Saturday, July 07, 2007

Where Have All The Wayang Stages Gone?

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, wayang stages were a common sight in Singapore. We called them hee-tai in Hokkien or hei-toi in Cantonese (戏台). They were usually located next to Chinese temples. For example, in my kampong at Lorong Kinchir, off Lorong Chuan, we too had one.

wayang16_wayang stage

I guess what any Singaporean of my generation will remember most about wayangs are the sights and sounds of those festive occasions when opera shows were being staged. Usually, this would be during the Seventh Month in the Chinese calendar, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Besides the fire crackers, there was the opera music. In our case, with the loud speakers blasting away, the operas could be heard clearly from our house which was situated about 200 to 300 metres away from the stage.

Of course during such occasions, there were lots of food and games stalls which were a delight to us kids. The one ‘stall’ that I remember well was the ice-cream stall with tikam-tikam. The tikam-tikam is actually a mini ‘wheel of fortune’. You have an arrow mounted on a board which is divided into a number of sectors. Some of them had hand-drawn pictures of the prizes that you can win. I cannot remember exactly how it functioned, but I believe that for every purchase of an ice-cream, you get to spin the arrow, giving you one chance to win these prizes.

The wayang stages were constructed of wood. For some of the bigger ones, the stilts were made of cement (see picture above – courtesy of National Archives of Singapore). When there were no operas, the empty stage provided a nice playground for the kids. We often played under the stage.

Besides the one in our kampong, I have also seen wayang stages at the nearby Plantation Avenue, Braddell Road, Potong Pasir and Kampong San Teng (Bishan).

The one at Plantation Avenue was near to where my sister-in-law (Chun Chew’s wife) lived. It was just a short distance off Lorong Chuan and looked very similar to the one in our kampong.

The one along Braddell Road is shown in the picture below (from the National Archives of Singapore). I used to pass by it daily on my way to school in Braddell Rise School. Today, it would be on the Toa Payoh side of Braddell Road between Kallang River and Toa Payoh North Flyover. At the time when Toa Payoh was being built, a lot of construction traffic entered Toa Payoh from here. Just across the road from this wayang stage were some shop houses. There was a small char kueh teow stall which sold wonderful fried kueh teow. In the evenings, my father often bought some back for us to enjoy. We used to call this place Lina Buay in Hokkien. I think my older brother Chun Chew (Zen) would be able to add more details.


Braddell Road
Braddell Road today. The present location should be somewhere behind the bus stop on the left.

The ones at Potong Pasir and Kampong San Teng were for Cantonese operas because these two areas had mainly Cantonese residents. The Kampong San Teng one was very big because of the size of the temple there. My sister Pat, and her buddy Siew Tin were avid fans of Cantonese opera Their idol was a famous male singer by the name of Siew Chan Wan. I remember attending one such performance at Kampong San Teng with them. By the way, the temple was situated just next to the South Country Theatre which I blogged about here.

Besides these, I don’t remember any other wayang stages in Singapore until I joined the army for my National Service. During the early seventies, our army training was often held in rural areas like Hong Kah, Bukit Batok, Marsiling, Mandai and Tampines. During our topo training, we often passed by such temples and wayang stages.

I remember one occasion during my Section Leaders training when we had an exercise which was called either Fighting Patrol or Recce Patrol. We started after lunch from Safti (Pasir Laba) in Jurong towards Bukit Batok. Our RV (rendezvous point) was a wayang stage along what is now Bukit Batok East Avenue 2, near the junction with Old Jurong Road, just opposite the entrance of the Bukt Batok Nature Park. We had our dinner there and then made our way back to Safti. I recall that at that time, what troubled me most was not physical exhaustion, but an ache in my neck because of wearing the heavy steel helmet for such a long time.

After I left the kampong in1974, I lived in the Farrer Road and Bukit Timah Sixth Avenue. I remember three other wayang stages in that vicinity. The first was at Farrer Road. I will blog about it at a later date because I want to tell you more about this area where I lived for about 12 years. The other two were at Jalan Lim Tai See near Jalan Haji Alias and Beauty World.

