Stagecraft – Black hat, White hat

In my childhood, we had the older girls of my neighbours babysitting or caring us.

So my mom tells us. I don’t really remember. But the girls (or women now) grew up with us, or there was never a time when I didn’t know them.

And because they were a few years older than us, they knew things and taught us things. And one of the things they – specifically, Cheng-Cheh – showed us, was street opera.

Or Chinese Wayang.

Which is an interesting Singaporean term. “Wayang” is actually a Malay word (see “Wayang Kulit”) meaning “show” (at least that’s what I have been led to believe).

They were also known as Chinese Opera, or more specifically Teochew Opera. There are also Cantonese Opera, and I am quite sure there must be Hokkien Opera, and operas in other dialects at some point in history in the respective provinces in China.

But in Singapore, it is predominantly Teochew Opera.

This is a dying trade or craft. But in my childhood, there were (probably) more opera troupes, and during the 7th month, they would perform, for the Hungry Ghosts.

At Lorong Gambir where I grew up, the usual place for the erection of the Opera stage was on the foot of the hill by the cemetery. The audience would stand (or if they had the presence of mind (and did not mind lugging it), their own chairs to sit on.

Or you could bring a cardboard or newspaper or some sort of picnic mat to sit on.

The hill provided a natural auditorium to watch the opera.

It was in high Teochew or archaic Teochew, spoken and sung in falsetto (the better to carry their voices in the pre-microphone, amplifier, and electric speaker age). But it might as well have been Greek to me. But the girls, or maybe just Cheng-Cheh actually, loved the Opera and tried to educate me about the “stage craft” or code.

I don’t remember everything she told me, but here are two I recall.

Flags. Characters who are generals, would have a sword or spear, and flags on their backs. Each flag represented an army (or 10,000 troops or something).

The “hairy stick”. Characters (often Generals) may also carry a stick with hair (or string) tied at regular intervals down the length. This represents their horse. Because obviously, trying to bring a horse on the stage would present logistical and probably safety and aesthetic issues.

Also, the warning against actors working with children and animals probably applied to Chinese Opera as well.

And there were other operatic stage shorthand that Cheng-Cheh might have explained – like the oversized “belt” some court officials wore. The “wings” on their headdress. And even their “make-up” or face mask. (Just like how Hollywood western movies in the past had a simple Black hat/White hat “code”.)

Anyway, a few weeks ago, we had dinner at a Teochew Restaurant as a treat for my mom before she goes to Calgary to visit my brother. When PL called to make the reservation, the restaurant felt obliged to inform her that there would be a Teochew opera performance (it was a Teochew Restaurant) and whether we would mind. We didn’t.

Surprisingly, Z seemed enraptured by the performances, whether it was the loud music, the falsetto singing, the garishly colourful costumes, the brightly lit stage, or all of it in one un-ignorable package, she sat transfixed whenever the actors were on stage singing.

So when PL saw the makeshift stage set up for the opera in our neighbourhood on the Eve of National Day, she decided to see if Z would still be captivated by it.

She was.

A Teochew Opera at a 7th Month (Hungry Ghosts Month) “entertainment” is very traditional. The 20 – 30 people on red plastic chairs or even wheelchairs were all… “traditional”  (i.e. elderly), accompanied by their foreign maids. Z was probably the youngest one there.

The large incense/joss stick burning near the stage might have dissuaded some health conscious parents, but apparently we were not (health conscious parents). Besides, a little incense smoke never hurt anyone (immediately). Well, we tried to sit upwind of it, and Z stared rather intently at the stage.

I was all ready to demonstrate my limited knowledge of Operatic “shorthand”.

Except… there were no generals in this show.

It was apparently some kind of soap opera.

We caught the show as a rich young man (played by a lady. It happens in opera) was singing/speaking to a young maid. The young man is obviously of some social stature because, costume, head-gear, and other operatic clues.The young maid is not as gaudily dressed, so obviously lower in social status. It wasn’t obvious to me (then) that he was trying to flirt or seduce or sexually harass her. (Archaic Teochew in Falsetto does not have the reputation of being the Language of Love… but it would have been incongruent for them to break in French or Italian, I guess).

