- Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, and: Peking Opera and Politics in Taiwan
There can never be too many books on Chinese opera, a genre that has been celebrated and mourned over its cycles of decline and resurgence across various parts of the world, even as it continues to spawn newer manifestations within and without China. Two tomes, both published within the last five years, chart separate histories of the form in Chinese communities beyond the Mainland, attesting to the scene's deeply varied and changing nature.
Nancy Guy's seven-chapter volume and Tong Soon Lee's more recent six-part ethnography together present engaging and complementary takes on the practice in Taiwan and Singapore. As pieces of careful and cogently argued research, they provide valuable documentation of the diasporic practice beyond China and Hong Kong, and—read in sequence or simultaneously—cross-fertilize each other theoretically and ethnographically. Exploring nationalist impacts on performing traditions, both books ask important questions of the relationship between culture and policymaking in the predominance of Mainland-derived mandates on cultural flows.
To be sure, both books stand firmly on their own merits. Lee's highly accessible, slightly shorter volume is a valuable example of a musical ethnography on Singapore—a subject in itself being rare enough in occurrence. In six well-defined and straightforward chapters sandwiched by an Introduction and a Conclusion, Lee sets out his fundamental premise that the scene is divided between increasingly sidelined professional groups (street opera acts ostensibly staged for the gods but attended by a nonpaying public) and high-profile amateur acts (who, ironically, perform mainly in ticketed events at theaters). [End Page 206] The former are largely supported by religious organizations, street opera buffs, plus small- and big-time Chinese businessmen looking to contribute—in a very public way—to the community while receiving ritual blessings in the process. The latter category, mostly registered as nonprofit organizations, receive funding from state organizations in their personification of the Confucian ideal of amateurism, while striving to remake the idea of cultural authenticity for tourists and potentially culturally atrophied Singaporeans.
Lee (163) maintains, "The concept of national culture in Singapore is 'dictated by those who do participate successfully,' not unlike the 'Big Men' theory in organizational studies (Hendry 1999, 567). Indeed, the art-culture system in Singapore defines the middle-and upper-class habitus exemplified in the amateur opera organization, whose members, through their practice of 'positive' social ideals, continue to perpetuate the system. In this way, culture becomes a form of proprietary knowledge, externalized through socialization among a select group. Amateur Chinese opera troupes are able to align their ideology, structure, and practices to that of the state's framework for cultural nationalism, thus constructing a 'trope of amateurism' that defines an aesthetic vocabulary. In contrast, professional opera troupes do not practice such cultural tropes nor do they perform according to the aesthetics of the amateurs in their everyday practices. They are thus relegated to the outside of the conceptual boundaries of the art-culture system. Viewed this way, the management of culture is predisposed to accentuate issues of social status and power (Fournier and Grey 2000, 9)."
In the Introduction and chapter 1, Lee sets out a nomenclatural background to the subject at stake. He offers methodical summaries on the unique politics of being Chinese in multicultural and postcolonial Singapore, a useful introduction to Confucian philosophy and practice, and a meticulously researched history of the early Chinese opera scene. While this cross-sectional view informs well upon the telescoped context of his larger arguments on nationalism to come, one could have wished for a slightly more located contextualization of the Chinese opera scene (ultimately a marginalized and small, if socially significant one) in the specific mosaic of music practice and consumption in contemporary Singapore (of which Western and Chinese pop play influential parts).
This tiny oversight is more than compensated for, however, in chapter 2, where a rich and detailed ethnography...