I was quite surprised to see the one at Jalan Lim Tai See because it was located in a high class residential area surrounded by semi-detached houses and bungalows. In fact, it was just a stone’s throw from one of the most expensive areas in Singapore - Queen Astrid Park. My guess is that this area was probably a kampong before, and when they built the new houses, they kept the Chinese temple and the wayang stage. Today, the wayang stage is gone, but you can still see the Yun Shan Temple. And just one street away is a small mosque by the name of Masjid Al-Huda.

As for the wayang stage at Beauty World, it was situated along Jalan Seh Chuan. There is a huge Chinese temple there now, but the wayang stage is also gone of course.

Beauty World 2006 (31)

And so that’s as much as I can recall about the hee-tai’s of the past. I hope my young readers have gained some knowledge about yet another of the many things that have disappeared from the Singapore landscape during the past few decades. I am sure some of the older readers will remember others in other parts of Singapore which I may not know about or recall.


Wayang at Pulau Ubin
Victor blogged about tikam-tikam here.
Thinkquest1 and Thinkquest2


Unknown said...

Ah yes, its a timely post as we draw near the 7th month. I remembered that exact same wayang which you went to Chun See, because it was just down the road from my old house along Serangoon Gardens Way. Of course, wayangs have transformed quite significantly over the years with sexy getai singers in their amazing get ups these days.

Anonymous said...

I remember vaguely sometime back there was a local documentary featuring an interview with former opera artists. These performers sadly recalled that they are not able to recruit successors to their dying trade which is very exacting in training and benefits are few, epecially the financial aspect. They believe the death-blow would come sooner than later, particularly after the pass-away of these old artists.

Tom said...

Tom said ...
I remember watching a Chinese street opera some were in Serangoon
near the army married quaters, I thought the performers were very professional and thier costumes they wore. Chun see the opera stage
you mention on Tampines road I thing I remember that one, correct me if Iam wrong was there a mobile cinema that use come to come a long Tampines, By the way I like the photograph of Bradell road, places have changed alot

Victor said...

I was living in Cheng Yan Place (within today's Central Business District area) in the 1960s. There was a Chinese temple along Queen Street nearby. Because space in the city was limited even in those days, the temple constructed a temporary wayang stage every year around the 7th lunar month. The Cantonese wayang shows would last for only a few days and the stage would be taken down after that.

The tikam-tikam game described in my post was a different game from that of the ice-cream stall described by Chun See here. Yes, I also patronised this type of ice-cream game stall before at the wayang shows and getais (singing shows) of yesteryear.

Anonymous said...

I think Siew Chan Wan is from M'sia; heard that he was very good. He did came several years back to perform some opera excerpts - probably he is in his 60s/70s already.

In the earlier years a foreign cantonese opera troupe could perform at a theatre to full houses for 4 weeks or more. Now if you can perform for 10 days with 75% attendance, it is very good already.

Older audience as well as good performers are disappearing. There are few new/young people coming in to take their places.

I wonder if you all remember that in those days, during the Seventh Month Festival some people threw money also, after praying and burning the colourful and gold and silver papers at night. The money were usually 1-cent and 5-cent coins.

Anonymous said...

There was an occasion I sent my 6th uncle and my mother to play mahjong at Siew Chan Wan's house, a private apartment near to St Michael Road. Siew is a good friend of my mother and uncle. He and his wife were great hosts, very hospitable and gracious. My uncle used to boast that his good pal Siew would sing his best songs(my uncle's favourites) with much vigour (raised volume), whenever my uncle attended his shows.

Lam Chun See said...

Tom. The army married quarters at Serangoon that you mentioned. Do you mean Serangoon Gardens? Our kampong was located near to SG and I blogged about it here.

I am not familiar with the Tampines area. My only memory of Tampines those days was on those few occasions when we went to Changi Beach. We usually went by Tampines Rd, Tanah Merah and then Nicoll Drive.

As for the mobile cinema, I think it was before my time.

