One of the flag bearers in promoting performing arts in the country, the Petaling Street Heritage House seeks to revive the dying art of Chinese opera, writes Loong Wai Ting
FINDING a spot nearest to the stage, my cousin and I placed our mini rattan stools on the floor of a temple near our grandmother’s house in Penang.
We were just children — she was 10 and I was 6. Trudging our way to the temple with the stools and snacks in hand to watch a Chinese opera was one of the thrills that we looked forward to during our visits to Penang.
We watched wide-eyed as the performers in their colourful and intricate costumes took centre stage. All dolled-up with heavy make-up, these Chinese opera performers never failed to give me the impression that they would not hesitate to strike badly behaved children. So, with my back straight, I stared straight ahead and took in whatever unfolded in front of me on the makeshift stage, filled with intricate wood carvings, colourful banners and small band of musicians partly hidden in the background.
I tried hard but I could never understand the lyrics of the songs the performers sang in their high pitched voices. But I still found them fascinating, nonetheless, as the arias soared and ebbed.
Traditional musical instruments such as gaohu, erhu, yehu, pipa and dizi give Chinese opera that distinctive sound.
With every strike on the erhu, the little me noticed the performers changing their facial expressions. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad.
SHOW OF PASSION
A light clang of the cymbal brings me to the makeshift stage on the top floor of Petaling Street Heritage House on Jalan Tun HS Lee in Kuala Lumpur.
A huge banner in front of the stage announces the name of the play that we’re about to watch. A table is filled with prayers paraphernalia and a wooden stand is filled with weapons like swords.
Nothing much has changed since the old days except the stage is slightly smaller than those at temple grounds. I take my seat near a staircase that creaks every time someone walks on it.
When the music begins to pick up, two performers in elaborate costumes walk in. Both are female performers. While one plays the fa dan or principal female character, the other takes on the role of mou sang or principal male character.
In Chinese opera, both male and female performers can alternate between male and female roles.
Famous for his fa dan roles, the late artiste Mei Lanfang usually played young or middle-aged women. Considered one of the four great dan — the other were Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu and Xun Huisheng — Mei Lanfang died in 1961 at 66.
As the performers take centre stage in their white and red costumes, adorned with auspicious creatures like the dragon and phoenix. Their sui siu — white silk extensions attached to the sleeves of the garments — amplify their characters’ emotion.
The familiar tune is from the popular play Dai Nui Fa. Adapted from the oldest form of Chinese opera, Kunqu, Chinese playwright Tang Ti-sheng first introduced the play to modern audience in 1957, when he cast famous Hong Kong actresses like Yam Kim Fai and Bak Sheut Sin in the lead roles.
The sad play is about Princess Changping of Ming Dynasty, who makes a pact with her lover to commit suicide rather than become a political tool for her Qing conquerors. Two of the handful of Cantonese opera performers in Malaysia are performing. They are Berlin Yap and Joey Chong of the Sung Fong Meng Cantonese Opera Troupe based in KL.
With their faces painted red and white, Yap and Chop take centre stage. One of the most common styles is the white and red face, where a white foundation is applied, followed with red around the eyes and cheeks.
To complete their look, the pair have slightly elongated eyebrows and wear bright red lipstick.
The make-up has rich meaning. A character with mostly red make-up is brave and loyal. Those with white faces are cunning, the villain of the show.
The actors are usually given a temporary “facelift”, achieved by sticking adhesive tapes at the corner of the eyes to the head.
Every movement is graceful and every gesture has meaning. As Yap and Chong sing their lines, I notice their passion for the dying art, and their hard work in preserving it.
Each performance can last up to 45 or 90 minutes. Like most stage plays, the performers change their costumes every now and then.
A female heroine has more decorative and elaborate costumes. A lower status character will have less elaborate costumes, usually in dull colours.
CHINESE OPERA IN MALAYSIA
As workers work on the nearby MY Rapid Transit project outside the interior of the Petaling Street Heritage House is brimming with artefacts from yesteryear lining the walls.
It is as if time stood still in this charming two-storey pre-war shophouse that has been restored to its former glory. Situated in front of Sri Mahamariamman Temple on Jalan Tun HS Lee, Petaling Street Heritage House is run by curator, writer and filmmaker Chong Keat Aun.
Chong is involved in the collection of all Chinese dialect folksongs and heritage across the nation.
Up on the wall on the second floor, a poster catches my attention. It is of people in opera costumes and another, a group of them posing in front of Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association on Jalan Sultan. That’s a stone’s throw from where I am standing.
Opera shows are now few and far between, save for a few staged during big celebrations like a deity’s birthday or during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar year.
According to oral accounts of residents who used to call Petaling Street home, Cantonese teahouses such as Yen Lok and Seng Kee were everywhere in the early 1920s due to the predominantly Cantonese community here.
Men and women would come and listen to female singers sing Cantonese ballads as they sipped tea. Like some of us who love gossiping at the mamak stall, men and women those days visited teahouses to catch up on the latest news or be entertained by the singers. The Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association is the flag bearer in promoting Cantonese opera in the country.
The words “yan” (man) and “keng” (mirror) remind its members to reflect on traditional virtues in their daily lives.
The association with some 500 members (there were 1,000 members in its heyday) is active in charity work.
For decades, its members have helped raised donations for schools and hospitals through charity shows here and abroad.
The Selangor Assembly Hall and Tung Shin Hospital were some of iconic landmarks that benefited from such charity drives.
Some of the famous people who visited Yan Keng either as guests or performers include Ho Fei Fan, Fong Yim Fen, Mak Bing Wing and Tang Bik Wan.
In films, Cantonese opera is portrayed in movies such as Peking Opera Blues (1986), Farewell My Concubine (1993), Princess Changping (1976), Demi-Haunted (2002) and Hungry Ghost Ritual (2014).
Pictures byline Aswadi Alias/NSTP and Loong Wai Ting
PETALING STREET HERITAGE HOUSE
196, Jalan Tun HS Lee, Kuala Lumpur
HOUR Thursday to Sunday (1pm — 7pm)
PAY Entrance is free but check its website for prices of show tickets