Until they retired through pink curtain doors into what was probably supposed to be the bedroom… Or boudoir, to use a Teochew Opera word (not).

“Aha! They are having sex in the bedroom!” I told PL. Probably unnecessarily.

So while the “couple” were boudoir-ing, the scene cut to a high social status woman (again, obvious by her costume and make-up) and her personal maid (again, indicated by her plainer costume). This was a different maid, not the boudoir-ing maid.

Also, I noted that the Lady’s sleeves ended at the wrist, whereas her maid, and the other one, had the “extended” sleeves – overly long white sleeves that the actresses would gather and unfurl dramatically when appropriate. Or whenever they lose it.

I leaned over to tell PL my observation about the lady with the normal sleeves. “I can’t remember if Cheng-Cheh explained it before. Maybe it is to represent married women and virgins. Or at least unmarried women.”

[OK, I got curious while writing this and Googled it. Those overly long sleeves are called “water sleeves” (Shuixiu), and are used to reflect the emotional state of the character.]

Anyway, the point of the scene was apparently for the Lady to note that her husband (?) was nowhere to be found. Based on the amount of time she was on stage, it was either a simple question asked many, many times in operatic fashion, or she was probably speculating on his fidelity, his philandering ways, promising him a woman’s fury, and also an equal measure of bitchy wrath on the promiscuous slut (redundant?) who had seduced him, but it’s probably all his fault, the lascivious little rat! My High Teochew or Operatic Teochew isn’t very good, so that translation is approximate at best and should be taken with a grain of salt. Or if you are going to take some salt, you may want some tequila, and maybe a lime wedge. Or just go with a Frozen Margarita.

After she sung her frustration or her wrath, she exited the stage, and the seduced maid steps back into the stage, by backing out of the pink door. She stood with her back to the audience and adjusted her clothing, confirming the assumptions of the Teochew-challenged audience members (me).

Then she turned to the audience and either a) complained that she was not satisfied, b) that she has had a hard life and now this, c) how can she face the wife, d) why oh why did she let him have his way with her, e) wondered what was the number to call for workplace sexual harassment.

Considering that it is an opera, probably all of the above.

So as she was swanning around the stage, the wife (?) makes her entrance and swans around the stage until their respective peregrination brought them face to face.

“You!” said the wife (or something to that effect).

Immediately, the seduced (raped?) maid reacted guiltily.

Accusations flew like knives from the pointed finger of the wife, stabbing the seduced/raped maid figuratively (you have to use your imagination).

More singing.

Accusations! Denial! Or plea for understanding”

More swanning around.

Then Z finally had enough (of the bitchiness?) and wanted me to walk around the stage.

We could see the actors half in costume, or half in make-up, backstage. The stage is a makshift raised platform, with the backdrop separating the stage from the backstage. The cast and crew could cover the backstage from prying eyes but in hot, humid Singapore, you want as much ventilation as possible. There used to be dedicated musicians, and maybe for the more difficult instruments  that required some training like the erhu, it is still a dedicated musician. But for the cymbals and the gongs and the drums and other percussion instruments, I could see that the “musicians” were partly in costume. So they have stage time as actors as well.

Everyone played multiple roles – moving the sets, playing instruments, and acting. At one point, a half-costumed actor came onstage to move a prop.

Teochew Opera is a dying trade, and these actors were hanging onto a (part-time?) trade whether out of love or desperation. Well, I think love has to be part of it.

Seventh Month festivals where performances were put up for the entertainment of the “invisible brothers” (ghosts or spirits) on their annual month-long leave from hell used to be mainly street Opera. But over time, tastes changed, and getais (song stage) with modern songs sung by sexily (if not scantily) dressed young ladies have become standard fare. I do not know if these attract the “invisible brothers”, but they do attract the living.

[Link to a Taiwan 7th Month entertainment, with scantily clad women. You have been warned. There is music, but not sure if she actually sings. I wasn’t paying that much attention.]

So for the merchant and traders association in our neighbourhood to cling to the traditional Teochew Opera is quite remarkable. They still provide some work for the traditional artistes, though I do wonder how they survive for the other 11 months of the year. They probably have day jobs.

Z may not remember this. Unless it’s still around in 5 years time.

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