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Keeping the art of Teochew opera alive

Johor Bahru was known as little Swatow, a province in China where most of Johor's Teochew population came from. -NST

Sat, Jul 24, 2010
New Straits Times

DO you know that Johor Baru was once known as Little Swatow?

Swatow, or Shantou (in Mandarin), is a province in China where most of Johor's Teochew population came from.

As more Teochew people migrated here in the mid 1800s, Teochew culture flourished and Johor Baru earned its nickname as Little Swatow.

Many features of the Teochew culture still prevail today, particularly in Malaysian cuisine which we are so familiar with.

For instance, our favourite char kway teow and stir-fried flat rice noodles with cockles and sweet black sauce are distinctively Teochew.

Teochew muay is a peculiar watery rice porridge, kway teow th'ng is flat rice noodles in a rich broth while kway chap is a Johor delicacy of rice noodles in dark soup eaten with side dishes like beancurd, hard-boiled egg and pork strips and innards.

The Teochew dialect is widely spoken here but it's a rare treat to watch Teochew operas today.

And even rarer is the opportunity to go backstage to watch the rehearsals and observe the actors wear their make-up and costumes.

Teochew opera has a history of more than 500 years. In the recent Seventh Johor Baru Arts Festival, the Johor Theng Chuan Tan Clan Association was invited to present a three-part Teochew opera.

The association is nurturing talents in its amateur opera troupe by providing free lessons for children between the ages of 3 and 15.

Over the past 21 years, a new generation is being groomed to develop a passion for learning the dialect and culture, and to acquire knowledge and skills in performing Chinese operas.

All are welcome to join because participants are not limited to the Tan clan or Teochews.

"This art is a very important part of our heritage and needs to be preserved for future generations," said Carrie Tan, general affairs officer of the association's amateur opera troupe.

She is proud that the 14-member troupe was the first to represent Malaysia in the 1999 International Teochew Opera Festival held in Swatow, China.

The troupe was also thrilled to make its debut at the Johor Baru Arts Festival this year.

In Chinese opera, the characters are divided into two main groups: those skilled in martial arts, like warriors and hunters, and those refined characters like scholars, maidens and wealthy women.

Troupe members undergo vocal training under the tutelage of Tan Sock Lai and Lee Mooi Ching.

Lin Jia, from Swatow, an instructor with the Chinese Opera Institute of Singapore, is adviser and director of the troupe.

Every year, the troupe will participate in Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations as well as the Tan Clan and Teochew association anniversaries.

The exposure gives them the opportunity to observe other experienced theatre practitioners.

The audience only get to see the actors on stage, complete with make-up and colourful costumes, but there is a whole world of excitement backstage as they transform from ordinary people into larger-than-life characters.

While many actors can put on their own make-up, the professional touch of an experienced make-up artist is essential to add that dramatic flourish to winged eyebrows and exaggerate the slant of those almond-shaped eyes.

The women certainly need the help of a professional opera hair-dresser who will alter their persona by adding a stylised fringe and long sideburns, and piece-by-piece and layer-upon-layer of hairpieces and wraps.

Actors playing elderly ladies and poor maids wear minimal hair ornaments but wealthy women carry a full and often heavy head of intricate jewels and flowers.

Male characters first wear a mesh cap before a damp strip of water silk is wrapped firmly as a hair band and an ornate hat is worn.

"My husband is very supportive of my hobby," said Lim Lee Lee, 55, a member of the troupe who is a homemaker with three adult children.

She rehearses with the troupe at least twice a week in the Tan guildhouse at Susur 3, Jalan Tun Abdul Razak.

Lim was among a group of five who demonstrated how the Shui Xiu or water sleeves are used in various elegant and fluid movements to depict different expressions.

Surrounded by the rich and graceful tunes of Teochew opera music and backed by a choral accompaniment, those at the arts festival were transported back to a delightful night in Little Swatow.

The actors' sharp vocals rang out clear and strong over the ensemble of Teochew stringed instrument, gong, drum and Chinese flute as subtitles on the screens allowed the audience to connect with their stories of joy and sorrow. -NST

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