Those opera days

Johor Baru's Capitol theatre in the 1950s
Inside a glass showcase at the Johor Baru Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery in the former clan house of the Cantonese, I saw a priceless collection of old ticket stubs to cinemas like Cathay and Broadway theatres and the Tai Thean Kiew Circus.  I will never forget watching this circus inside a huge tent and thrilling to the live animals performances.  In those days, it was a big treat to go for a show and I remember how my grandparents had regular movie dates to watch Chinese opera films at the old Capitol theatre.

Old ticket stubs to movie theatres and Tai Thean Kiew
Circus, seen at the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery
Going to the movies was one of the most affordable public entertainments then and grandfather or Ah Kong, was particularly familiar with the manager James Ho, a personality who was synonymous with JB’s Capitol theatre. 

It was free-seating for some thung thoi or live shows, by visiting Hong Kong opera stars, so by the time my grandparents walked from Jalan Ngee Heng to Jalan Station, their favourite seats might be taken.  So Ah Kong had an arrangement with Ho who helped with reserving two seats by tying a handkerchief to indicate that the seats were booked!

A stage performance of Teochew opera in JB
This method for reserving seats is certainly unacceptable now but in those days, there was a sense of civic consciousness where even a tied handkerchief was respected for seat reservations.  Theatres then were cooled by giant oscillating fans, so grandma always had a folded Japanese-style hand-fan in her handbag to keep herself comfortable.  I know they thoroughly enjoyed these shows because I often heard Ah Kong humming opera tunes as he went about watering his precious orchid plants in the garden.

Ah Kong, a Teochew, also had a collection of long-playing vinyl records of his favourite Teochew operas and every now and then, he would take them out to play on a turntable.  I remember how he would lie on a deckchair next to the speakers to listen and be lulled into a doze.  I’m not familiar with this dialect especially in its operatic form but with sharp vocals, screeching arias to a painfully high pitch over an ensemble of string instruments, gong, drum and Chinese flute, and backed by a distinctly Teochew choral accompaniment, I often wondered how Ah Kong could ever snooze!

Seen at the JB Kwong Siew Heritage Gallery - a vinyl
record of Cantonese opera by Yum Kim Fai!
There was also a showcase that displayed vinyl records of Cantonese popular songs and vintage operas in the gallery.  When I saw the actors’ photos on the record sleeves, I was amazed to discover that I’m quite familiar with many Cantonese opera actors from watching them with grandma.  When I looked closer, I was amused to recognise a lead actor – Yum Kim Fai, a woman who’s not your typical fa tan or prima donna because her forte was to act as a man! 

My first experience of Chinese opera must have been from the made-into-movies old Cantonese operas that starred some of grandma’s favourite actors.  She introduced me to popular actors like Leong Seng Por, Lei Heong Khum, Tum Pik Wan, Lum Kah Seng and child-actor, Fung Po Po, who were gifted in performing yuit kok or opera songs.  At that time, my siblings and I were living with our grandparents at Jalan Ngee Heng to go to school conveniently and as school-going children we were not encouraged to watch television – a sore temptation as it was the latest luxury – but to focus on studying hard.

Elaborate make-up and head-dresses for opera actors
These Chinese movies usually came on after 8pm, right smack in the time slot when we should be doing our homework and studying.  I remember how we often rushed to complete our school work and then quietly sneak down the stairs to watch the show from the top steps.  Sometimes we were firmly sent back upstairs and to bed but on good days, we managed to sneak down a step at a time and if there was still no objection, we would boldly edge our way closer to watch the whole movie in front of the TV! 

As Chinese moviemakers started to create musical movies without opera singing, these actors still had singing roles but with less archaic Cantonese lyrics set to popular tunes of the day like for example, “The River Kwai March.”  A classic opera, “The Butterfly Lovers,” the Chinese parallel of a tragic Romeo & Juliet story, is forever engraved in my memory.  Another mythical tale, Sup Heng Tai or the “Ten Brothers,” who each possessed incredibly super powers, is also unforgettable because of its absolute absurdity!

Grandma's collection of classic Cantonese operas were
given away at mementoes at her 100th birthday last year
Watching opera movies on our Black and White TV in the 1960s certainly did not do justice to elaborate costumes in rich colours and textures, matched with glittering ornaments and accessories in intricate head-dresses.  In 2010 I had the privilege to go backstage to observe an opera troupe dress for a show and I watched with fascination as ordinary people were transformed into distinct characters with skillful application of make-up and dazzling costumes.  I then learnt that in Chinese opera, characters are divided into 2 main groups – Mo, those skilled in martial arts like warriors and hunters, and Mun, refined characters like scholars, maidens and wealthy women.

As grandma’s collection of classic Cantonese opera CDs, including a treasured collection of opera songs by Hong Sin Noi, were given away as mementoes at her 100th birthday celebration, I am left with precious memories of those opera days.  A priceless memory I have is about one of grandma’s favourite Cantonese opera actors, Sun Mah Chai, a stage name which translates as, “New Little Horse.”  I still remember grandma’s frown as she was not at all amused when Ah Kong jokingly called him, Phow Mah Chai, which literally means “Racing a little horse!”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 12 February 2013

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