Chinese Street Opera in Singapore
By Tong Soon Lee. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, January 2009. Cloth:
ISBN 978-0252032462, $40. 232 pages.
Review by Justin Patch, University of Texas, Austin
The small city-state of Singapore is both politically and culturally unique in South Asia. It has a history as the trade gateway between South East and East Asia before and throughout its colonial period, and as such has long been a cosmopolitan site. Following its independence from colonial power Great Britain, Singapore was briefly part of Malaysia before seceding and becoming autonomous. This then began an ongoing nation-building process which has been heavily influenced by the drive to be a modern nation by Western definition and affective ex-patriot ties to China. This situation is unique among recent post-colonial movements because it combines separation from a colonizing nation with explicit affective and cultural ties to a kind of “parent nation.” Singapore’s continuing transformation bears the marks of its racial makeup of an ethnically Chinese majority (75% in 2005), followed by Indian, Malay, and European minorities, and includes struggles over language, political power, public culture, and artistic expression.
Tong Soon Lee takes up the pivotal role of Chinese Street Opera, a performance practice that has existed in Singapore since at least the mid-19th century, in the complex development of Singaporean modernity. His monograph, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, focuses on two different, competing performance traditions: that of professionals and that of amateur groups or clubs. These two practices vary greatly in performance practice, context, and social discourse. In Singapore’s post-colonial modernizing process, professional opera has progressively withered, with the exception of specifically patronized temple performances around religious holidays, while amateur opera proliferated and has become a signifier of Singapore-ness as well as a state-sponsored cultural and tourist activity. Much of this owes to the social position of performers of both traditions – professionals being poorly educated and of a low class, and amateurs being middle- to upper-class and well educated – and to Confucian aesthetics, which place value on arts performed for personal development and communal edification. These aesthetics dovetail with the Singaporean government’s ideal of citizenship – well-educated, altruistic, cultured, and with a sense of history. In this case, Chinese opera -- even when modified to accommodate modern Singaporean populations, like stories from the Ramayana and English recitative, as is sometimes the case with modern performances -- is representative of high and profound artistic tradition. This resonance has resulted in government-funded opportunities for amateur troops to perform for their communities and tourists and provided them with state recognition. It has effectively sidelined professional performers, reinforced their low status, and closed off important venues for transcending their low social class.
The book begins with a brief history of Singapore and Chinese emigration, as well as an overview of Chinese operatic style and development, with particular attention paid to Fujian and Chouzhou, the two dominant styles in Singapore. It then moves on to describe the histories of both professional opera and amateur performances through the myriad social transformations that Singapore has gone through over the past century and a half. Lee also includes brief ethnographic sections, an in-depth analysis of the impact of Confucian aesthetics on Singaporean Opera performance discourse, and the most social theory-laden chapter in the book, which is the conclusion. Organized into six short chapters and written in narrative style, Street Opera presents both a good thumbnail overview of the music culture of opera as well as in-depth looks at recent developments in the two genres and changing performance practice and discourse.
This particular book’s most important contribution to the field of study is the excellent chapter on the impact of Confucian aesthetics. Lee lucidly summarizes Confucian teachings on self-improvement, the value of altruistic and avocational artistic pursuits, and the links between the social organization of Chinese clan associations and their modern incarnation as amateur opera groups. The growth of these clubs also coincides with the massive economic growth experienced by Singapore in the decades after independence. With increased prosperity, patronage of amateur troops in the form of subscriptions and donations grew, enabling the staging of elaborate and ornate shows. Even though the talent of the hobbyists could not rival that of professional troupes, may of whom have trained full-time since late childhood for operatic performance (this is the primary reason for their poor education), these productions have gained a privileged place in social life because of their appeal to Confucian aesthetics, which were adopted by the state. By these aesthetics, art and artistic involvement is best done as a serious hobby, art for contemplation and its altruistic display for the greater public good. Art and performance that is aimed at the open market and done for profit is deemed less worthy, as are its practitioners who must compromise artistic pursuit for popular appeal. As a result, these groups are seen to embody the ideal Singaporean.
While the book is an enjoyable read and historically well-researched, there are a few holes that leave relevant considerations untouched. Lee leaves the public hegemony of ex-patriot Chinese culture unquestioned in regard to minority populations. Although he gives ample reason as to why amateur opera and its Confucian ideals appeal to the state, he does not interrogate the blanketing of Singaporean citizenship in what are essentially imported values that are openly associated with China or the appropriations of Western notions of citizenship. He also does not provide detailed description of the types of amalgamations that occur and the cultural politics of these hybrid forms and appropriations, especially in relation to the incorporation of Hindu lore into Chinese opera, the thought of which is extremely interesting. The structure of the book is also unexpected, as the theory chapter is saved for last. While this does leave room for the reader to process the given information first before encountering Lee’s conclusions, it leaves the frame of the book, especially the relevance of tourism in the creation of national identity, vague. However, for a student of the de- and re-territorialization of Chinese culture, both in performance and philosophically, and of Singaporean nationalism, this book is extremely relevant and accessible to non-musicians.