The Lost Art of Chinese OperaWritten by Daniel L
Actor Nick Shen is on a quest to bring back a centuries-old art form with Tok Tok Chiang, a theatre troupe promoting Chinese opera to a new generation in Singapore.
Chinese opera may have lost its shine in Asia, but there are some out to save it. Winner of the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World in 2014, the actor Nick Shen and his team at Tok Tok Chiang hope to reinvigorate a national interest in this ancient form of entertainment, reinterpreting it for a younger audience with clever tweaks and plenty of passion.
Just as the West have theatre, the Chinese have traditional opera. Involving elaborate face-paint, colourful costumes, exaggerated dance moves and distinct music made by Chinese instruments like the erhu, this distinctive form of entertainment has been enjoyed by generations over centuries. Sadly, its popularity has dwindled. Millennials struggle to relate to the stories it tells, typically in traditional Chinese dialects, and it’s not just the audience who are lukewarm towards this form of theatre today. An opera performer usually makes under SG$80 for a day’s work, with a huge portion of those earnings spent on logistics costs. This means troupes are rarely profitable and often lack the funds to foster new talent.
But there’s hope yet. Nick Shen, a high profile Singaporean actor with a background in TV and film has put his on-screen career on hold to focus on reviving Chinese opera. Having been influenced by his grandmother who would routinely read him scripts at bedtime, he has lived and breathed the art form for most of his life. “I started performing at 13, playing small roles in street opera troupes,” he fondly recalls.
The acting bug led him to pursue a career in showbiz where he made a name for himself acting in local dramas and feature films for over a decade. In 2011, however, he returned to his roots. “I was encouraged by my friends to pursue my dreams and turn my passion for Chinese opera into a purpose,” he explains. “I decided to establish Tok Tok Chiang as a platform to promote it.”
Changing the perception of Chinese opera is no easy task, given its present-day reputation. The level of patience and perseverance needed to turn things around proved to be daunting. But if there’s one thing that’s motivated Nick, it’s the tenacity of the veteran performers he knows. “They live by the mantra ‘do it with passion or not at all’. Many of them are in their sixties and above, and still give their best whenever they’re on stage.” A case in point would be his mentor, seventy-five-year-old Cantonese opera teacher Woo Wai Fong, and a woman still imparting her skills to those keen to pick them up.
Inspired by performers both past and present, Nick brings new appeal to the ancient art by incorporating both Chinese and English and inserting magic tricks into the performance. “This ties back to our efforts in repositioning Chinese opera and culture, changing perspectives and renewing interest in the audience, especially for the majority of the younger generation who can’t understand the scripts and dialogues. These new elements are the best way to arouse their interests”.
Through Tok Tok Chiang, his team has performed at Esplanade, Singapore’s national performing arts centre. Nick has also sought out new performing opportunities, heading to Toyama, Japan, last year to perform as part of a cultural exchange programme. On the outreach front, he’s also conducted workshops for educational institutions from pre-schools to universities as part of his effort to keep the art alive.
This effort has clearly paid off. Today, the Singapore government is lending a hand by offering funding for the development of arts and culture, and mainstream media is reintroducing dialects to local television shows. Even younger Singaporeans are showing interest in learning dialects, and Nick himself is teaming up with several directors and producers to create a movie and TV series centred on Chinese opera. He also plans to develop specialised courses to groom young talents who are keen on pursuing it as a career.
For Nick, life has come full circle. “The confidence level, stage presence, poise, public speaking skills and most importantly, the network and human relationships that I’ve built in the span of my acting career, have definitely equipped me with the the necessary skill sets and resources that I can apply to being both an entrepreneur and an opera performer.” The stage is set for Chinese opera to make a triumphant return, and Nick firmly believes that with a greater combined effort from society, it is on the right path back to its well-deserved spotlight.
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