Frannxis. I am afraid, I do not recall that part about people throwing money.

Anonymous said...

The post regarding "Siew Chan Wan" reminds me of my younger days, when my mother took us to wayang / opera during the Lunar seventh month. When I was in primary school, we lived at Telok Blangah, within walking distance of the then Jardine Steps, now the gateway to cruise ships.
I recall that "Siew Chan Wan" was very popular, had numerous Cantonese opera fans, and commanded a huge fee then, and apparently must be booked months or a year in advance.
In the old days, there was wayang, then later there was several days of wayang, followed one or two days of "ge tai" (singers performing, as well as the comic duo "Wang Sa and Yeh Foong)

Anonymous said...

Chun See
I thot tikam tiakm refers to plucking a piece of folded paper that was stuck on a cardboard? The prizes were stuck just above the rows of papers.

I am not sure about wayang during 7 Month - my mother always chased us indoors when ever there was one. U see I used to live in Eng Hoon Street, the old SIT flats of Tiong Bahru. There's a temple at the corner of Eng Hoon Street and Tiong Poh Road, which is still here today.

The temple usually celebrates the Monkey God Festival with a parade around the Tiong Bahru area. A wayang stage was constructed outside the temple and hawkers set up stalls along Eng Hoon Street - between Seng Poh Road and Tiong Poh Road). My cousins and I loved to go for the sweet potato desert.

But when the cymbals started, we ran into the house because we feared the medium who sat on a swaying sedan chair passing through Eng Hoon Street. The medium looked horrible with skewers through the tongue and piercing the body.

Anonymous said...

When coming to cantonese opera, my 6th uncle being a dramatic guy with a very colourful personality, would demostrate how a youthful romantic scholar should walk on the opera stage, meanwhile belting out the endearing theme song. We kids would be engrossed in his story telling. His favourite pre-war opera star was by the name of Seet Kok Sin famous for playing the role of a young romantic scholar, but later my uncle critize him severely: "Seet cannot play the young role anymore. He is now old, shaky with a lantern in his hand, legs tremblng, singing with a voice like a run-down battery, and still insisting to play the role of a young guy. Oh! what a let-down to the young girl playing his opposite! and the audience". After saying this, my uncle would sigh and shake his head with disapointment.

Lam Chun See said...

Looking at the black and white photo of the wayang stage at Braddell Road brought back one nugget of information. If my memory serves me well, that wayang stage also doubles as a school house. Hope somebody can confirm this.

Joey said...

I think Siew Chan Wan is almost 80 and still plays a young scholar in the local scene. No doubt he is good but to see him playing a young hero (with limited movements) is a heartache. I had a picture of him playing as a young lady (mah j) and mind you, he looks 'pretty' (see if I can locate back the picture, I'll post it for you all, no promises)

Anonymous said...

I try to stretch my memory way back to the fifties, and could visualise the wanyang scene in Potong Pasir - a cantonese predominant constituancy. The most memorable occasion was the appearance of HK cantonese opera star called Lam Ka Sing (famous playing hero roles) and the pretty Cheng Pek Yeng (appeared more in movies). It was reported that LKS had migrated to Canada, and having seen his photo in the newspaper some time back, I realise that time and tide wait for no one.

aiyah nonya said...

The only wayang I ever been to were those held every year at the '9 emperor' temple in Ipoh during its festival.

Other than that the gov do not allowed any other public gathering since the racial riots in the early 60s.

There were no getai in Malaysia too. When I saw my first getai performancen I thought that it was an open air concert. Duh !

Anyway that was then I am not sure how are things now.

Anonymous said...

May I know what is 'getai' performance please?

Lam Chun See said...

"Getai" or song stages are makeshift concerts visible all over Singapore during the Chinese seventh lunar month, also know as Hungry Ghost Festival or Zhong Yuan Jie. Devotees believe getai entertain spirits of the dead, which roam the earth during that period.

Here's as explanation from The Singapore Encyclopedia.

Lam Chun See said...

In case you are confused by my explanation of the tikam-tikam thing, Laokokkok has just written a good article here.

