Chinese opera is a performing art form rooted in Chinese tradition and staged with stylised actions and elaborate costumes. Music, acting, martial arts and acrobatics are key features across various genres of Chinese opera. Opera performances often draw upon Chinese folklore, history or literature, and showcase aspects of Chinese culture, tradition and philosophy.
Known locally as “wayang” in Malay, Chinese opera was the most popular form of local live entertainment for more than a century in Singapore. Introduced by Chinese migrants in the 19th century, it was often performed at religious festivities in honour of deities such as Ma Zu (goddess and protector of seafarers), Guan Yin (goddess of mercy) and Guan Di (god of war and protector of tradesmen). Presented on makeshift stages, opera performances were often sponsored by temples and clans, and staged for free public viewing.
Between the late 1800s and 1930s, the Chinese opera scene in Singapore was thriving and the 1881 census recorded a total of 240 Chinese opera performers. In fact, Chinese opera became so popular here during its heyday that Singapore was known as the “second homeland of Cantonese opera” outside of Hong Kong and China!
As the popularity of Chinese opera increased, opera houses that could accommodate hundreds of patrons were built in Chinatown to stage shows on a daily basis. Established in 1887 along Smith Street, Lai Chun Yuen was the first opera house dedicated to Cantonese opera and staged performances twice a day. Other notable opera houses include Heng Seng Peng and Heng Wai Sun at Wayang Street (today’s Eu Tong Sen Street).
Another well-known venue is Tien Yien Moi Toi Theatre (former Majestic Theatre), built in 1927 by tycoon Eu Tong Sen, reportedly for his wife who was an avid opera fan. In the early years of its inception, it attracted glamorous opera stars from China before it was converted into a cinema in 1938.
In the early 20th century, Chinese teahouses were also popular venues for opera performances. The teahouse at Great Southern Hotel, colloquially known as Nam Tin, drew crowds with regular qingchang (Mandarin for “pure singing”) performances which involve solo or group renditions of operatic excerpts accompanied by a small group of musicians.