The last maestro standing

The last maestro standing
Mr Yeo How Jiang, holding a yueqin, has been playing Waijiang music since he was 11.

SINGAPORE - Mr Yeo How Jiang has spent the last seven decades playing, teaching and trying to keep alive a music form that has all but died out in Singapore and the rest of the world.

The 85-year-old is believed to be the last living master of Waijiang music - a pre-Cultural Revolution Chinese style - in Asia, and possibly the world.

The art form had its heyday in Singapore from the 1930s to the 1950s, when several thousand people would gather for a Waijiang concert.

Attendance fell sharply in the 1970s, and today, the music is performed only by Thau Yong Amateur Musical Association once or twice a year.

The group also performs Teochew opera and Teochew music, and usually includes some Waijiang music in its performance when it is invited to perform at arts venues and community events.

Music academic Joe Peters says that Waijiang music "seems to be the source much of the Southern Chinese opera and music forms have grown from".

"There is still not enough co-ordinated research to map the historical flow of traditional music in China and from China into the diaspora at the moment.

"So there will be many different views on what it is or should be," says Dr Peters.

Based on his research, he believes Waijiang music and opera "flowed out of Southern China and into Nanyang and other places such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong".

He says he discovered Mr Yeo's "exceptional skill" while doing research for a paper he submitted to the International Council for Traditional Music a few months ago. "He is able to remember the old Waijiang music that was brought and performed in Singapore many decades ago."

Born in the Guangdong province of China in 1929, Mr Yeo moved to Singapore with his parents in 1938.

He began playing Waijiang music at 11, and his father, one of the founding members of the Thau Yong association, would take him to performances and practices at the association's premises.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, the orchestra would give free performances at large venues, from concert halls such as the Victoria Theatre to amusement parks. More than 1,000 people attended the concerts, recalls Mr Yeo.

By the 1970s, though, their concerts drew just a handful of people. One year in the late 1970s, the group was in the middle of a performance at Victoria Theatre when they lost electricity for 45 minutes.

When the lights came on, the performers were poised and ready to continue - but the audience had all left.

The incident left many members of the troupe demoralised, and signalled the decline of the form's popularity.

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