The Digital Journalist
Wail of the Wayang

by Lester V. Ledesma

Once the top entertainers of colonial-era Singapore, the wayang, or Chinese street opera performers, are slowly becoming a dying breed.

In the dim glow of a solitary light bulb, I watch Yap Chor Kiang slowly change from an ordinary woman into a legend. Sitting on a wooden stool with her hair pulled back, she studies her features in a small mirror. Nearby, an array of palettes and colored bottles lie on a paint-splattered table. With a brush and the practiced efficiency of a craftsman she begins the process: a coat of white is rubbed on her face, followed by a mask of crimson on the forehead, a tint of red on the lips and cheeks, and a daub of black over her eyelids. This exotic form of self-adornment goes on for an hour before the actor puts on the rest of her costume: a brilliant headdress of gilded sequins and wire, and a yellow silk gown, resplendent in the delicate patterns of old China. An assistant ties a sash around her waist and the transformation is complete. Yap Chor Kiang is no longer herself - tonight she is Xuan Zhong, empress of China.

Ng Soh Moi of the Golden Eagle Wayang Troupe prepares for the evening's show with a coat of bright-colored face paint - a necessity for Chinese opera, which relies on bold colors and elaborate costumes to communicate their stories to the audience.

Lester V. Ledesma / Skylight Images
I look around to the cramped confines of this room - the backstage of a makeshift theatre in the middle of an empty field - where a flurry of pre-show activity is at its most hectic pace. To one side, more actors are busy slipping into their roles, some rubbing in the last touches of makeup, others quietly muttering lines from dog-eared manuscripts. Nearby, stagehands are securing ropes to layers of background scenery, or pulling out colorful costumes from big, musty unmarked boxes. Everywhere there is the sound of instruments screeching out their warm-up chords. It is the 7th lunar month, the date of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts in Singapore, a busy time of the year for Chor Kiang and her colleagues in the Golden Eagle Opera Troupe. This is literally their peak season, the coming four weeks booked with a nightly schedule of performances. In a city known for its obsession with modernity, however, theirs is a profession that seems hopelessly outdated. Chor Kiang and her kind, you see, are wayang performers - disciples of the art of Chinese theater.

One way or another we've seen their painted faces before - on postcards, magazines, TV specials or tourist brochures. Chinese opera is one of the most ancient forms of theatre in the world, its practice dating back to almost a thousand years in China. Although its exact origins are rather obscure, its artistic and cultural influences are believed to be even older, perhaps harking to the Xia Dynasty period some 4,000 years ago, when slaves were forced to sing and dance for their masters. Here in Singapore it made its first appearance in the mid-1800s, thanks to the thousands of Chinese immigrants who arrived on these shores.

Not surprisingly, this oriental opera became popular throughout the then-British colony, attracting huge crowds wherever a performance was organized. Theatre artists were regarded as celebrities, their names advertised in brightly-colored banners as come-ons to throngs of adoring fans. So ingrained in the local culture was Chinese opera that it became synonymous with entertainment - the word "wayang," in fact, means "show" in the native Malay language, a compliment to its proud status as the king of the performing arts.

Cozy as can be within the cramped confines of her makeshift dresser, a wayang grabs a few minutes of sleep before her next appearance. The backstage of a typical Chinese street theater is a jumble of boxes offering little or no privacy.

Lester Ledesma/Skylight Images
This age of Chinese "pop-opera," though, did not last long. Competition from television and cinema in the Fifties proved too much for the wayang to handle, gradually eroding people's interest in the art. Sadly, in today's era of MTV and video games, the skills of the street theatre actor now seem regarded as more tradition than entertainment. Occasionally though - as in the Hungry Ghosts Festival - they become a necessity, their ancient skills called upon to entertain the spirits who are said to roam the earth at this time of the year.

Back at the stage, the performance is just about to begin. Chor Kiang steals a glance through the curtains at the audience waiting outside. I notice a slight frown on her painted lips.

"Few people as usual," she quips. "These days it's only the old ones who are interested in watching Chinese opera."

The play begins in an earsplitting clash of cymbals, pipes and strings. I go out front to see the spectacle unfold, careful not to sit on the empty front-row seats - these, I am told, are reserved for the roaming spirits. One by one the characters appear, dressed in their elaborate gowns and makeup, bellowing their dialogues in strong, stylized voices. Occasionally the lines would turn into songs, accompanied by the shrill notes of traditional instruments.

To a Filipino like me who has had little contact with Chinese performances, it is a heady dose of sights and sounds. While my ears are ringing from the auditory pounding, my eyes are feasting on the gorgeous tableau of colors and costumes. True to the needs of theatre, these visual cues are used to clearly define the characters on stage. A full white face, for example, denotes an evil or treacherous personality, while a red face suggests courage and righteousness in a protagonist. Yellow gowns, on the other hand, are reserved for royalty, while green costumes are only for the virtuous characters. Despite my being unable to understand the language (Chinese opera in Singapore is often performed in the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese dialects), I am drawn to the subtlety of the actors' movements; how their eyes roll with their facial expressions, and at the way their bodies move with studied elegance. Each wave of the hand and tilt of the head, it seems, adds to the richness of the dialogue.

Two hours later I witness the final act. Guided by the cymbals and the gongs, the main characters engage in a climactic battle. I watch their fluid motions of equal parts kung-fu and dance, their swords and staffs flaring in the floodlights. The action is quick and graceful, and oddly reminiscent of those Hong Kong martial arts films. Perhaps in more ways than one, Chinese opera is still present in popular entertainment.

These days, wayang performances are attended by a dwindling, aging audience - a far cry from its heyday in the 1950s when Chinese street opera played to huge crowds of adoring fans.

Lester Ledesma / Skylight Images
The sparse audience gives little applause as the curtain falls - a far cry from the time when viewers jostled each other for the tiniest bit of viewing space. Later on backstage, Chor Kiang confides to me her fears about the future of her art.

"Our troupe might close down in a few years," she reveals. "The owner is getting old and nobody wants to take over his job."

Unlike before there is little money in this business, she admits, and it is only her love for Chinese opera that has kept her here for the last 15 years. Whereas kids in Singapore once aspired to be wayangs, today their art is in danger of dying out.

I ask the actress what happens next if the Golden Eagle Troupe does close down. She shrugs and looks away, tears welling in her eyes.

"I try not to think about it," Chor Kiang admits. "I don't know what happens next."

© Lester V. Ledesma
Skylight Images

When he's not shooting the "wayang" during Taoist gods' birthdays or Hungry Ghosts month, Singapore-based writer-photographer Lester V. Ledesma travels the world in search of stories and photographs for numerous editorial and commercial clients. He is an ASEANTA awardee for Excellence in Photography, and a former Kalakbay Travel Writer of the Year in his home country, the Philippines. His work has been exhibited in China, Brunei, Manila and Singapore, and can be found online at