Wayang Opera Singapore

Wayang refers to Chinese Opera in Singapore. It is a Malay or Indonesian term for theatre. Wayang Opera, in Singapore, is synonymous with the reflection of Chinese culture through street opera performances. The Wayang Opera can be dated back to the times when immigrants were making their way into the south Asian countries.


The nineteenth century immigrants brought in an influx of Southern Chinese people to Malaya an, who built temples to worship and stage opera performance outside the temples, in an effort to please their deities. In fact, for any customary religious function, such wayang performances started taking place. Professional troupes would be hired to perform and these performances were made free to watchers.

With the advent of such customs, soon male and female theatrical groups started.

The troupes or clans were formed to preserve and encourage their cultural heritage. Some of these were formed into social and recreational clubs, roping in more theatre enthusiasts to promote the street musical opera. Some of these were Lai Chun Yuen at Smith Street, Heng Wai sun & Heng Sen Peng at Wayang Street.

However, as Singapore grew in terms of urbanisation and industrialisation, the concept of Wayang started to diminish. The government considered the wayang street musical plays to be a source of noise and disturbance to the ongoing traffic. As a result, the government allowed and restricted wayang performances to only a few designated places in Singapore. It is because of such stringent rules that Wayang is now no longer a source of entertainment for the Chinese people of Singapore.


Chinese Wayang continues to host numerous musical street plays, reflecting the depth of Chinese culture and tradition. The street plays can be divided into three main genres, which in turn are based on the local Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. These are namely Fujianxi, which means Hokkien Opera, Chaoju, which is Teochew Opera and finally Yueju, which means Cantonese Opera. These three genres of the musical plays are characterised by distinct features of the local dialect groups.

The Fujianxi opera, which is characterised by a distinct crying rhythm, is by far the most popular Wayang in Singapore. The opera mostly depicts traditional folk tales of the Fujian province. On the other hand, the Chaoju and Yueju opera are characterised by a clear singing style. While the Chaoju depicts folk ballads and dances through acrobatics style, the Yueju depicts Chinese tales from history, mythology and literature of their region.


Every time there is a live Wayang music performance, there is an orchestra run by 6-8 members, who are divided into two sections. These 2 sections are based on the kind of instruments played by them. There is one group playing the wen, which is stringed wood wind instruments like the traditional Huqin, Erhu and Suona and another group, which plays the percussion instruments like the bangzi, luo and bo. The latter three are clapper, brass gong and the cymbals. The opera music is known for being loud to many.

Makeup and costume

The makeup and the outlandish costumes of the opera artists make the performance a worth watch. There are two styles of makeup, the charming style and colourful one.

The former means that the artist will apply heavy makeup along the brow and eye area, while the latter would mean makeup around the full face. These two makeups are required to portray sheng and jing characters respectively. Since most of the roles come into Sheng, dan, chou and jing, the categories call for proper artists suiting the age and personality as well. Make up is simply an add on to their characters.

Although the street opera of Singapore continues to thrive in the age of fast urbanisation, it is struggling hard to become the face of entertainment for the masses. The troupes, however, still are seen performing in religious functions and ceremonies to mark their presence in neighbourhoods and temple grounds.

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