Family takes centre stage

Report and pictures by: 
Gary Goh
Video by: 
Gary Goh

Vibrant colours in a small corner of a dark carpark draw the eye. A smattering of red plastic chairs stand before banners and a backcloth with bright yellow, blue and red designs. Not all seats are taken.

Behind the cloth, the air is filled with chatter in fluent Teochew and the frantic energy of rapid costume changes. Behind this makeshift stage tucked away near a heartland temple, a traditional Teochew opera troupe is preparing for its show.

As the singers of Xing Ye Li Heng Opera Troupe paint their faces and change into their outfits, troupe leader Tina Quek, 44, makes sure everything is in place so that the show can start on time. For Mdm Quek, the opera is a family affair. Her husband, Mr Ang Chee Bok, 52, helps to shift stage props.

Noticing her daughter, Christine Ang, 15, at the make-up table, Ms Quek barks in Teochew: “Ah Hao and Ah Li, go get changed!” She is referring to her sons, Ang Wei Hao, 12, and Ang Wei Li, nine. All her children are set to perform.

In the world of Teochew opera, where many of the singers are now senior citizens with years of experience, Mdm Quek’s three children are a rare sight. Despite their young age, the trio speak Teochew well and have no problems conversing in the dialect the whole night — on and off the stage. Their fluency in the dialect allows them to play key characters. This is especially so for Christine, who performed several lead scenes during the two nights this reporter followed the troupe.

Often, the audience is sparse, but that does not stop the young singers from taking their roles seriously. Christine says: “Even if no one comes for our shows, I feel obligated to perform properly because the temple deities will be there to watch. “If I don’t do my best, they would be offended.”

For Mdm Quek, running an opera troupe full-time while raising her family is a challenge, both physically and financially. The troupe used to be led by Mdm Quek’s mother. When she died seven years ago, Mdm Quek took charge with the contacts her parents had left behind. But it was not a sudden plunge into the world of Teochew opera for her. She started learning the ropes from her mother at the age of eight.

More than three decades later, the entire troupe – many of whom are regulars – has become her extended family. As an opera matriarch, she works long, tiring hours, single-handedly co-ordinating everything from the singers’ wages to the building of the stage. Because it is too troublesome to move the entire operation every night, she even sleeps backstage on the nights between performances, keeping an eye on the equipment.

She depends on the meagre budget by temples to run the troupe and supplement her lorry driver husband’s income. There are just a handful of opera troupes plying the local circuit, and Mdm Quek believes hers is the only one where the entire family performs. But she is apprehensive about passing the troupe baton to her children. “Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s a silly thing for my kids to join me. I don’t know if I’m doing more harm than good by letting them be in the troupe, rather than learning a conventional, practical skill.”

Mdm Quek hopes Teochew opera will see a return to its more glorious days, when it was appreciated as an art by a wider audience. “Back in its heyday, decades ago, I even performed at birthday parties at hotels. “But today, apart from my kids, most of the other singers are in their 60s. If my kids do not continue performing, this trade will be lost entirely,” she says.

The article related to these pictures was first published in The New Paper on Sunday on January 5, 2014.