Anonymous said...

There are opera staged to an empty audience sometime in the afternoon. I saw a hokkien one performed in front of a temple at Jln Pemimpin. There was not a single soul around even inside the temple nor in the open space fronting the stage but the opera went on as though playing to an audience. I understand such shows are strictly meant for appeasing the spirits during seventh month festival (for the ghosts released from hell).

Purple lover said...

Hi all,

Read from Frannxis blog about Chun See's blog. I'm in my late 40s, so can recalled those days when cantonese operas were hot in the 1960's. Siu is one of the hot opera artistes then and agreed with the several posts, he's indeed very good and handsome and drew many opera supporters.

There is this other place at Kallang/Lavender whereby there were cantonese opera performance done on 'wooden' stage during the chinese 9th month, whereby there were 3 days of Cantonese, 3 days of Hokkien and 3 days of Teochew operas. Anyone recalled this?
We used to bring benches and wooden planks to chop place whenever there is cantonese opera and my aunties used to fight for the good place with other aunties....
I grew up in this area as my grandparents had a shophouse along the former "火成".
There were 2 other locations around this area, Kg Bugis and Kg SooPoo whereby there were cantonese operas performed; on the built-up stages.
There were alot of food and games stalls and we enjoyed our childhood days then!
I remembered then whereby my cousins

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks fmchan for sharing that info. I don't know much about that part of Spore of the early days. But on those few occasions when I travelled along Lavendar Street, I couldn't help but notice the coffin shops displaying their products.

Ah .. maybe that shd be good matl for yet another post; and what better time than the 7th Month. Heehee.

Anonymous said...

chun see

can u refresh me which part of Lavender Street was a "coffins row"? U mean the ang mo type like Singapore Csket or the China type? I know one side of Lavender Street was full of engineering service companies and the other side was hardware shops.

Kallang Road in the 60s was full of timber shop and sawmills. The Kallang River was full of logs floating in the river. The river had a terrific stench and water was black color. I dont think there was a shipyard in the Kallang Road unlike the Singapore River at Kim Seng Road (behind Copthorne Hotel) where there were many shipyards building tongkangs. I can't picture where is Kg. SooPoo - can help?

Lam Chun See said...

The huge China type that you often see in kungfu movies.

I quite sure that a couple were on the stretch of (sorry, should be) Crawford Street between North Bridge Road and Kallang Road; i.e. where the open ICA car park is now. Facing the former Kallang Gas Works. I think there were also one or two along Kallang Road opposite the ICA.

If you go to PICAS website (here) and key in Kallang River, or Kallang Road, you will see many old photos of those factories you mentioned.

Purple lover said...

Great to know that you guys know about this Kallang place. Yes, my maternal grandparents had a laundry shophouse while my patenal grandparents had a engineering firm both facing the gas works. Recalled once when there was a fire, my granny had to bring the few grandchildren to safety for fear that the gas work station will explode! Phew! Those were the days!

Kg SooPoo is just after the gas works. There is an Indian Temple at the junction of this road leading to a PA kindergarten and a clinic.

There are many things to write about around Kallang area. There were many shophouses selling little chickens, eggs, fruits, vegetables etc. Just like the wet market at 火成.

Hope those who know more of this place can exchange comments with me. Hee, then we'll know your age:)

Lam Chun See said...

fmchan. Can you pls confirm my recollection of the location of those coffin shops.

BTW. If you go to the Picas site I mentioned, you will also see old photos of Kg Soo Poo and Kg Bugis - both places new to me actually.

Victor said...

I was studying in Victoria School from 1969 to 1974. It was very near the sawmill which Peter mentioned above. The biggest and most famous sawmill there was called Song Lim Sawmill(松林板厂).

Anonymous said...

I have vague memory of those places around this area, but certainly not the Jln Besar stadium, which staged many memorable Malaysia Cup football matches, prior to the construction of the National Stadium. Being an avid fan, 'die-die' must reach it and get in, despite the discouraging long queues. Now the former ugly duckling (wooden floor stadium) has been transformed into a lovely swan, a worthy temporary substitute to the recently demised grand lady (national stadium), until arrival of the new lady in waiting.

