you do, come downstairs now!"

"I want! I want! Yes!" replies the boy, always on the lookout for a good deal, proving once again that he is my child and no hospital nursery mix-up.

Before long, the Supportive Spouse and I, with the younger son in tow (at 9.30pm on a school night, his primary-schoolgoing elder brother already fast asleep), are tramping over calf-tickling grass towards the stage set up in an open field. A Seventh Month dinner-cum-auction is in full swing next to it, the auctioneer's rapid-fire speech competing a little with the musical strains coming from the getai.

It is a first for our family - actually attending a getai performance. My husband and I have gawked at such shows from afar, but never at such close quarters; never committing ourselves to an entire show. But when in Rome, do as the other getai spectators do. We help ourselves to some red plastic chairs stacked next to the tent, and plonk ourselves at an angle to the action, making sure not to block the view of others there first.

The show is already in full swing, and the boy is immediately hooked. He sits on his red chair and stares unblinkingly at the female performers, who belt out Hokkien and Cantonese ditties, in front of two big screens projecting their names and glamour shots against psychedelic patterns. Even though he doesn't understand when the host and performers banter in a mix of Mandarin and Chinese dialects, he studies their interaction with the interest of an anthropologist.

One performer gives a credible rendition of Beyond's Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies ("E key," she'd requested sweetly of the electric band hidden behind the projection screens). Another, an attractive singer from Johor Baru, wears a costume of strategically sequinned black mesh, cut to show off her long legs and showcase her hair-eography. One audience member, a reed-thin grey-haired man, saunters up close to the stage and holds up not a smartphone to photograph her, but an ancient, black, portable cassette-recorder to record her voice.

Under a sky devoid of stars, we enjoy the night breeze as invisible clouds race over our heads. There is a certain heady scent in the air: of burning joss sticks and paper, the ash and embers quietly falling over in the pails, a few metres from us; of cigarette smoke, curling from the ends of bookish bespectacled middle-aged men's hands; and some unknown ingredient - either magic or belief, faith or superstition, or perhaps it's all notes of the same thing.


Royston Tan's 2007 film 881 did much to make getai culture mainstream, giving more exposure to the concerts, usually staged by Chinese towkays and business associations during the Hungry Ghost Festival. For now, at least, it is easy to believe that this magic, of concerts free for the spirits and for the living, will continue and find an audience with my son's generation.

It is one of those levelling experiences, where self-made millionaires can sit next to foreign workers, young next to old, and enjoy infectious melodies and rhythms.

A woman in a purple floral house dress sits directly in front of me. From the way she is slowly leaning to her right, in danger of slipping off her chair - red, plastic, like mine - I can tell she is falling asleep. She always jerks awake in time, though, so I know she'll be all right.

Another woman, with leonine hair, brings her own yellow foldable stool. She grins at us, pseudo-apologetically, as she unfolds it right in front, the latecomer claiming pole position. But the gig is free for us, nobody paid for seats, so who can complain?

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which runs until Sept 12 this year, may be a cultural-religious tradition meant to appease restless spirits. Yet, it is ultimately more for the living than the dead: to blow off steam, make some noise and create some light to force back the night. To reaffirm to ourselves that we have bodies, capable of being moved and entertained. To know that this life is our turn in the spotlight, our only shot in this song-stage of a universe. To wholeheartedly celebrate and applaud this moment of splendour.

As children, we want this show to go on forever - but who can resent a gift, a chance encounter, a fortuitous event espied from a traffic junction, if it makes you happy for a spell and then departs?

"Why did we get here so late?" complains the 5¾-year-old, as the music fades half an hour later, the chairs are restacked and we tramp home over the tall grass again. "I want more."

"I didn't know it was even going to be on," I explain, holding his tiny hand. "Aren't you glad we caught it?"

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