Making Sense of Teochew Opera - origin, history & performance 160 years ago

Teochew opera, or Teochew-hee 潮州戲 –  an amazing synthesis of drama, music, singing, poetics, acrobatics, colourful costumes and folk art, is the highest expression of the Teochew culture. And rightly so, after all it is a show for the deities.

The origin of Teochew opera is obscure. Its oldest scripts found, including hand-written manuscripts of the shows 《正字劉希必金釵記》(dated 1432) and the 《蔡伯皆》(from Ming dynasty Jiajing era 1522-1566) point to its evolution from the nanxi 南戲, or southern drama, a genre of performance combining mime, singing and dance that appeared in the Wenzhou region of Southeast China in the 12th century. Suppressed by Ming gentry-officials who viewed it as vulgar (village vernacular and not literary language was used on stage) and promoting lewd behavior, it existed at the time in far less elaborate form compared to now . However through the patronage of wealthy merchants, the art was able to survive and blossom. The appearance of a repertoire of plays based on local romance and humour, such as ever popular The Mirror And The Lichee 《荔镜记》(better known as Tan Sa  Ngou Nie 《陳三五娘》) sealed its place in the hearts of the Teochew people. By the late Qing dynasty period (1644-1911), there were over 200 performing troupes active in the Teochew region.

Even without being able to understand the storyline, a first time witness of a Teochew opera performance will be spell-bound by its brilliance and sounds, as the testimony of John Scarth, a British merchant visiting Swatow in 1856 shows: 

“There was a grand sing-song or theatrical entertainment going on one day at Masoo. Crowds were admiring the performance; all civil and even polite to us when among them. I was anxious to see behind the scenes of a Chinese theatre, and scrambling up a ladder in the dark, at the back of the pavilion that had been erected for the performance, was at once face to face with the actors in their green-room — a very dirty, dingy place. We were received by a knowing-looking fellow, with his face strangely painted all red, with a blotch of white across the eyes; he gave us a hearty reception in Malay. My companion and kind host, being well acquainted with that language, commenced a conversation with him, and we were standing at ease on the boards of a Chinese stage. The actors had seen me sketching them when I was in front, and were anxious to see the product of my pencil. It was long before I could get my book back ; at last I discovered it in the midst of the band," the leaves being turned over by one man, while the others examined the pictures as they went on with the music.

"True to their usual contrariety, the Chinese have their orchestra at the back instead of the front of the stage. Banging and clashing went the drums and cymbals, making a terrible noise, especially when the striking or fighting scenes were going on; for, in order to give force to the blow, whenever a man was struck, bang went the drum, and another crash of music was given as the victim fell on the ground. It was curious to see the pompous mandarin, in all the glory of satins, silks, and golden ornaments, strutting on the stage, and then on his retiring come hastily over to see what were after. I got crushed up in a corner, and had numerous applicants pushing their strangely-decked heads forward to be sketched, all at the highest pitch of good humour. Here are some of my theatrical friends, and a sketch of their little theatre.  

Teochew Opera Stage - Twelve Years in China

"It was a roughly got—up affair, as the temple was not large enough for a first-rate “sing-song". The actors were really very good in their way, and doubtless had performed in many finer places. The dresses were capital, and the wardrobe extensive. Three performances were given every day for three days in succession, and were in honour of the Mother of Heaven, the presiding saint over the welfare of sailors—the contributors of the entertainment being three merchants, who had just received the returns of a lucky venture. Most of the actors could speak the mandarin dialect. Their heroines were, of course, men, and made very fair specimens of Chinese beauty. On in particular acted remarkably well; and the studied attitudes, even to the position of the fingers, were admirable when seen from the front, but from behind the scenes, or rather, where the scenes should be (for there are none in Chinese theatres), we were let into too many secrets of dress, &c., to give full credit to all the glitter and sentimentality. In one furious scene, where the heroine had been going through a terrific piece of fierce declamation, in a high falsetto, she threw herself (or rather himself), in the height of injured innocence, into a chair, and hiding her face from the spectators, as if in the deepest grief, quietly expelled her quid, invisibly to them, but bringing the sublime too near to the ridiculous as seen from our side of the house."

 As Scarth reported in his travelogue Twelve Years in China, he returned in the second evening after the actors were pelted out from the place he resided when attempting to visit. And as he continued:  

There is no use attempting to describe a Chinese play. Grand dresses, marches, processions, kotowing, fighting, and love-making are jumbled up in inexpressible confusion, The actors, in absence of play-bills, coolly walk forward and proclaim who they are; sometimes even hold up a placard with their title on it; make no difficulties about distance; pretend to get on a horse, no horse being on the stage, and then say, I am now arrived at such a place. Most of the plays relate to old Chinese times, the costumes being almost invariably such as were used prior to the Tartar invasion. Their travelling apparatus is well arranged. The wardrobe and property are all packed in large gaudily painted boxes. The boxes form seats behind the stage, and one I noticed was fitted up for cooking; another as a dressing-stand for washing and painting the face. Some of their faces are most curiously painted to represent demons or some other terrible creatures.

This theatrical performance apparently made a great sensation. The position was beautifully chosen in front of a small temple, surrounded with magnificent banyans stretching widely around, covering a space that might encamp a regiment of cavalry; the fine dark foliage of the trees being relieved by the long, graceful, slender stems of a grand clump of giant bamboos, rearing their tops tar higher than the flagstaff that bore the yellow banners in front of the little joss, house—the yellow contrasting pleasingly with the around. Then there were the little mat sheds, put up as private boxes for the female portion of the spectators. But by far the best of the whole affair were the people and their varied costumes; the sturdy fellows most of them, in turbans of' dark-blue nankeen; and the women in most picturesque dresses, all of the gayest colours.

Contrary to Scarth’s imagination, the actors did not perform in “many finer places”. Although performance of the Teochew opera was now commonplace, their performing arenas were usually stages erected in temple compounds and garden grounds, make-shift platforms raised in public space, or simply in the open air.  This was due to the shows being primarily performed on special occasions for local deities on their birthdays or to express gratitude for blessings received, to show off the wealth of a clan during the performance of ancestral sacrificial rites, or to appease hungry ghosts in the 7th Lunar Month. Entertaining the audiences only became an important consideration with the appearances of permanent theatres at the turn of the 20th century, such as Singapore's Ee Hng (怡園) and Diet Hng (哲園).


 1903 building plan of Diet Hng theatre in Singapore (originally Tien Hor Hng 天湖園). Source: National Archives of Singapore

The evolution of the Teochew opera into a form of mass entertainment however exacerbated a social ill - the sale and enslavement of poor children by performing troupes (to be continued...).


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