Making Sense of Teochew Opera: From Makeshift Stages to the Silver Screen

Many Teochew families grimly recall the years when China was under the rule of Mao Zedong. The overhaul of land ownership, persecution of landlords and merchants, ideological emphasis on class struggle, pursue of collectivisation in the rural areas, promotion of chauvinistic nationalism and destruction of cultural relics linked to the "feudal" past, demolished the institutions of business enterprise and extended family relations that were the very pillars of the Teochew society. Yet when the Communists first came into power in 1949, their soldiers were cheered on in Swatow, like many other Chinese cities, by masses hopeful of a new beginning to liberate them from the pains of wars, political strife, hyperinflation and social oppression. And for a number of years the dream of a new China did not appear far.

For many Teochew opera performers at that time liberation took a deep personal meaning. The enactment of laws prohibiting child-selling abolished the adolescent-actor system that chained them to bondage and paved the way for them to continue their acting careers well into adulthood. A push for mass literacy also opened their eyes to the meaning of lines that they had all along memorised and sung without comprehension. 


Teochew actors being received by then-China Premier Zhou Enlai after a performance in Beijing in 1959


A spirit of change further inspired bold revisions to the old play scripts and re-organisation of the troupes under the auspice of the provincial government. All these lifted performances to unprecedented levels of maturity that were affirmed when leading Teochew opera performers were twice invited in the late 1950s to perform before leaders of the state in the national capital Beijing. For actors used to earning meagre livings since childhood on makeshift stages by the street, the recognition marked a change that could not be more dramatic.

The demise of old art forms following the appearance of new technology is now an all familiar story. However when a Hong Kong company made a novel experiment to produce the classical Teochew opera play “Fire at the Riverside Pavilion”《火燒臨江樓》in cinematic form in 1958, the magic of the silver screen instantly ignited the imagination of audiences in Swatow, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok. Movie theatres were packed by excited crowds eager to hear the familiar sounds of the Teochew language in a modern setting. The show's phenomenal success swiftly prompted the production of numerous follow-up titles both in Hong Kong and China.

Not unlike modern Korean TV dramas, the most popular films such as “Fire at the Riverside Pavilion”, Sou Lak Nie 《 蘇六娘》 and  Tan Sa Ngou Nie 《 陳三五娘, were centred on the theme of forbidden romance, albeit between poor scholars and ladies of high birth. Their catchy tunes could be heard being hummed or played by enthralled youths on every street and in every corner where Teochew people were congregated. 

Teochew opera was now seen as trendy again and its impact was not confined to the box office. Only decades before, the appearance of  a snob form of scholastic opera/music known as Gua Kang Hee (Waijiang Xi 外江戲, literally “entertainment from beyond the river”) in the elite social circles had suffered it to be seen as low class street entertainment for the poor. But now the table was reversed, and it was not long before the Gua Kang Hee orchestras were forced to align themselves with the craze.

The Sing Hua Movie Theatre 汕頭新華電影院 in Swatow in the 1950s, once a landmark of the city but now torn-down.


It is said that in the space of less than ten years, over 150 Teochew opera movies were produced. Sadly the boom came to an abrupt end in the late 1960s after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution broke in China. Open performances in the country were banned, and the few troupes not ordered to disband were directed to stage only ideologically-correct “model dramas”. Severed from its supply of actors/actress, producers and scriptwriters, the Hong Kong production companies had only to cease their operations.

The re-opening of China's doors to the world in the 1980s briefly revived the production of Teochew opera movies, but the industry never returned to its once dizzy heights as the enthusiasm of the fans, especially those overseas, could not be sustained. In the age of video-tapes and later VCDs, cinema itself was struggling to avoid becoming passé.

Yet a tradition that has found its place in the hearts of people never fades, as a search on YouTube for Teochew operas will quickly show.


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