Wayang (Chinese Street Opera)

by Cai, Serene

Wayang, a Malay word meaning “a theatrical performance employing puppets or human dancers”,1 commonly refers to Chinese street opera in Singapore, although it is also used in reference to other forms of opera such as wayang kulit.2 In Mandarin, Chinese street opera is known as jiexi (“street show”).3 This traditional Chinese dramatic form was brought to Singapore by immigrants from China in the 19th century as part of their religious rites.4 Since then, the popularity of wayang has waxed and waned, in no small part due to modern developments.5 Wayang is now  considered an important part of Chinese heritage and culture, and is performed by both professional and amateur opera troupes.6

Although the first recorded use of the Malay word wayang to refer to Chinese street opera was in 1887,7 the earliest description of wayang dates back to as early as 1842,8 when Charles Wilkes, Commander of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, was in Singapore and observed various ceremonies performed by the Chinese to celebrate Lunar New Year. He described the show as “groups of people carrying shrines, flags, and banners, among other objects, and were accompanied by the playing of cymbals and gongs”.9

Chinese street opera was introduced to Singapore by Chinese immigrants who arrived in the latter half of the 19th century.10 These Chinese immigrants later built temples for worship, and wayang would be staged outdoors on the temple grounds for the amusement of deities and as a form of respect during the celebration of deities’ birthdays and customary festivals.11 Such performances were probably free to watch, as the opera troupes were engaged and paid for by businessmen or temples and associations.12

The popularity of wayang soon rose to such a level that the large crowds at these performances worried the authorities. The government attempted to curtail wayang performances through measures such as the 1856 Police and Conservancy Acts which restricted assemblies, processions and street operas. However, such measures were met with protest, and wayang continued to flourish as the controls were eased.13

Wayang’s popularity subsequently resulted in the building of dedicated theatres. They were located mainly in Chinatown, such as Lai Chun Yuen at Smith Street (which the Cantonese colloquially called Hei Yuen Kai meaning “theatre street”) and Heng Wai Sun and Heng Seng Peng at Wayang Street ( now known as Eu Tong Sen Street).14

Chinese opera continued to be performed at indoor venues and in the streets during the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), but the depressed economy and social and political unrests in the decade of the 1950s and ’60s contributed to its decline.15 In the 1970s, with Singapore’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the staging of wayang was permitted only at designated sites in a bid to minimise noise and public disturbance as well as traffic congestion arising from these performances.16 As a result of these post-war developments, coupled with factors such as the government’s push to replace Chinese dialects with Mandarin as the lingua franca among the Chinese, the westernisation of the population, and the ageing and dwindling audience, wayang slowly lost its appeal as a form of mass entertainment among the Chinese community.17

Characteristics of wayang
The three main genres of wayang in Singapore are those from the three largest Chinese dialect groups in Singapore: fujianxi (Hokkien opera), chaoju (Teochew opera) and yueju (Cantonese opera), each with its own distinctive features and characteristics. The differences include the use of various local dialects and styles, although they may share similar costumes, tunes and stories.18

Gezaixi (“folk-tune opera”), the most popular type of fujianxi, is based on folk tales of the Fujian province and is described as having a characteristic “crying" melody. Chaoju is known for its clear and tender singing style, fan-playing and acrobatic stunts, while yueju  is easy to understand and reflects reality.19

Stage and props
Wayang is performed on a makeshift wooden stage that can be easily assembled and dismantled. A canopy supported by poles shelters the stage from the elements. The backstage where performers dress and rest is separated from the main stage by a scenic backdrop called shoujiu which is made of embroidered silk. The musicians are seated at both sides of the stage.20

Stage props are kept to a minimum and often used symbolically. For example, a horse whip represents a horse, while flags and banners with cloud and wind prints represent gales. Stock props include chairs, tables, lanterns, candles, fans, wine jars, and cups.21

Wayang music is loud and distinctive. Live music is provided by a six- or seven-member orchestra divided into two sections: the wen (“civil”), consisting of stringed and woodwind instruments such as the huqin (spike fiddle), erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and suona (oboe); and the wu (“military”), consisting of percussion instruments like the bangzi (clapper), luo (brass gong) and bo (cymbals).22 The wen instruments accompany the performers’ singing and provide mood-setting background music, while the wu instruments provide rhythm, set the pace of the music, and heighten the mood in acrobatic action or fight scenes.23

