Teng Mah Seng



Teng Mah Seng (b. 1915, Fujian Province, China–d. 5 December 1992, Singapore)1 was a musician, lyricist and composer. He was hailed as the saviour of nanyin music, an ancient form of Chinese opera music that dates back to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty.2 Teng is credited not only for reviving this ancient art form, but also for taking nanyin to greater heights by injecting new elements to make it more attractive to contemporary audiences, as well as introducing the musical form to the international arts scene. For his artistic contributions, Teng was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Music in 1987.3

Early life and career
Teng was born into a poor family living in Fujian Province, China. His father died when he was very young, and his mother and grandmother struggled to raise him and his siblings. He had only a few years of formal schooling before he was sent to work as an apprentice to a merchant at the age of 14. By the time he was 18, Teng had become a manager, earning a handsome sum of 25 yuan a month. Although Teng had limited exposure to formal education, he was a voracious reader and was very good at calligraphy. When the threat of war loomed in China, the young Teng decided to leave for Singapore to avoid being enlisted and to look for better opportunities.4


In 1935, Teng arrived in Singapore and worked for a rice merchant. He was a diligent and trustworthy worker who was well liked by all. Teng rose through the ranks and by 1945 he had saved enough to start a business trading in various food commodities and, later, rubber. Although Teng was a successful businessman, he decided to retire in 1980 so as to devote himself to promoting nanyin music.5

Artistic career
Nanyin, or sound of the south, hails from Nan Guan, the southern part of Fujian Province in China. Its origins date back to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty. According to researchers, this musical style has been preserved in its original form even in contemporary times.6 Nanyin is usually played during religious festivals, the Lunar New Year and at grand funerals.7


Teng was essentially a self-taught musician. As a child, he learned opera songs by watching the opera performances in his village. He had a good singing voice, and could play the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute.8

While working in a rice milling factory in his hometown in Fujian, he was greatly influenced by a fellow worker and became interested in nanyin. Teng often sang to entertain himself. During festive occasions in town, Teng would be invited to sing and he often played the role of a female impersonator as he was a good-looking young man.9

Teng became truly interested in nanyin at his mother’s funeral. The members of the Siong Leng Musical Association came to the wake every night and sang till the wee hours. Teng was totally mesmerised.10 He said in an interview later that the music was like taking opium: having had a taste of it, he was unable to give it up.11

In the 1970s, many traditional Chinese art forms were on the decline due to the growing popularity of Western culture. Nanyin was no exception and was on the verge of extinction. It was at that time that Teng resolved to devote his time and energy to reviving nanyin.12

In 1977, as general secretary of the Pan-Southeast Asian (Nanyin Music) Association, he organised the first Asian International Nanyin Conference. This conference had far-reaching effects. It stirred a revival in nanyin in Southeast Asia and even in Quanzhou and Xiamen, China, the birthplace of nanyin. In 1978, Teng was appointed the president of the Siong Leng Musical Association, the only nanyin organisation in Singapore at the time.13

Teng moved quickly to reorganise the association and set in place new plans and directions for it. To nurture new talent, Teng started a recruitment drive for new members. The going was tough as hundreds joined initially, but only one or two remained in the association. However, Teng persisted in expanding the association’s membership.14

In addition, Teng felt that to improve the standards of nanyin, the association needed to recruit new master nanyin artists to train their members. He thus went about engaging various well-known artists from China to train the members in singing.15 This idea and strategy of grooming new nanyin singers through a systematic training programme was an important achievement as in the past, old masters tended to be very conservative and protective of their art and did not pass down their knowledge and skills readily.16

In 1982, Teng started an opera group within the association. Until then, the association’s activities were purely focused on singing performances. Teng felt that having the drama element would make learning nanyin more interesting for the members. He therefore engaged a full-time drama instructor from China, Chan Ki Po, to coach the members.17

