Shantou Yingge in JB

Yingge musician perform with the dancers at
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
In June 2011, Yingge (Eng Kor in Teochew dialect) dance was first presented at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk by the Johor Theng Chuan Tan Clan Association.  Regulars at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk had their first glimpse of this dance when a small troupe gave a captivating performance, thrilling the audience with their energetic dance as part of the Tan Clan’s 70th Anniversary celebration. 

The enthusiastic response to this traditional Teochew art-form paid off handsomely when a troupe of Yingge dancers from Chaoyang, in Guangdong, China, came to Johor Baru as foreign guests in the recent Johor Chingay.

C P Tan [Left] showing visitors the exhibition on Yingge
dance in the Red House
It all started when government officials from Shantou city, China, visited the Johor Chinese Heritage Museum and Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk last June and was very impressed with what Johor Baru is doing to preserve the Chinese heritage. 

Over lunch, Lee Fong, the Shantou Party Secretary General, made a surprise announcement on a decision to send a troupe of Yingge dancers to Johor Baru for Johor’s annual Chingay.  After a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with Haji Burhan Amin, Mayor of Johor Baru, on 4 November 2011, the best Yingge troupe of 72 dancers and 22 musicians was selected to perform in the Johor Chingay.

Warrior dancers perform an excerpt of Yingge dance
at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
The Yingge dance is an art-form that was gazetted as a national heritage in mainland China in 2006.  The history of this dance dates back to some 300 years with its origins in paddy planters who would usually sing along to the beat of drums while sowing seedlings.  To encourage farmers to work harder, this dance was traditionally carried out throughout the whole planting season.

As a result, this dance was known locally as the ‘Dance for Sowing Seedlings’ or Yang Ge Wu.  It gradually evolved into an open-square dance that portrays the 108 Heroes of the Water Margin, a renowned piece of literature in Chinese culture.  In Southern China, this cultural performance is fondly known as Yingge or the ‘Dance of the Heroes’ where a large number of dancers would perform in a parade through village streets, and even across hills and valleys. 

Warrior faces are usually painted with menacing expressions
The size of the troupe may vary from 36, 72 to 108 or reduced to just 24 members who would then portray the most prominent heroes from the Water Margins. 

The dance is an energetic show arranged in two parallel rows, with dancers twirling short wooden sticks to the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals, along with segments of singing, dancing and martial arts.  In China, Yingge dancers are welcomed everywhere because it’s believed that places where they have walked would be auspicious forever!

The visiting troupe made several appearances in Johor Baru, beginning with an introduction event held at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk on 11 February.  It began with a dressing-up session where several artistes donned traditional warrior costumes and had their faces intricately painted as a demo of how much effort went into preparing a troupe for a performance.  As the make-up artists worked under the curious eyes of photographers, it became obvious that the faces were deliberately painted with menacing expressions to reflect fierce warrior faces.

Some of the warrior dances with foreign dignitaries
at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
After Tan Tai Chong, President of Johor Baru Teochew Eight Districts Association, welcomed the foreign guests, the Deputy Mayor of Shantou city, Madam Zhao Hong, gave her speech. 

In a simple ribbon-cutting ceremony with representatives of Johor Baru Teochew Eight Districts Association and those from Shantou city including Yang Wei, their 81-year old Heritage Master, the troupe was formally welcomed to Johor Baru.  The guests were then escorted on a tour of an exhibition on Yingge dance inside the Red House, aimed at giving local people more info about this art-form.

Putting on the finishing touches on this warrior face
Through an interview with the troupe captain, Lim Tong Chen by C P Tan, Director of the Teochew Eight Districts Association, the audience learnt more about this dance.  The Yingge performance is divided into many sections with three main sections – the Front, Mid and Rear. 

The Front usually features the most rugged and awe-inspiring heroes from the Water Margins while the Mid section often depicts short stories derived from legends, ancient lifestyles and filial piety.  The Rear section emphasizes heroism and the triumph of good over evil – a common theme throughout the story of the Water Margins.  

The Red House at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage
Walk is an excellent backdrop for cultural events
When the artistes performed a brief but energetic excerpt of the Yingge dance, the audience could anticipate the excitement when the entire troupe turned up in full for the Johor Chingay. 

That night, the troupe went on to perform at Xing Gong, the temporary shrine for the Johor Ku Miao temple deities at Jalan Ulu Ayer Molek, ahead of the Chingay. 

Spectators who caught a glimpse of the lively Yingge dancers around the city were thrilled with their colour and vigour, and as these performances are believed to have auspicious elements that augur well for special occasions, their trek through Johor Baru must have boosted good omens all around!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 23 February 2012

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