Chinese Opera – Rising like the Phoenix

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Chinese Opera in the Kinta valley is rising like the proverbial Phoenix from its ashes (an expression from Greek mythology, of a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn from the ashes of its predecessor).

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The main roles were played by Sung Hung Poh and Ko Lai from Hong Kong

This was the conclusion Ipoh Echo came to  based on the recent Operatic event held at the 118-year-old Kuan Ti temple at Batu Gajah in August this year. The Opera ran for twenty days and it had a good turnout every night. What was interesting was the increase in the number of  younger attendees, which had hitherto attracted a primarily older audience with  the majority being women.

Younger Audience, Younger Performers

My first encounter with Chinese Opera was four years ago when I was invited to Papan to view the Opera there. Not having a clue about Chinese Opera I went along. What attracted me then was the rich make-up and the kaleidoscopic costumes of the actors and actresses. It was a small stage in a small town  with a rich cultural history and for the two nights which I attended, the audience was less than a full house.

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Refreshments outside the gate of Kuan Ti Temple Batu Gajah

However the scenario at  Batu Gajah was different. There was a buzz of anticipation. Up front red plastic chairs and wooden benches were lined up before the stage. The Opera normally starts around 7.30pm to 8pm and lasts till 11pm. As is usual, the organizers had allowed hawkers to sell food and drinks around the periphery for the audience who would patronize them in between acts.

Back stage was a hive of activity. In between acts actors would change costumes, touch up their make-up and reread their scripts all the while being assisted by their helpers. Everyone went about their duties knowing what was up next.

The scripts are all based on traditional stories handed down through centuries and each night was a different script. The actors may have done the script before but before each act they would be seen rehearsing their lines again.

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Backstage actors reread their scripts before the next act.

Chinese Opera comes in many forms and each is notable for its own unique style. Whilst many foreigners sometimes joke that it sounds like someone strangling a cat, this is most unfair as it is a highly developed art form that many simply do not understand. It is known as ‘opera’ to emphasise this point.

Intrigued by the better audience at the Batu Gajah opera, I returned a subsequent evening early around 5.30pm. I was told to come at this time because after their dinner the actors would begin preparing for the show which would at start at 8pm.

Opera Company

The Batu Gajah event was organised by Pusat Drama Chinese Opera Cheng Yi or the Cheng Yi Chinese Opera and Drama Centre. Established two years ago by Ms Peggy Choy Poh Peng who comes from a background in Chinese Opera. Her father was a Chinese Opera musician while her mother helped to dress the actresses. During this particular event in Batu Gajah, I was delighted to see that  Choy’s father  was still playing the erhu with the rest of the orchestra.

Choy herself learned to perform Chinese Opera and was active until she stopped over 15 years ago due to family commitments. Although she had stopped performing she still followed the performances although she felt that they lacked polish and she was generally not satisfied with what she saw.

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Actors and musicians at the Opera

Four years ago she decided to return to performing and subsequently started her own drama company as she felt that she could do better and could contribute to improve the Chinese opera culture.

Choy loved the Opera and starting her own company gave her the opportunity to allow her to promote Opera by doing it her own way. Cantonese opera perform more freely than Peking Operas and in Cantonese operas, actors are allowed to improvise.

Music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting are all featured in Cantonese opera. Most of the plots are based on Chinese history and famous Chinese classics and myths. Also, the culture and philosophies of the Chinese people can be seen in the plays. Virtues (like loyalty, love, patriotism and faithfulness) are often reflected by the operas. Thus Choy had free reign to adapt and improvise.

Acknowledging that the Opera needed to cultivate young talent she initially got her younger relations to participate while  ensuring that their performances did not clash with their studies. One of her nieces, Choy Tong Ling is thirteen years old. Although she likes the Opera her involvement began as  she  enjoyed helping out her Aunty and being around the family.

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Left photo (r-l) Peggy Choy with young actresses Choy Tong Lim and Sum Yee

At the Batu Gajah event there were a total of four youths performing, with the youngest being Sum Yee, 10, a Standard 5 student at SJK Min Sin Ampang Ipoh. While not a relation of Choy’s, Sum Yee had shown an interest in Opera and she was promptly recruited after her  grandfather told Choy’s musician father about her . Sum Yee has now been with the centre for 2 years singing and acting  a lot, mainly playing the part of boys.

She refers to Choy as sifu (master/teacher) and for the Batu Gajah event started rehearsing for it six months earlier. For the twenty days, due to her school and tuition schedule she played extras parts but on the final night she played a main role.

The Hong Kong Factor

According to Choy the Chinese Opera circuit averages 60 to 70 shows each year. Before Batu Gajah the centre had performed for 10 days in Gopeng. Her acceptance of a ‘gig’ depended  on whether the price was right as ‘”the actors and actresses need to be paid”. As there many temples in Perak she is kept busy most of the time sometimes going as far afield as  Penang and KL. She does draw the line at performing at shopping malls though.

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Main actress Ko Lai praised Peggy Choy for preserving the art.

An undisputed draw to the Opera is the participation of Hong Kong actors. One of these is actress Ms Ko Lai, who has been acting for twenty years and whom Choy calls her step sister as she used to act with her during her early days. Ko Lai only performs in Cantonese and mainly in Ipoh. Ko Lai is very popular and her fans follow her performances when she is here.

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Main actor Sung Hung Poh getting ready

The event in Batu Gajah included  a total of eight actors from Hong Kong. Besides Ko Lai who played the lead female role, she brought along Sung Hung Poh, who played the male main role and up and coming young actor Alan Tam Wang Lun, 19.

Preserving Opera

It is well known that Chinese Opera is a dying act.  Ko Lai knows full well explaining that “if a trade cannot make a living it will die naturally”. However she was full of praise for Choy’s effort to preserve this art by trying to cultivate the young and organizing these events to the enjoyment of Opera enthusiasts. “With the plethora of media entertainment,  audiences have more entertainment choices. Nevertheless a good Opera will always attract an audience.”

Local Fans

Undoubtedly praise must be given to the fans. As I waited for the last show to start, I noted vans from Kampar and Tapah laden with fans and family members arriving over an hour before the start of the show.

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The fans. (bottom right photo) Chan Whai Ping and Nancy Tan

Opera fans Chan Whai Ping and Nancy Tan must be voted the heroines for driving from Teluk Intan nightly to catch the show just because “this year it is very good”. When I enquired if they were worried for their safety going back after 11pm at night Tan brushed off the suggestion saying the most danger was from the cow in the middle of the road.

With ardent fans like these Choy only needs to maintain the quality of her events for it to gain popularity over time. Quite possibly by then Choy’s centre could perform at a temple in Ipoh where tourists could hop over for a few acts after dinner as one of the “things to see”.

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With young talent and new focus Chinese Opera will rise like the Phoenix

Then, no longer will Chinese opera be a dying art form but like the Phoenix, it will rise from the ashes to become a sought after and much enjoyed entertainment medium.

Meantime children who are interested to act or learn music can contact Peggy Choy at 016 566 6104.

James Gough