Penang's Cina Wayang (Chinese opera) – for Gods and ghosts

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Growing up in Ayer Itam in the 70s was so much fun. Living near the wet market was even better since you could buy food easily any time of the day. Back then, we would bring our own tiffin carriers, even supply our own eggs to the char koay kak lady or Pak Dollah, the mee goreng uncle. Ah Heng, the rojak man, parked his cart in front of my house. He would string halved green mangoes on a lidi (coconut leaf) stick and top them with rojak sauce and crushed peanuts. Another favourite of mine was the sliced bangkwang (turnip), also topped with rojak sauce and crushed peanuts. Ah Heng eventually gave up the rojak business and sold koay teow thng. Everybody knew everybody back then. News even travelled faster than a speeding bullet. Before I could reach home, my mum would have known what I was up to. Mind you, that was when my house did not even have a telephone.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Nowadays, Chinese opera shows are few and far between, save for a few staged during the Hungry Ghost Festival or some celebrations like a deity’s birthday. Back then, it was more frequent and the atmosphere was totally different. There was a vibrant carnival air to it with the availability of plenty of food and petty trader stalls. It was a blast for kids. They could try their luck at tikam (pay and select a ticket on a board with a prize written within), enjoy ice cream potong sandwiched between two wafer biscuits, spin a wheel and win something, savour freshly grilled roti bak kwa and more. There would be a huge turnout and some would even bring their own stools to watch classic Teochew opera stories came to life right before their very eyes.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

My brothers, sisters and I only had to cross one road right in front of our house and walk along a little alley that led to an open area to watch the performances. I was simply mesmerised by the elaborate costumes adorned with auspicious creatures like dragons and phoenixes, glittering headdresses and dramatic music. We watched transfixed as the performers took us through an intricate web of murder, sword fights and love. Each of them, dolled-up with heavy make-up, gave the performance of their lives.

Every change of scenery was done by a pulley system that rolled down sumptuous hand-painted landscapes or interiors of a courtyard.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

A small band of musicians, partly hidden at the wings of the makeshift stage, provided the theatrical soundtrack to the opera. Traditional musical instruments such as gaohu, erhu, yehu, pipa, dizi, gongs and cymbals gave the Chinese opera its distinctive sound. The stage itself shone like a beacon in the dark, brightly lit by fluorescent tubes and spot lights.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Ironically, I fell in love with the Chinese opera although I could not understand a single word the performers were saying. I tried hard but could only sum up each story through their facial expressions and gestures. The male figures, with their long beards, had low growling tones. The female characters had high pitched voices and spoke in a melodic tune. Some had white silk extensions attached to the sleeves of the garments which amplified their emotions by the way they flung their hands. Such a dramatic statement when all hope is lost, the heroine would fling her hand up in the air only to collapse to the ground in anguish. I would practise this at home, tying my father's white handkerchiefs to my wrists and imitating their gestures. It was like poetry in motion to me but my parents would not have any of that. Deemed silly, they would draw out the cane and that was the end of my operatic pursuits.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Revisiting the Chinese opera again this year, I armed myself with a camera to document its world at the open grounds near Universiti Sains Malaysia along Jalan Bukit Gambir. Apart from three other photographers who were there, there was but only one elderly man in the audience! Imagine that, only one! Gone are the days when such staging would have brought local communities together, a chance for them to gossip and foster stronger ties while enjoying live performances. Sadly, locals today are more invested in their Netflix programmes and are shackled by the comforts of their own home. Thank heavens, the gods and ghosts were privy to a brilliant performance.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Being there early, I managed to capture their dramatic transformation of the performers into either opera beauty or villain. Exaggerated designs were painted on their faces to symbolise a character's personality, role and fate. Certain colours were used to denote certain attributes – a red face represented loyalty and bravery; a black face, courage; white or yellow faces, duplicity and usually representing the villain and golden or silver faces, mystery.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

Besides colour, lines also functioned as symbols. For example, a face could be painted either all white or just around the nose. The larger the white area painted, the more diabolic the role. Watching how make-up was applied was awe-inspiring. The skill and level of detail involved were uncanny. Even bunches of real hair were plastered onto hair fringes and sideburns. When the transformation was complete, it was nothing short of resplendent.

This passionate opera troupe was from Thailand and the members were such interesting people to photograph. They pitched their humble tents in the grounds the temple that they were performing. They were welcoming and exuded a distinct sense of camaraderie among fellow members. I observed and appreciated their passion for the dying art and their hard work in preserving it.

Chinese opera © Adrian Cheah

I felt privileged to have been there, as well as saddened by the fact that this traditional artform is not receiving much local attention or support.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
16 August 2019