Devoted to a Dying Art


The Sin Yong Hua Heng opera company has come to the neighborhood to perform traditional Chinese opera for three nights.

An audience of 15 has gathered. Mirroring the state of this dying art, they are mostly old people for whom the operas still have meaning.

By nightfall, the stage, set up on a rickety wooden platform, is dressed in warm lights and gaudy paint. The dozen or so veteran performers are backstage applying the elaborate makeup traditional to Chinese opera. Some characters take nearly an hour to come to life.

By the time a small band starts playing music over the loudspeakers, the performers have said hasty prayers in front of the small backstage shrine and are ready to sing and act.


Members of the audience stand, or borrow folding chairs from a nearby collection of food stalls.

Tan Khar Luang is a 25-year veteran of Chinese opera who performs in the company with her four sisters, plus other relatives and friends.

As a younger generation has become accustomed to pop music and karaoke disc jockeys, opera companies are finding audiences hard to come by.

Ten years ago, Tan says, there were nearly a dozen small opera companies working in Singapore. Now, the Sin Yong Hua Heng is one of three companies remaining, she says.

The old costumes are fraying. Even with the care lavished on them, they increasingly need the magic of stage lighting to give them the grand appearance of their youth.

About halfway into the 3 1/2-hour performance, the nasal singing of the opera is overwhelmed by a louder, brasher sound. A temple society down the road is having an auction and raffle, and the auctioneer is screaming into his microphone.

The opera audience now has to make sense of a complicated love story mixed with the going price for a lava lamp. Many give up and go home.

The dedication and enthusiasm of the players is undiminished, however. Despite barking auctioneers and tiny audiences, the close-knit company remains devoted to the art, spending hours getting makeup perfect, mending costumes and adapting to the primitive facilities of the mobile stage.