Breathing life into Chinese opera

James Kon

With rapid development of technologies and new trends of entertainment, interest in Chinese opera that has a long history and tradition among the Chinese community, is decreasing.

This was also confirmed by Xu Hong Qian,24, a member of the Xiamen Siang An Chinese Opera School, China who performed at the Teng Yun Temple in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan yesterday.

“We are the last batch of students from the school. There is no new intake after us. We see a decrease in interests in Chinese opera. This is inevitable because there are ups and downs in every career field. Perhaps interest in Chinese Opera will pick up again in three or four years,” Xu said.

The Chinese opera performed in Brunei Darussalam in conjunction with the mid-autumn festival celebration. This was the 13th year the troupe performed in Brunei Darussalam.

Xu first came to Brunei Darussalam in 2005 with the Chinese opera. Xu then 13 years, played a minor role.

He then entered the military for two years resulting him not performing with the Chinese opera temporarily. Recalling how he joined Chinese opera, Xu said, “I was 11 years and my father took me to register to the Xiamen Siang An Chinese Opera as the school was looking for performers for the Chinese opera. I learnt Chinese opera for two years.”

Xu said he was very small and curious during his first performance.

Hong Qingshui, leader of the 25-member troupe from the Xiamen Siang An Chinese Opera School in a group photo with Xu Hong Qian and Chen Peg Fei. PHOTOS: JAMES KON

“After the first year, the temple authorities felt our performance was good and we continued to perform every year after 2005.” He added, “I was very lively and naughty when I was young and this was why my father enrolled me at the school. I first started with minor roles but with training and my inborn talent, I was then selected for major roles as time passed.”

Speaking of the challenges he faced when he first started, Xu said, “At the beginning, it was very challenging during the training period. I used to cry when I was young. But as time passed by, I got used to it.”

Speaking about his experience in Brunei Darussalam, he said, “When I was a 13-year-old child, performing here was a fresh experience.

“After completing my military service, I came back here and I was more grown up. I noticed the politeness and manners of the people here. People follow road rules and even strangers smile at you.”

On future plans he said, “I will act for another one year and then change careers. I want to make more money as competition in China is very high and prices of property has increased rapidly. However, I will help Chinese opera whenever I can.”

Xu also stressed that Chinese opera is a tradition passed from generation to generation. “We cannot allow it to be forgotten,” Xu stressed.

Meanwhile, performer Chen Peg Fei, 26, comes from a family who has performed with the Chinese opera. She is the fourth generation of Chinese opera performers.

Chen had followed her father to the Chinese opera since she was young, learnt it from the age of three and joined the school at the age of 19.

“Training and learning were very tough. But when I am on stage and dressed up in the costume, I am very happy. My father was also a graduate from this school.”

Speaking about the challenges, she said, “We have to perform even during warm weather. Wearing the costume is also sometimes difficult while practices can also be tough at times. However, as time passed by we got used to it.”

Asked about Brunei Darussalam, she said, “Brunei is a very calm and peaceful country. The pace is relaxed so life is hassle free and comfortable.”

She also acknowledged that people joining Chinese opera is on the decline. Chen said the school was not accepting anymore recruits.

“Maybe in the future if there are children who want to learn Chinese opera, the school may recruit new students. Chen added, “youth are not interested in a pursuing career in Chinese opera.”

“It is my passion and hobby. As long as I can, I will continue to perform in Chinese Opera. If my children are interested, they also can join Chinese opera. Chinese opera should also be promoted.”

Hong Qingshui, the leader of the 25-member troupe from Xiamen Siang An said, “not many wanted to learn Chinese opera.

“It’s our role to try to maintain this long tradition in China.

“To be good at Chinese opera, the troupe members put in a lot of effort,” he said, adding “to attract more young people to Chinese opera, the performers’ salaries should be increased”.

On his role of bringing the troupe to Brunei for 13 years, he said, “I felt like a stranger when I first set foot in Brunei 13 years ago. Now I feel that Bruneians are very friendly and treat us like family. I hope that I can come back again next year.”