Teng also engaged a nanyin musician, Zhou Sheng Xiang, who was very talented in playing the pipa and in composing. Zhou became Teng’s partner in composing new songs. Zhou composed the music while Teng wrote the lyrics. Together, they were able to compose more than a hundred songs a year for various occasions.18

In 1983, Teng led the Siong Leng Musical Association group to Wales to perform at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddford, a renowned choral music festival. The team won third prize in the folk song solo section; the first song that they performed was the one Teng wrote in 1975, Gan Huai (Reminiscence). The team also won fourth prize in the Ensemble Performance category for the song Trotting Horse. With this performance, Teng brought nanyin to the attention of the international music scene.19

Between 1979 and 1985, the association staged more than 20 performances in Singapore and overseas. With proper training, public performances and exchanges, the standards of nanyin performances improved greatly.20 Not only did Teng contribute his time to the association, he also funded many of the projects himself as the association did not have enough funding.21

Finally, Teng took the bold step of allowing younger members of the association to take on leadership positions.22 Teng strongly felt that a young member, Celestina Wang, was the best person to take over as the chairman of the association as she had the most passion. Although there were objections, Teng persisted with his recommendation and Wang was eventually appointed the chairman of the association in 1992 at the age of 26.23

Teng stepped down as president of the association in March 1992. On 5 December that year, shortly after he had officiated at the opening ceremony of the association’s new quarters in Bukit Pasoh, Teng passed away from cancer at the age of 76.24

Stylistic conventions
Teng believed that in order for nanyin to survive, it had to adapt and change. He felt that, with each piece being between 20 to 30 minutes long, the traditional nanyin songs were too long, and the contents were too predictable and had little variety. This made nanyin unattractive to the modern audience.25


Teng braved criticism and introduced some revolutionary changes such as shortening the cadenza and limiting each song to five minutes. He also composed songs with contemporary prose set against the ancient music. During performances, Teng insisted on having subtitles and on makeup for the performers.26

In all, Teng penned more than 300 nanyin songs in his lifetime. He introduced contemporary issues into his songs based on his own life experiences. The themes of his songs included filial piety, pitfalls of pride, cyclical turns of joys and sorrows, as well as love and struggle in modern life.27 Music critic Quek Yong Siu commented that Teng’s lyrics “showed an artistic flair and literary grace”.28

Teng made a compilation of traditional nanyin songs and published them as Nan Guan Jing Hua Da Quan in three volumes in 1981, 1982 and 1985 respectively.29 This was done in collaboration with Zhuo, who adapted the ancient tunes to Teng’s lyrics.30 One of Teng’s works, Singapore, the Garden of the East, was selected as part of the repertoire for the arts education programme in primary and secondary schools.31

Although Teng has passed away, he has left behind a rich legacy. The beautiful tunes of his nanyin songs continue to mesmerise many in Singapore and around the world.

Awards32
1987:
Cultural Medallion Award for Music.


List of selected works33
鸾凤和鸣 [Luan Feng He Ming].

我的心 [Wo De Xin].
养生之道 [Yang Sheng Zhi Dao].
相思曲 [Xiang Si Qu].
人生百态 [Ren Sheng Bai Tai].
感怀 [Gan Huai].
建国银禧 [Jian Guo Yin Xi].
厦门 [Xia Men].
贺新年 [He Xin Nian].
怀元宵 [Huai Yuan Xiao].



