Yawning Bread. August 2007

Spirits from our past




"There was no alternative," she said in Cantonese. "The supermarket would close at 10 pm."

"But Ah Poon was really mad," said another middle-aged woman. "He was asking everyone where you had gone."

The first woman: "I had completely forgotten that the Seventh Month would begin tonight. When I realised it, it was already 7 pm. At least, I waited till 9, when there were fewer diners, before I went out to buy what I needed."

The four women seated behind me, I gathered, were either servers or kitchen helpers at a Chinese restaurant. It was already past 11 and they were on their way home. It must have been a long working day; I could smell the grease on their clothes.

Ah Poon was their supervisor, and he was annoyed with the first woman who had left her station without permission, running off to the supermarket to buy the things she needed as offerings to the gods.

"Tomorrow is our day off," the third woman said. "Why don't you do your shopping tomorrow morning?"

"Aiyah, I must lay the altar table tonight," the truant said. "How can one wait till the next morning?"


Folk beliefs among the Chinese are quite colourful things. At the stroke of midnight on the first day of the seventh lunar month, the gates of hell would swing open and spirits from the netherworld would come wandering into ours. To appease them, food and other gifts had to be laid out on the altar, paper offerings burnt and entertainment put on, for if the spirits were not indulged or distracted, they might wreck havoc.

The first woman clearly judged it more prudent to appease the spirits, even if doing so would annoy her supervisor.

Then, for the rest of the journey, she spoke about how she couldn't find one particular item from the supermarket. My Cantonese wasn't good enough to understand what exactly this item was, but it seemed that tradition specified that certain items had to be laid out on the altar. She was short of one.

It bothered her considerably, and she kept revisiting this problem of being one item short.

Her co-workers, meanwhile, kept urging her to make peace with Ah Poon the next working day. "Perhaps you can talk to Ah Chan first; he can intercede for you," one of them suggested.

The first woman was not paying attention. "Oh dear, it's 11 o'clock now. All the shops are closed. Where am I going to find it?"

* * * * *


A typical altar set-up


Entertainment for the spirits during the Seventh Month (also known colloquially as the "Hungry Ghost Month") takes the form of opera and getai -- basically a variety show on a temporary stage set up on street corners or fields.

Traditionally -- and even in places today -- it would have been street opera, restaging the better-known oeuvres from the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese repertory. It would go on day and night, even if no one was watching, since the primary intended audience wasn't the people from the neighbourhood, but the unseen spirits. The result, to foreign eyes, can be quite surreal -- opera being performed to rows and rows of empty seats.

In this instance, they didn't even bother to lay out the chairs.

Now opera is getting rarer and only performed during the day. To really attract people, especially in the evenings, there are variety shows with singers, comedians and a bit of dancing (on a separate stage equipped with lights, etc). The singers would be in the tightest and skimpiest of hot pants or in extravagantly flashy costumes, their faces garishly made up.

There is a striking similarity between the songs of getai folk culture and Country and Western music. It's no coincidence, I guess, since they both spring from the lower classes of their respective societies. The musical line sticks to a very regular metre, so predictable and unchanging in fact that it becomes boring within 10 seconds, and excruciating within 30. The lyrics are often of woe and abandonment, with the occasional "I survive". The purpose is never artistic invention and delight, but reassurance borne from reprising the familiar. The same, shared grief expressed in the same cadences. Music as comfort food.

* * * * *


Royston Tan's new film "881" [1] is about getai to the max. It's a remarkably polished work in terms of its staging. The quick cuts and camera angles reveal mastery of the medium, giving us a work that has the look and feel of theatre and spoof even as it also tries to tell a (thin) human story. Tan has brought out some superb acting from Yeo Yann Yann and Mindee Ong as the Papaya Sisters, whose dream was to sing getai, often in costumes that are so over-the-top, they're almost hilarious in themselves.

The biggest weakness was in the casting of real-life siblings May and Choy as the Durian Sisters, rivals to the story's protagonists. These two can't speak either Hokkien or Mandarin and their attempts to do so were squirmingly horrible. Worse, they have no acting talent and there was really nothing Tan could do with them except to stuff them into his fabulous costumes and ask them to pout. He should have known better than make do with such unpromising material.

For most, however, it's the songs that give this film its greatest appeal. Royston Tan has woven a fresh new fantasy with these oldies, almost all sung in the Hokkien language. They provide, beneath the film's enjoyably exaggerated pathos, humour and wardrobes, the tingle of a trip down memory lane.

Yet, personally speaking, the soundtrack left me cold. In fact, I thought most of it was unbearably bad music. But even without sharing my highly judgmental view of the music, it seemed to have left most of my friends cold too. Many of us didn't grow up amidst Taoist folk ceremonies, getai, street opera or Seventh Month observances. Nor in Hokkien-speaking environments. Seeing all that in 881 conjures no memories. It evokes no warmth of familiarity. One might as well watch a musical set among the Kachin people of northern Burma. The tale's interesting, the costumes colourful and the sounds ... well, ethnic.

And this is where the film quite accidentally illuminates an interesting twist to Singapore's nostalgia industry. It's becoming quite common to celebrate the Hokkien-speaking side of Singapore as the authentic folk culture. We see this more and more often in independently-produced films that are determined to resist the sanitised picture the government likes to promote. Indeed, the government's version is fake, but the bottom-up counter-version might also be a case of over-simplifying history and identity if we were to see only the Hokkien working class as our roots, to the exclusion of other migrant peoples.

We have the Naval Base Indians, the Hainanese of Middle Road, plenty of Malaysians-turned-Singaporeans who grew up in Ipoh or Kuala Lumpur, where their childhood surroundings spoke Cantonese. We have mixed-blood or anglicised Indians (sometimes calling themselves "Eurasians") who were typically Roman Catholic and English-speaking. And Malays who, like their Hokkien-speaking counterparts, grew up in public housing estates, loitered on the same benches and bought cigarettes from the same shops. They are Singaporeans too and I hope one day, filmmakers tell their stories. 

Yawning Bread 


A traditional temporary stage
for street opera




  1. See http://www.zhaowei.com/881/synopsis.html 
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