Everyone Loves a Good Storyteller - We Teochews Especially

Ng Chia Keng (黃正經literally meaning “Decent Ng” a play on the expression 唔正經 m-tsia-geng, meaning “improper”) was a household name amongst the Teochew communities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong from the 1940s to the early 1980s. Several times a week adults and even children glued themselves to their radio sets at homes and in workplaces to listen to the broadcast of his speeches. But the man whose real name was Ng Yong Khern (黄庸根) was neither a political figure nor a wealthy community leader. He was a storyteller.

Ng Chia Keng was known for his wit, intellect and eloquence, the very qualities that earned other storytellers like him the adoration of many generations of the Teochew people. As in every culture, the telling of stories must have been from the very beginning part of communal life in the Teochew society, taking place in the imparting of knowledge of the past and teaching of social mores and values from family elders to the young in the paddy fields, and from teachers to students under the shade of a tree. However the act of Gang-gou (講古 – “talking about the old”) – as story-telling is referred in the Teochew language, changed dramatically with the emergence after the 14th century of vernacular Chinese literature, such as full-length novels like Water Margin, Romance of Three Kingdom, and Journey to the West.  The sort-after storyteller now not only had to be a captivating orator, but required also to be well-versed in literature and able to translate highbrow expressions into the vernacular of the illiterate common folk.

By the mid-Qing era (1644-1911) men of learning in the Teochew region were seen in open spaces beside temple grounds competing with Teochew opera performers for the attention of crowds that had gathered during festivals. Because of its popularity, the activity gradually became a means of livelihood for not a small number of destitute scholars who were unsuccessful in the civil examinations. In the first half of the 20th century stalls set up by these “professional” storytellers were a common sight in the main temples and public parks of the cities and towns. During the day as well as night, these storytellers with a novel in hand drew the crowds with their booming voices and body gestures. The people gathered were said to be in the hundreds, and wherever the most popular storytellers were set up, there was a following of street food sellers as well.

Word by word, sentence by sentence the storytellers built the stories towards a climax, only to pause at the critical moment.  This was when the hat was passed around for listeners, snapped out of their hypnosis, to reach into their pockets before the storyteller continued. Those who sat on seats provided were obliged to contribute, although the amount depended entirely on how much he chose to give. Bystanders, many being the elderly and menial labourers, were allowed to listen for free for the storytellers did not mind. In those days money was not everything. The situation was similar in Singapore where Ng Chia Keng lived, except that the storytellers usually conducted their sessions only in the evening, and collected money between fixed intervals marked by the burning of an incense stick.

Night after night the men came despite after a day of hard work to huddle to catch what were those days the latest episodes of modern television serials. But what they came for was more than just passing of time, meeting of old friends or hearing a familiar voice. The tales that storytellers told were from Teochew folklores, Chinese classics and martial arts novels, which often centred on the themes of righteousness, heroism and social justice. For the majority of the audience from the working class, the storytellers were the narrators of their own inner aspirations.

Ng Chia Keng (back row, third from left) with trainees of Tong Iong Teochew Amateur Broadcast Team (中庸潮語業餘廣播隊) that he formed in 1960.

The intense intellectual and emotional engagement between a Teochew storyteller and his followings can be seen in the special relationship between Ng Chia Keng and his listeners. Though as a radio storyteller he did not enjoy the close-up interaction with the crowds others in the profession did, he related of how once a listener wrote to the press demanding the cancellation of his talk-show because he was “disrespectful” in making a joke out of the men of wealth who in the past purchased offices from the Qing dynasty, but was immediately opposed by a flood of letters sent from different countries to the radio station. In another example of his listeners’ affection for him related in an interview after his retirement, Ng Chia Keng recalled placing an advertisement looking for a room to rent, and received within two to three days more than 70 letters from fellow Teochews in Singapore welcoming him to rent their rooms, including one that offered to build a new room for him.

The golden age of open air storytelling drew to a close in the 1960s – in China as a result of the Cultural Revolution and in Southeast Asia the popularisation of the cinema and the advent of television. However the curtains did not fall on Gang-gou. Just as Ng Chia Keng’s radio shows were halted in 1982 when the Singapore government decreed a ban on the use of Chinese “dialects” in public media, reformation in China gave the art a new lease of life. Performers who made their names on the streets in the past, such as Tan Si Boon (陳四文) and Heng Mieng (王敏), were invited by the Swatow radio and television to record their readings for broadcast, and their programmes became staple entertainment for both old and young, as Ng Chia Keng’s did.


Video: a cartoon short story narrated by Master Tan Si Boon, of how a daughter-in-law won her father-in-law's favour by avoiding the words "dog" (狗) and "nine" () (both with the sound "gau") because of his nickname Ah-gau (亞狗)

Many of the veteran Teochew storytellers have passed away in recent years. At least in the Teochew region the baton is now in the hands of a new generation of performers, who know that making a living from Gang-gou is no longer realistic, but are motivated by the continuing sounds of applause. After all, everyone loves a good storyteller.

You may also be interested in:

Teochew nursery rhymes read by Ng Chia Keng (you are be re-directed to the National Archives of Singapore [NAS] website): part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; and part 5

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