Book Review on “Chinese Street Opera In Singapore”, by Tong Soon Lee


In Chinese Street Opera In Singapore, Tong Soon Lee traces the history of both the amateur and the professional Chinese opera performances in Singapore from when Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965 up till today. He reflects on their role in defining the Singaporean identity and in inculcating a sense of cultural nationalism. He also explains that the government welcomes Chinese street opera performance because it promotes a national culture that brings together the four main ethnic groups found in Singapore – Chinese, Malay, Indians and others. Amateur Chinese street opera troupes retain their legacy by highlighting the Confucian ethos that an educated person is moral and unselfish when engaging in the arts. Creativity and innovation also indicates a contemporary and entrepreneurial spirit, whereby educated performers can control their behaviour, feelings and values. Thus, not only do their performances bring together the various ethnic groups to view and participate in the performance, they also encourage a national attitude of both keeping the past in mind while getting ready for the future.

National Culture

According to the government, Chinese street opera can be used as a tool to promote nationalism. Tong Soon Lee wrote, “it [Chinese street opera] signified an approach toward a cultural definition of national identity in contemporary Singapore.” (p. 11) This statement is highly questionable, because of the fact that Singapore is such a multiracial and multicultural society, thus it would be hard for the many different ethnic groups to identify themselves with Chinese opera, which originated from China, let alone see it as a form of national culture and identity.

Another reason why it is hard to see Chinese opera as being the national culture of Singapore is that in the past, ticket prices to Chinese opera theatres were very expensive. Each ticket could cost up to $1.20 while “Chinese agricultural labourers were mostly paid by results, earning from 50 to 70 cents a day.” (p. 28) How can Chinese opera promote nationalism when the common people cannot even afford to watch it? It seems to indicate that Chinese opera was largely a form of entertainment reserved for the elite class, thus it fails yet again to show how it can surface as a national culture.

Tan Soon Lee also wrote, “[g]enerally, professional opera performers have a low regard of their profession and of themselves, and are conscious of others’ perceptions of them.” (p. 50) How can Chinese opera be the national culture when the performers themselves are not proud to be presenting it to the community?

Thus, I feel that fundamentally, the idea that Chinese opera was intended to be made the national culture, is quite flawed in that there were so many reasons why it could not.

Chinese Opera as Ritual Plays

There is a flaw in the idea that “[r]itual plays are specifically “rituals” in that the characters involved are immortals, gods, and deities” (p. 54). This view can be challenged by the definition of “ritual’ offered by Victor Turner. According to him, the definition of ritual is the “prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in invisible beings or powers regarded as the first and final causes of all effects.” (Lecture notes 2) The difference between Turner’s use of the word “ritual” is that there should not be any repeated behaviour with an expected outcome and effects. An example of this is clearly that of a theatre performance. Therefore, a ritual cannot be a play.

Also, a play is merely a re-enactment of events, but a ritual theatre is so much more than that. In ritual theatre, there must be community involvement and an element of transcendence. There might seem to be audience interaction or community involvement while watching Chinese street opera, seen where “the audience is not only critical of the opera but may also participate in the performance process” (p. 69), but it is still not considered to be a ritual because they are merely being artistically satisfied and are not taking part in the transcendence.

Chinese Opera – a dying tradition

Tan Soon Lee writes that “the event [an opera gala at Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple] exceeds what one normally expects from a Chinese street opera performance and transgresses the negative notions generally associated with it.” (p. 115) Also, he says that “the event critiques the notion that professional Chinese opera is a stagnant, even dying tradition in Singapore” (p. 116). Yes, we see that there are sustained efforts to keep the tradition alive, however, we ask ourselves who actually is there watching it and how successful are they? From my personal experience, even Chinese opera that have been translated into English to woo the younger crowd, for example last year’s NUS Theatre Studies graduate performance, The West Wing, tend to receive lukewarm response from the contemporary masses. This is seen in the fact that the University Cultural Centre where the production is performed was rarely full house.

Another effort to keep Chinese opera alive was by having “the stage positioned conspicuously as a major attraction in Clarke Quay.” (p. 121) Yet we question once more if the people watching it are being forced to do so because of it’s strategic location, “visible to people walking along the street or coming from the Boat Quay area further south of the river.” (p. 121) Apathetic youths would not know about the regular opera shows at Gas Lamp Square every week and even the author questions the authenticity of the Chinese opera shows that it’s merely “a tourist attraction or rather, as a conspicuous consumption of the exotic and traditional.” (p. 129)

Thus, even though the book seemed hopeful in the fact that Chinese opera is not a dying tradition, there is proof otherwise.

Amateurs versus Professional Troupes

In the book, amateur Chinese opera troupes tend to be glorified by the government as the way of life. Tan Soon Lee wrote that “the amateur Chinese opera troupe in Singapore constitutes a microcosm of what the Singapore government wants the country to be – educated, historically informed, culturally vibrant, technologically advanced, and artistically well versed.” (p. 154) This biased view towards the amateur Chinese opera troupes was repeated many times throughout the book. This is very unfair to the professional Chinese opera troupes because, without them, there would not be anyone to perform for religious purposes, and Chinese opera would just be performative, thus losing it’s significance. I felt that proper recognition was not given to the professional troupes, who spend even more time perfecting the routines and performances as compared to the amateur troupes, who have day jobs and only get together to practice occasionally.

Historical Context

A good point of this book is that it is very informative. It lends an insight into the lives of the Chinese opera performers, with first person narratives and interviews with the authentic performers themselves. Also, it gives youths an insight into the history of Singapore. For example, I did not know that Great World was originally an amusement park providing an alternative performance site for Chinese opera, all along I only knew it as a shopping mall!

Thus, this book gives the contemporary readers a fresh new look to an old tradition.

Overview and Conclusion

Even though there are certain flaws in the book, overall it is very informative, giving readers a better understanding of the Chinese street opera in Singapore from it’s independence till today. I would recommend this book to people interested in Southeast Asian performance genres.


About Junyi

Having graduated with a Bachelors in Arts with Honours, I traverse the fluff-covered, sometimes pretentious world of the arts, yet would like to think that I'm down to earth, doing things like sipping hot tea at kopitiams and sitting behind a desk during office hours. This website is a portfolio of the writing that I feel can be "aired in public" (and then some). I would like to one day be a journalist for all things lifestyle. Or a full time singer. Or a world-weary traveler. Or a clown. Feel free to look through and leave your thoughts.
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