Author
Chor Poh Chin




References
1. Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15; 850 deaths – Mr Teng Mah Seng. (1992, December 6). The Straits Times, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Narcotic sounds of the south. (1989, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award recipients for music. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/music/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-music
4. 黄秀琴 [Huang, X. Q.]. (2011). 偈者勇也 [Ji zhe yong ye]. 新加坡: 湘灵音乐社, pp. 15–16. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 781.62951 HXQ);
Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15; 区如伯 [Qu, R. B.]. (1992, December 13). 辞别湘灵会郎君先师去 [Ci bie xiang ling hui lang jun xian shi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5.
Low, A. (1988, January 17).  Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.
Narcotic sounds of the south. (1989, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7.
Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8.
Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9.
南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding ma cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html
10.
赵慕媛 [Zhao, M. Y.]. (1982, June 24). 御前清客混渔樵 [Yu qian qing ke hun yu qiao]. 星洲日报 [Sin Chew Jit Poh], p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11.
Narcotic sounds of the south. (1989, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12.
区如伯 [Qu, R. B.]. (1992, December 13). 辞别湘灵会郎君先师去 [Ci bie xiang ling hui lang jun xian shi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tribute.sg. (2012). Teng Mah Seng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Teng+Mah+Seng; 南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding ma cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html
14. Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1988, January 9). 丁马成使南音“复活”有声有色·无牵无挂  [Ding ma cheng shi Nanyin fu huo]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 558. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]);
黄秀琴 [Huang, X. Q.]. (2011). 偈者勇也 [Ji zhe yong ye]. 新加坡: 湘灵音乐社, p. 21. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 781.62951 HXQ)
17. Chong, W. H. (1984, July 5). Obscure Tang legacy comes alive. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18.
黄秀琴 [Huang, X. Q.]. (2011). 偈者勇也 [Ji zhe yong ye]. 新加坡: 湘灵音乐社, p. 18. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 781.62951 HXQ)
19.
区如伯 [Qu, R. B.]. (1992, December 13). 辞别湘灵会郎君先师去 [Ci bie xiang ling hui lang jun xian shi]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 46. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. 南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding ma cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html
21. 黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1988, January 9). 丁马成使南音“复活”有声有色·无牵无挂 [Ding Ma Cheng shi Nanyin fu huo]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Teng Mah Seng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Teng+Mah+Seng
23.
黄秀琴 [Huang, X. Q.]. (2011). 偈者勇也 [Ji zhe yong ye]. 新加坡: 湘灵音乐社, p. 36. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 781.62951 HXQ)
24.
南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding Ma Cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html; Low, A. (1988, January 17). Saviour of Nanyin music. The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. 黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1988, January 9). 丁马成使南音“复活”有声有色·无牵无挂 [Ding ma cheng shi Nanyin fu huo]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26.
黄玉云 [Huang, Y. Y.]. (1988, January 9). 丁马成使南音“复活”有声有色·无牵无挂 [Ding ma cheng shi Nanyin fu huo]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. 南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding ma cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html
28.
Kong, K. Y. (2010, August 20). Teng Mah Seng (丁马成): Addicted to Nanyin. Retrieved from MusicSG.
29. 南洋随笔 [Nanyang sui bi]. (2009, July 20). 丁马成生平简介 [Ding Ma Cheng sheng ping jian jie]. Retrieved from http://www.sgwritings.com/46213/viewspace_25486.html
30.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Teng Mah Seng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Teng+Mah+Seng
31.
Kong, K. Y. (2010, August 20). Teng Mah Seng (丁马成): Addicted to Nanyin. Retrieved from MusicSG.
32.
National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award recipients for music. Retrieved from https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/music/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-music
33.
Kong, K. Y. (2010, August 20). Teng Mah Seng (丁马成): Addicted to Nanyin. Retrieved from MusicSG.




Further resources
丁马成 [Ding, M. C.]. (1987). 丁马成作品选集: 南音新曲 [Ding ma cheng zuo pin xuan ji: nan yin xin qu]. 新加坡: 湘灵音乐社.
(Call no.: Chinese RCLOS 782.42162951 DMC)


丁马成 [Ding, M. C.]. (1995). 南音大功臣丁马成南音作品评论 [Nan yin da gong chen ding ma cheng nan yin zuo pin ping lun]. 新加坡: 新加坡湘灵音乐社.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 781.62951 NYD)




The information in this article is valid as at 22 January 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts