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Dear Tanjong Pagar,

I can claim to be the biggest fan of Lai Chun Yuen, the most popular Opera theatre of the early 1900s. Lai Chun Yuen was on Smith Street or hei yuen kai in Cantonese which means Theatre Street. Cantonese Opera was performed twice a day in a 3 levelled shophouse that seated about 834. Many men thronged the theatre, munching snacks and drinking tea while watching the performance. The wealthier patrons would have their own private cubicles.

Ever wondered why Chinese Opera make up is so bold and distinct? It’s simply because the lighting at the time was so poor that the performers needed to enhance their appearance for audiences seated way in the back. Mind you, they didn’t have microphones back then either so they had to project. Guess what, there was one particular actor that was so beautiful and would receive millions of compliments from both men and women. It was only after the makeup was removed that they would see him as he truly was, bearded. That is the magic of makeup and performance! We audiences loved the actors so much, we would sometimes shower them with gifts of money or gold and silver pendants.

Things change… over time motion pictures overtook Chinese Opera and interest in this artform waned. When the war broke out Lai Chun Yuen was partially destroyed. My heart broke. Although post-war renovations were carried out Theatre Street was never quite the same again.

After the war, I worked as a hawker. Eventually, my food business took off and now I am happily retired. Till today I tell opera stories to my grandchildren and they always ask for more.

Singapore is steeped in tradition and these stories must continue to be passed down through the generations so that we never forget our history, our heritage.


Love,

Nutterra
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Toh Chua
Resident at Chinatown circa. 1920s

They perform every day… Yes, different shows every day. I’m not sure, maybe they change every two to three days. Maybe they perform one in the day, and switch to another in the night. They also have this storytelling of an epic show, that starts at twelve noon and ends at 5pm or slightly after 5pm. You can come in to watch at 4.30pm or 4pm, and pay really little. Only see the last part only.

image image image img Kwang Poh
Refreshment Stall Assistant at Lai Chun Yuen circa. 1930s

If you want to learn, the head of the troupe (shifu) has to be willing to take you in. You have to follow him around and when you debut, you have to contribute and pay the master, usually for about three years. You have to work for the master for three years. Only when you have a bit of skill, good skills, then, the master will take you in. The salary is about a few hundred dollars, $100 to $300. It is about $8 – 10 per day. The lead earns annual salary of only $8,000 to $10,000. We have to learn on our own. It is very difficult to reach that level. Out of the many performers, only one can achieve that level. It depends on your masters, your troupe, your support, your luck. It is not easy to be the lead. The master will usually take three years of the salary and give you a bit of allowance.
image image img Chung Wai Lye
Cantonese Opera student circa. 1930s

Q: So at that time, to do an entire show, how many theatre actors are there?
A: It depends on the show. If it is a big production, for example Sam Gok Ji, 40 actors and above is not uncommon. There are some that only need 10 actors.
Q: For the big shows, like Sam Gok Ji, how many musicians are involved?
A: That time we had about 7 to 8 people. Everyone was part time only and were only volunteers, no salary.
Q When you first started learning, for example the first show you acted as a soldier, the usage of the props and movements, did the master teach you?
A: Yes, because I knew nothing when I started, so of course I had to learn from the master. To quote a famous line: yat hiu bat tong - This means I start with zero knowledge, I need the master to teach. Before the first lesson, before the master teaches, he will open Zoi Lam Hui (association) to share what is the story about and what props is for what and how the character is like. I joined, and I was familiar with the story.
Q: So in the Sam Kok story there are scenes when you had to fight, if you didn’t learn or train before, how do you do it?
A: We do learn it before we perform. But of course we only learn the performance fighting skills, not the real fighting skills.