Behind the satin curtains of a Chinese opera
Chinese Opera, combining literature, drama and musical performance, is one of the ancient art forms in the world, which has been entertaining the Chinese communities for over a thousand years. But today this unique art form is struggling to survive. With the Chinese Opera travelling troupes dwindling every year, it’s in danger of disappearing forever.
I have been trying to watch the Chinese Opera for a while but without success until I stumbled by accident upon a stage with soaring decorations while wandering around Georgetown in Penang. After climbing a rickety ladder at the back, I found myself in a dimly lit small backstage area on a hastily erected wooden stage constructed near a Chinese temple.
The backstage is chaotic and full of colours, with bright decorations, a variety of props, and stunning costumes, some hanging from the ceiling and some placed in wooden chests. What may seem at first as a chaos, is similar to a well-organised orchestra led by an invisible conductor.
Surrounded by countless pots with bright-coloured paints and powders, the actors are getting ready for the show. Peering intently into small mirrors, they are applying thick make-up and slowly transforming themselves into another personality or even another gender, some into warriors, some into servants, some into beautiful women. I am surprised to discover that the actors, all Thai, came all the way from Bangkok. They are the Teochew “Sai Bo Hong” troupe, who started performing the Chinese Opera in 2001.
The fascinating process of putting make-up is slow taking several hours. Chinese Opera places much importance for facial make-up, and the actors are making sure each brush stroke is perfect. Not only does the make-up emphasise the eyes to attract the audience’s attention but it also reveals the nature of opera’s characters.
By using heavy and extremely visual make-up, with dark-lined eyes and eyebrows, luscious lashes and deep red lips, the actors introduce their characters. Different colours have different meanings. They represent different emotions and help tell good and evil. White symbolises cunning and treachery, and performers with white faces are often the play’s villains. On the contrary, red stands for loyalty and trust, and actors with red faces are usually positive characters. The performers with faces painted in black, which represents justice and fierceness, are normally fierce warriors.
With occasional laughter, the actors are rather silent focusing on putting their make-up and elaborate outfits. Those, who are ready, are patiently waiting for the performance to start. Some are playing games on their phones, some are watching the Chinese Opera’s stars, some are getting massage by their fellow actors. Some are smoking, some are praying to the opera goddess at the small altar set at the backstage.
Once the make-up is done, the actors don their elaborate costumes, some hand- embroidered, with the help of each other. A few wear giant feathered headdresses and heavy crowns decorated with colourful stones, jewels and crystals. The elaborate and sumptuous costumes worn by the actors are traditional Chinese costumes, which, similar to make-up, also reveal the characters. The bright colours are usually worn by the rich and young, while the poor and elderly wear dark plain colours.
Soon, the clash of cymbals and the beating of gongs indicate the start of the open-air opera. The actors, young and old, men and women, are making appearance on the stage. In the past, many female roles were played by males as there were no women in the performing troupes.
Chinese Opera is a form of theatrical story-telling, a highly-stylized performance, which combines literature, drama, acting, music, dancing, and singing. Many operas are based on Chinese legends and history, and Confucius teachings. They are usually about common themes – good and evil, right and wrong, love and loss, tragedy and comedy, and there is always a moral encouraging people to become good.
The Chinese Opera is also a loud affair. Actors are accompanied by musicians playing gongs, lute, cymbals, drums and other classical Chinese musical instruments from backstage. As proudly told by one of performers, every artist in the troupe is capable of playing music.
I did not understand any words of the play performed in Teochew dialect but it did not really matter. The actors, with their heavy and bright make-up and elaborate and colourful outfits, are poetically reciting the lines in highly-stylised manner and with such devotion that it makes the Chinese Opera simply fascinating to watch. Like a fairy-tale, the opera transports you into another time, when brave warriors used to defend their land, and people searched for justice and love against all odds.
But despite the eye-catching performance, the audience is tiny. If at the start of the show shortly after dusk, a few people, mainly the elderly, and some curious tourists stopped by to watch the drama unfold, a few hours later the audience became almost non-existent. I found it sad, almost uncomfortable, but actors didn’t seem to mind. The Chinese Opera is mainly staged to entertain and please the Gods, ghosts or ancestors.
Chinese Opera is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world dating back over a thousand years, with roots going back to the Tang Dynasty. Brought by Chinese traders, it arrived in Malaysia in the mid-16th century, and it was very popular in the late 19th century. But today, influenced by modern lifestyles and western culture, the new generation lost interest in Chinese Opera. People prefer to stay at home and watch TV. The performances are now scarce and can only be found during Chinese holidays and festivals such as Lunar New Year and important religious celebrations such as the birthdays of deities, like the opera held today. Chinese communities often invite opera troupes to perform as a way to honour ancestors.
The performance has been already ongoing for a few hours. It was getting closer to midnight but I found myself so drawn to the Chinese Opera for its colours, emotions, poetic verses, music, and drama that I could not stop watching the captivating performance while thinking about the sad decline of this ancient art.
In Malaysia: The best time to see the Chinese Opera is during the Hungry Ghost Festival, a traditional Chinese month-long event celebrated annually in the seventh lunar month, which usually falls on August. In Georgetown of the Malaysian state of Penang, during the Hungry Ghost Festival almost every temple and Chinese association hold nightly shows to entertain ghosts. Alternatively, Chinese Opera troupes are invited by the temples to perform during special temple celebrations.
In Thailand: The best time to see the Chinese Opera, called ngiew in Thai, is during the Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year in mid-February and the Vegetarian Festival in late September. In Bangkok, performances are hold in Chinatown, known as Yaowarat, behind the main temple of Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, at Chow Sue Kong shrine on the Chao Phraya River or Chit Sia Mah shrine. In Chiang Mai, Chinatown also stages Chinese Opera performance. The Chinese temples and shrines around Thailand occasionally hold Chinese Opera performances throughout the year.