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CHINESE OPERA: The Ghosts of Yang Choon Tai

"What Was this place?” i asked my wife eileen between spoonfuls of sarawak laksa. “i mean, before the hawker stalls?”

We were eating in the Yang choon tai hawker centre on carpenter street, opposite an ornately beautiful chinese temple. Why, though, i wondered, was there another colourfully-decorated temple-like structure at the rear of the food court itself? What had it been built for?

I was, i’m afraid, displaying my ignorance.

The hiang Thiang siang ti (Deity of the North) temple is a famous Kuching land- mark. it has stood on carpenter street since Kuching’s teochew community built it here in 1889, five years after its predecessor burned to the ground. The structure behind the hawker stalls was an opera theatre, built at the same time as the temple it faces, properly called Yang choon tai but now usually known as lau Yea Keng (chamber of the lords). 

Here, perhaps three to five times a year, the deities could be thanked with a perfor- mance of teochew opera. today, though, that tradition has almost vanished. The last fully-staged opera performance at Yang choon tai was in January 2010, in honor of the start of chinese New Year.

Since then, except for the occasional concert, the theatre has fallen silent.


above: Su Liu-Niang was the last fully-staged opera performed by the Teo Khiaw Club at Yang Choon Tai in January 2010, in honor of the start of Chinese New Year.

Opera, once so central to the life of Kuching’s chinese community, may be a dying art today. in fact, live theatre of any kind - including opera - has become a rarity. i love opera, and have even perfor- med some in my time, but the Western opera that i know is a very different thing from its far older chinese namesake. to understand why chinese opera has faded here, i had to learn more about it.

I toured Yang choon tai with members of Kuching’s teo Khiaw club. its stage lies behind a wooden grille that can be opened for performances, and behind that is a small retiring area where actors and singers can change their costumes.

Wooden pillars to the right and left of the stage mark off side areas where the instrumentalists sit.  in chinese opera, unlike Western opera, there is no orchestra pit or conductor. The ins- trumental players, and in particular the all-important percussionists, need to be onstage to take their cues from the actions of the performers.


above (left to right): Performers Ng Lee Gek, Ngui A Kim, Kwok Yi Lan and Mr. Lee Kai Chi.

Both chinese and Western opera use staged drama and musical performance to tell stories. chinese opera, though, is far more stylized and rooted in folk tra- dition. it combines, in very specific and traditional ways, music, dance, and speech (both regular speech and dialogue recited against a rhythmic orchestral accompani- ment), with costume, makeup, traditional movement and even martial arts. it is a living repository for ancient cultural and ethnic traditions whose counterparts have long vanished in the west.

Western opera, by contrast, was delibera- tely invented, by the camerati, a group of italian intellectuals in the 1590s. The first few operas were dry affairs, but in 1608 claudio Monteverdi created a master- piece still heard today, La Favola d’Orfeo (The tale of Orpheus). successful operas are still being written. L’Amour de Loin (love from afar) by the Finnish compo- ser Kaiji saariaho – one of an increasing number of female opera composers — was premiered in 2000, and has been performed around the world since.

Just as western opera includes many styles — italian, French, German, Russian and czech, among others — chinese opera includes regional operatic traditions from Beijing, sichuan, hainan and other areas. each regional variant has its own distinctive features and cherished local traditions — the “face- changing” routines of sichuan Opera are a famous example. according to the online travelchinaGuide, there are over

300 regional varieties of chinese opera - not surprising for an art form that grew organically out of local song, dance and storytelling traditions well over a thou- sand years ago.

Kuching has seen performances of teochew, cantonese, hokkien, heng hua, hakka and hainanese opera. The Yi sing Fukien Dramatic association, founded in Kuching in 1950, specialized in Gezai Xi, or taiwanese opera (despite its name, Gezai Xi originated in sou- thern Fujien province on the chinese mainland).  teochew opera, the operas Yang choon tai was built to display, has its own distinctive features. Ng lee Gek, who has been trained in teochew singing style, showed me that singing it requires avoiding the nasal tone valued in other chinese music, and her hus- band revealed the odd fact that all teo- chew songs must be in the key of F. any music brought in from elsewhere in china has to be transposed if it is to fit into a teochew performance.