Purple lover said...

Hi Chun Sun,

Just confirmed with my mum on the actual location of the coffin shop. It's in 1 of the shophouses along Kallang Road. If you can recall, there is a fruit stall at the junction followed by a few other shops, book shop, pawn shop then this coffin shop,etc. The teochew family fabricate the coffins; that's why there are coffins 'displayed' in there.

Do you live at Kallang too and ah ha! know your age :)
I lived there from birth till Pr 4 but I studied at Balestier! Yes, I also recalled the 松林sawmill which you've mentioned. I am more familiar with this stretch : Lavendar Street, Kallang but not the Jln Besar side though I knew there's the stadium there. Think there was a site for pig-slaughtering there too.
Got to go for lunch now. Do share with us more on this :)

Victor said...


I lived in Cheng Yan Place near today's Bugis Junction SC. It is not very far from Kallang. In fact, I sometimes walked to and from school (about half-hour walk) just to to save on the 10 cents bus fare.

I remember there was an Indian spice miller shop along Jalan Besar Road. You could smell the very strong and distinctive curry and spice aroma from quite a distance away.

Our school field was just next to the Jalan Besar Stadium. Don't remember any pig-slaughtering house but could recall that after school, we sometimes went to New World Amusement Park to play shooting games (the electro-mechanical type and not the first person PC shooting games Counter Strike, of course).

Anonymous said...

Jalan Besar Stadium: went there because of National Day Celebrations in 1966. There was the Joint Police-Army Tattoo demonstration of dogs jumping over fire, toy soldiers and traffic police riding on motor bikes, Blanks were used.

Next time I went there was to watch rugby in 1967 between RI and St Andrews School, then the HMS Malaya Cup the cousin of the malaya Cup but for the rugby game). In 1968 saw England came to play agianst 1st Singapore XV comprising SCC, British Army and Singapore Police players.

Anonymous said...

One engineering service firm along Lavender Street which I remember was Kwong Soon Wing Kee. My father worked as a clerk there in 1948. The building is still there just before the SHELL Station if one is driving from Balestier Road. My father said this company was Cantonese-owned and was supplying the metal welding parts for the Kallang Gasworks.

I loved to see sparks flying out of the welding equipment but sad to sad i never became an engineer.

the next time I hanged around this area was in the late 1970s selling computers to hardware shops like Gee Seng Huat. That was when I approached Singapore Casket to buy computer. The Eurasian boss told me in the coffin business no need to computerise the inventory or GL because "one can count by the fingers".

Victor said...

Fmchan - Peter (who commented above), gave me an old British army map (circa 1950s) for which I wrote a blogpost here. Did you know that the area around Lavender Street and Kallang Road was a tidal swamp? (For a larger map, click here.

Anonymous said...

chun see

Do you remember the Little Sisters of the Poor which was opposite Kg. San Teng? It was a prominent landmark to indicate the start of Thomson Road to Sembawang Teachers Estate. I read sometime last year that the Catholic nuns decided to retire to Australia and give up the Home because the old nuns were getting old and Singaporeans no longer chose on to become nuns and nursing vocation.

Do you have picture of that Home? I think there was an arch painted beige color at the main entrance looking down a slope towards Thomson Road circus.

Anonymous said...

The old folks used to say when you see things too often, you would treat them as per normal. So the coffin shops and the other types of shops co-exist harmoniously side by side is based on this perception, but not other places. I remember when I went over to my mother-in-law house at plantation avenue, I heard a hue and cry over a certain villager who had the audacity to lease his compound to a coffin shop operator storing his inauspicious comodity, blaming that the whole kampong fengshui was being affected. The kampong folks felt as though they were suddenly struck by lightning out of a clear blue sky. Even the present govt is aware of such sensitivity, now the under-taker business is largely confined in certain locations like Sin Ming, certain part of Toa Payoh, Geylang Baru and the likes.