Chinese operatic roles generally fall into one of four main categories: sheng (male), dan (female), chou (clown) and jing (painted face).24 Each category has several sub-types usually classified by age, status and/or personality. For example, sheng roles are broadly classified by age – lao (“old”) or xiao (“young”) – and status – wen (“scholarly”) or wu (“military”). Among the dan roles, the huadan is attractive and spirited while the caidan is a comical character.25

Makeup and costume
In any Chinese opera, each performer’s makeup reflects the traits of the character being portrayed. There are two distinctive styles: the junban (“charming makeup”) which is applied lightly at the brow and eye areas, usually on sheng or dan characters, and the distinctively patterned caiban (“colourful makeup”) which is usually worn by jing and chou characters. Certain colours convey specific meanings. For example, red is used to symbolise bravery, loyalty and uprightness, while gold and silver usually indicate that the character is a god or spirit.26

A performer’s costume generally consists of a headdress, robes, footwear and an artificial beard for a sheng, jing or chou character to add character to their roles. Attires vary between characters and give hints to their personalities, gender and social status.27 The costumes are mostly intricately embroidered and elaborately beaded.28 Some costumes have long and flowing sleeve extensions known as shuixiu (“water sleeves”), which performers use symbolically to express their characters’ emotions.29

Wayang in modern Singapore
Wayang has survived modernisation and continues to be performed in Singapore. This is due to efforts by the government and various community associations to preserve and promote it as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage as well as the resurgence of performances by troupes from China and the revival of local amateur troupes.30

“Professional” and “amateur” are terms used in Singapore to differentiate between types of performers. Professional troupes perform for profit, while amateur troupes do so for leisure and interest. The terms are not indicative of the skills and standards of the performers. Professional troupes still perform during religious festivals and ceremonies, and are supported mainly by Chinese religious institutions.31 Amateur troupes put up performances in highly publicised government-sponsored events like the Hong Lim Park Chinese Opera series staged annually at the park between 1978 and 1985,32 and the Singapore Street Opera Festival held in 2004 in the main business, shopping and tourist districts.33

Serene Cai

1. Oxford English Dictionary, “wayang,” accessed 2016.
2. Evelyn Teng, Wang Si Mei: Xi ban ren sheng (Singapore: Splash Productions, 2007), 11 (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 TEN); Wayang: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Singapore: MPH Bookstores, 1984), 7. (Call no. RSING 792.095957 VEN)
3. Tong Soon Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 17. (Call no. RSING 782.1095957 LEE)
4. Pitt Kuan Wah, et al., Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore (Singapore: National Archives, 1988), 25. (Call no. RSING 792.095957 WAY)
5. Wayang, 14.
6. Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 7–8.
7. Paul Van der Veer, Da Xi: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Netherlands: Paul Van der Veer, 2008), 49. (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 VEE)
8. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 21.
9. Charles Wilkes, The Singapore Chapter of the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 (Singapore: Antiques of the Orient, 1984), 15–16. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WIL-[HIS])
10. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 22.
11. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 22–23.
12. Wayang, 8; Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 23.
13. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 23.
14. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 22.
15. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 51.
16. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 59.
17. Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 4, 150–1; Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 114.
18. Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 6, 43.
19. Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 7, 43; S. K. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 2010), pp. 32, 34–35. (Call no. RSING 792.50951 ORI)
20. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 163.
21. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera, 102–5.
22. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 131.
23. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera, 106–7.
24. Teng, Wang Si Mei, 14,
25. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 86–90.
26. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera, 88, 90–92.
27. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 121–7.
28. Pitt, History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 70.
29. Van der Veer, Da Xi, 124.
30. Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 138; Van der Veer, Da Xi, 52.
31. Lee Tong Soon, “Chinese Theatre, Confucianism, and Nationalism: Amateur Chinese Opera Tradition in Singapore,” Asian Theatre Journal 24, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 397–421. (From ProQuest via NLB eResources)
32. Goh Beng Choo, “A Night at the Opera,” Straits Times, 30 September 1989, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Tong, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 139–42.
33. Sandra Leong, “Reliving Wayang,” Straits Times, 4 August 2004, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Choo Liang Liang, Wayang: The Final Curtain, Singapore: MediaCorp TV, 2001–2004, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 WAY)

National Archives (Singapore), A Calendar of Street Wayang in Singapore (1987/88): With Special Reference to Major Chinese Festivals (Singapore: National Archives, 1988). (Call no. RSING 792.095957 CAL)

Steve Lu, Face Painting in Chinese Opera (Singapore: M.P.H. Publications, 1968). (Call no. RSING 792.027 LU)

The information in this article is valid as of 2011 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.

Operas, Chinese--Singapore