Traditional performances of teochew opera celebrated the birthdays of the gods. in hong Kong they once required special rituals to ensure that no evil spi- rits would be in attendance. according to Mr. sim han tong, the teo Khiaw club’s Director and instructor of teo- chew culture, Kuching performances used to be heralded by a trumpet blast to scare the spirits away — except in mid-July, when a special performance, without the trumpet, was staged for the benefit of ancestral ghosts.

Teochew operas tell a variety of stories, both dramatic and comic.  Stabbing Liang Chi has a plot reminiscent of puccini’s tosca: an evil prefect tries to seduce a beautiful maiden, but she st- abs him to death with a hairpin (unlike tosca, she survives). in Su Liu-Niang a clever, parasol-twirling maidser- vant trades barbs with an old, white- bearded ferryman. For twenty minutes or so nothing really happens - even the ferryman’s boat is left to the audience’s imagination and the actors’ pantomime skills - but the scene is a favourite (there are several versions on Youtube). One of the last fully-staged teochew operas in Kuching, by a singapore company some twenty years ago, was a perfor- mance of Su Liu-Niang.

Audiences for chinese opera are not just dwindling, but aging.  according to a 2012 article in the Borneo Post, the Yi sing Fukien Dramatic association began losing its once sizable audience in the late 1970s. its members, today, are mostly elderly veterans. The days when traveling companies brought opera from singapore or china seem to have passed. Movies and television provided unbea- table competition with live performances, and the seemingly limitless entertain- ment possibilities of the internet may have delivered them a death blow.

Even singapore has been struggling to keep teochew opera alive.  Fewer and fewer people understand the dialect in which it is performed, and the members of its three surviving troupes are mostly in their fifties or older.

The same thing is happening in the west. Back in the 1970s, i belonged to a com- munity theatre group in ann arbor, Michigan, dedicated to performing eu- ropean operettas. today, the group still exists, but has trouble finding audiences for even small-scale shows. people would rather stay home.

If people lose interest in traditional live theatre - be it operetta in Michigan or teochew Opera on carpenter street - is that a problem? if we can watch almost anything we want on our smartphones - even a scene from su liu-Niang - do we need the real thing any more?

I think we do. as someone who has been on both sides of the footlights, i know that there is a special excitement to live performance that no video or film can re- place. in live theatre, anyone can be part of a performance, not just as audience members but as actors, singers, dancers, scene painters, carpenters, costumiers, and stagehands. live theatre brings com- munities together.

Chinese opera is a source of pleasure in itself and a link to earlier, and perhaps less mercenary, times.  it is worth reviving, and discovering by new and younger au- diences. The best hope of keeping it alive in Kuching may lie with amateur enthu- siasts and local companies. true enthu- siasts, onstage and off, do what they do out of love for the works themselves and the traditions they represent. They can reach out to schools, as the Teo Khiaw club has been doing. Their efforts can provide a focal point for communities to rally around and support.

It won’t be easy.  in the old days, chinese villagers would band together to fund a performance, and the seats for the audience were free — but according to Mr. Marvin Jong, an enthusiast for traditional music, staging a live opera can cost a fortune.  Singapore’s Nam Wha Opera spent over $300,000 sGD on a specially commissioned opera for its jubilee in 2013.  Mr. sim told me that a two-night run of teochew opera in china can cost ¥50,000 (over 32,000 Ringgit) per night. Western opera faces the same dilemma. The famous Metro- politan Opera in New York depends on donations, and most european opera houses are government-sponsored.  

Will Yang choon tai ever resound once again to the traditional music of chinese opera? Will its singers and dancers, clad in bright, flowing cos- tumes, their faces painted with tradi- tional makeup, swirl over its stage as they act out the ancient tales this well- loved art once brought to so many?

I don’t know. But if it does, i hope i will be there.

Teochew opera actress Ng Lee Gek (left and below) laments that there are no professional chinese opera makeup artists left in Kuching.

Opera, once so central to the life of Kuching’s chinese community, may be a dying art today.  in fact, live theatre of any kind - including opera - has become a rarity.

Ronald Orenstein is a Canadian author and wildlife conservationist with the good fortune to be married to a lady from Kuching. He now spends part of each year here, enjoying Sarawak's unique wildlife and culture and playing happily with his grandchildren. You can follow his travels at

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