Lam Chun See said...

Peter. I think it is still there but has been renamed; St Theresa's Home. Just next to Lornie flyover in direction of Thomson Road on MacRitchie Reservoir side.

Lam Chun See said...

Talking about that stretch of Thomson Road, did you read the news about 2 years ago where a famous DJ of our time by the name of Bernard Selosa who was killed in a traffic accident? It was very near to my office at Jln Pemimpin at that time.

I think a truck was stalled on the left lane at the sharp bend, and the taxi carrying him and his wife came speeding round the bend and ... . Very dangerous stretch.

Hope I have not made a mistake.

Anonymous said...

Back to the wayang theme, this part and parcel of the Chinese heritage, brought along by early Chinese settlers to S.E.Asia. Many opera stages may go, but as long as the 7th month festival survives, the opera shows I believe would continue even on temporary constructed stages, with Getai shows playing only a supplementary role. What happen to a generation or two down the road? Would it be like the existing opera stage in the beijing forbidden city, reduced to staging shows only for the tourists? It is anyone's guess.

Purple lover said...

I believe the 'roadside' wayang will still continue esp during the 7th lunar month. As for the cantonese type, there are held on several months, namely, the lunar 2nd, 3rd and 7th month. There is a yearly opera staged at kreta ayer open file during the 9th month and last usually for 10+days.

I really missed those days whereby we can watched many shows at many locations, Kg San Teng, Toa Payoh, Telok Blangah, Katong, Chinatown etc...

Anonymous said...

Benard Solosa died? I didnt read about that. I was wondering what happened to him and his wife after they lost their house in Holland Road opposite to Sixth Avenue to a bank because of business failure some years ago. Vey sad indeed.

The St Theresa Home arch structure at the main entrance still there?

Anonymous said...

I attend a how-to-star-a-business course some years ago conducted by jovial trainer who was a retired accountant in a SME company. One memorable sentence he uttered was: "beware - there is a lot of smoke in the business world". On reflection, this guy spoke the truth because many people have the perception that to get rich quick they have to jump into business wagon, and this is really the quick-sand that traps many good people unwitingly drawn into. Many are left high and dry - especially the pockets. My former boss used to say: "If it is that easy to make big money in business, who would then be working?"

Lam Chun See said...

I have not been able to find any news about that Thomson Road accident I mentioned earlier. I could be wrong. My apologies. Better not speculate.

Victor said...

Bernard Selosa and Monica Lim were still in the news in 2003/2004 when they were battling to keep their mortgaged house in Holland Road from being seized by the bank. This was because of their failed business venture - the 36-room Alana Hotel in Lor 10 Geylang. They bought it for $6.6 million in May 1997. Because of the Asian economic crisis that followed not long after and then the Sep 11 attacks in 2001, business was bad. The hotel was sold for $2.4 million in early 2004.

But that stretch of road is dangerous because drivers tend to speed. I was recently given a second chance there.

Anonymous said...

I know where there used to be another permanent opera stage. It was along Upper Thomson Road between what is now Shunfu estate and the former Lake View Shopping Centre. It is at the far end of the current soccer field of Thomson CC and the remnant of the road that used to lead to the stage is still there now (but blocked off). I think there was also a bread shop at the entrance of the road and I vaguely remember rows and rows of traditionally baked, top-burnt, freshly baked bread left out to cool. I remember all these because I went to a PAP kindergarten just next to the stage, and the stage was where we played during recess. I'll always remember an auntie selling snacks under the stage... and the last I knew the auntie was selling bee hoon and ngoh hiang at the Sin Ming Food Centre, just a few hundred metres from where I used to buy sweets from her every day... :)

PChew said...

Just came across your post. About the coffin making shop at Crawford Street, I can confirm it as my brother was living there then.

Unknown said...


The last Wayang Stage in Singapore can be found at Balestier Road. The name is Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple.

Was researching for my module History and Theory module in NUS.

Anonymous said...

What happened to radio dj Benard Selosa and his wife?

Doreen Fong
Swiss Cottage 75