Art of traditional Teochew entertainment

To celebrate the birthday of the Teochew deity, Yuan Tian Shang Di or Tuah Lau Yiah on the third day of the third lunar month, the Teochew community in Johor Baru celebrated an annual tradition in the theme, chiak muay thoi hee, a phrase in Teochew dialect that literally means, “Eating Teochew porridge while watching a show.”  

Chinese puppets dressed in traditional
costumes as bride and groom
This event coincided with an exciting exhibition on the art of traditional Teochew entertainment at the Classic Accents Art House, a gallery dedicated to the preservation of aural heritage.

The Classic Accents Art House is a collaboration of Eh He and popular RTM Ai FM Chinese radio personality and performing artiste, Chong Keat Aun.  While Chong is Cantonese, he is fluent in Teochew, a dialect he learnt from his grandmother when he was exposed to Teochew opera and the art of stage makeup from an early age.  Aware that more and more Chinese dialects are being lost with the passing of elderly folks, Chong embarked on a project to collect sounds, mainly in traditional music, to curate for posterity.

For a peek into the art of traditional Teochew entertainment in then Malaya, visit the gallery where you may experience some of the earliest Teochew operas that gradually developed into modern operas.  Various audio exhibits are created for visitors to listen to excerpts from popular shows and vinyl records by artistes of that era.  A fascinating feature of this form of traditional music is the trend where women would play the roles of men with great success and popularity!

Exhibit of Teochew opera lyric books and wooden
carvings dismantled from the family's "home theatre"
When Chinese who originated from Kwangtung, Kwangxi and Teochew districts of Canton province migrated to Nanyang in the mid 19th century, they also brought along their culture and entertainment.  The Chinese referred to the region south of mainland China as Nanyang or South-east Asian nations like Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and then Malaya.  

One of the exhibits of a rare collection of Teochew opera lyric books discovered in Pulau Ketam in 2009 comprised opera scripts and lyrics and some carvings that used to decorate the family’s “home theatre” in Shantou, China, that were dismantled to bring along to a new and unfamiliar land.

Publicity for coming opera shows and films
was in the form of one-colour printed flyers
The family, who gave the books and carvings to Chong, told him that they belonged to their grandmother – a daughter from a wealthy family – who thought that Nanyang was an uncultured land and had to bring her lyric books as well as the carvings as mementoes from her former life.  Chong said the family matriarch was aged 78 when they met so these artifacts should date more than 100 years old.  He said the carvings depicted scenes from popular Teochew operas that are quite unidentifiable now because the details have been eroded with time.

Wherever they settled, immigrants known as sin kek or “new guests” in their adopted countries, created a new life for themselves.  They would build temples, usually with an adjacent stage, where opera shows were performed for their entertainment on temple festivals.  After World War II, traditional stage performances moved away from temples into shows that were performed in amusement parks like Singapore’s Great World and New World Amusement Parks.

Historically, Teochew opera drew a great deal of inspiration from the development of Cantonese opera that continued to advance in Hong Kong.  In the 1950s, Cantonese and Teochew operas, that used to be only performed on stage, started to be filmed and screened in theatres as film shows.  In those days, publicity for a coming opera show or film was in the form of one-colour printed flyers, distributed to homes and around town.

This unique contraption was designed for travelling actors
as a mobile wardrobe-dressing table
The exhibits include opera costumes, musical instruments used for Teochew operas and a typical opera stage complete with a painted cloth backdrop, and one table and two chairs while the backstage exhibit is a wooden trunk that dates back to the 1930s.  

This unique contraption was designed with a special chest of drawers for travelling actors as a mobile wardrobe-dressing table and personal space where he or she would eat and dress up for the show.  There is also an interesting exhibit on the art of Teochew opera by puppets loaned from a family skilled in Teochew opera and puppetry in the Teochew Puppet and Opera House, Georgetown.

The Classic Accents Art House is located within Eh He – Earth Heart, at No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, Jalan Trus, Johor Baru.  Open daily from 11am to 10pm.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 20 May 2015

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