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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Street Opera in Singapore
  • Grant Shen
Chinese Street Opera in Singapore. By Tong Soon Lee. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 2009, 218 pp. Cloth, $40.

This book aims to "examine the cultural perspectives of nationalism in Singapore since its independence in 1965 through a study of Chinese street opera to understand the impact of changing cultural aesthetics on music and society" (p. 1). The author has collected substantial data from historical records, scholarly publications, and his own fieldwork. He has made a timely contribution to a relatively little-known field and a declining genre. One of the historical records, for instance, is the register of actors, artists and musicians found in the 1881 Census of Singapore, conducted by the British colonial government. The document shows that 240 out of the 285 registered arts professionals were Chinese, while all the rest, comprising Europeans, Americans, Eurasians, Malays, Indians, and other minorities, numbered only 45 (p. 21). This finding helps confirm the popularity and significance of Chinese opera among immigrants from China, in absolute and relative terms.

The references Lee makes to prior scholarship are extensive. At one point, studies on amateur musicians in Afghanistan, recreational participants in theatre in Japan, and the avocational performers of kunqu opera in China are cited to place the Singaporean Chinese opera amateurs in perspective (p. 93–94). The author's protracted field research in the late 1990s represents probably one of the last attempts to study at close hand the shrinking professional troupes and their aging performers. Supported by his comprehensive data collection, Lee is able to chronicle the genre's development in Singapore since the 1840s, from its social and religious functions for nostalgic early immigrants to its heyday when Chinese street opera had a huge following and on to its gradual decline in recent decades.

The author then provides a political-ideological backdrop against which the rise of amateur groups may be understood. He has painstakingly pieced together evidence of the state's anxiety over being the smallest and [End Page 198] most dependent (thus vulnerable) country in Southeast Asia, the dilemma it faced in matching the economic development of the West while resisting the perceived negative influences of materialism and individualism, and its solution in promoting and modifying Confucianism in order to propound "traditional Asian values." Interestingly, Lee draws a clever parallel between the Confucian ideals of the arts in human life and the amateurs' practice of Chinese opera. Just as Confucianism values education and promotes the arts as a means of self-cultivation for, and manifestation of, the gentleman, but not as a means of livelihood, so too do amateur groups, comprising mostly educated members of the middle class, conform to these Confucian criteria by learning Chinese opera for personal refinement and performing it for leisure and charitable events. Consciously and openly pursuing Confucian goals in the arts, four amateur groups—Er Woo, Lak Aik, Han Hwa, and Thau Yong—no less have named themselves ruyue she (Confucian musical/dramatic associations).

Lee provides sufficient documentation for the conditions under which the professionals in Chinese opera have survived. With little formal education, they perform solely for functional reasons, for rituals associated with custom or religion, and personally to make a living. As such, the professionals have a low social status, at least partially, because they are unable to embody or convey the Confucian ethos as the amateurs do. These findings provide convincing proof that it is the Chinese opera amateurs, rather than the professionals, who better serve the purposes of the state in its endorsement of Confucianism, as well as in promotion of cultural nationalism and tourism.

As is to be expected, this predominantly sociological study focuses on, and succeeds in clarifying, the historical and cultural aspects more than the art form per se. However, to attribute the rise of amateurs and the decline of professionals almost entirely to non-artistic causes is less than accurate. Moreover, the impression of the artistic supremacy of professional troupes over amateur ones is created through three problematic methods.

(1) Lingual Connotation. The terms "professional" and "amateur," owing to their conventional definitions, imply the technical or artistic supremacy of the former over the...