Chinese Opera in Singapore: Negotiating Globalisation, Consumerism and National Culture

By Chong, Terence | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Chinese Opera in Singapore: Negotiating Globalisation, Consumerism and National Culture


Chong, Terence, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


It has often been argued that the spread of a Western consumer monoculture destroys traditional societies and their cultures. The strength of this argument stems mainly from the dichotomy between 'local culture' and 'global culture'. Local culture is usually described as an entity closely tied to 'authenticity' and the particularities of time and space, and accompanied by 'assumptions about [the] boundedness, "rootedness", insularity and "purity" of (particularly) pre-modern cultures'. (1) Global culture, on the other hand, is usually defined as a 'melange' of disparate components--'eclectic, universal, timeless and technical', such that it is 'memory-less', 'syncretic' and dependent on capitalist production of 'mass-mediated signs and symbols'. (2) In other words, 'local or national cultures have strong emotional connotations for large numbers of people, but global culture is bereft of such "ethnic-based" appeal'. (3)

This article argues that the diametric opposition between local and global culture is not as straightforward as it might seem. Entrenched in a highly globalised post-industrial site, Chinese opera in Singapore is an excellent case study to unpack the highly organic and adaptable nature of local or ethnic cultures. In examining the historical trajectory of Singapore opera, the article looks at its nineteenth-century deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. The notion that traditional (or ethnic) cultures are eroded by capitalism and mass consumption is also addressed when we see how Chinese opera's 'golden era' between the 1930s and 1950s came about during its centralisation in amusement 'Worlds' around the island. Moving on to the country's early industrialising phase, it is asserted that national and local cultures (and ethnic art) are not necessarily compatible. Although national and ethnic cultures are often seen as 'authentic' and global culture as 'artificial', Singapore's early form of national culture was in fact an obstacle to the growth of Chinese opera. The article also examines cultural politics between the National Arts Council and Chinese opera to suggest why the latter receives so little state support and concludes with a summary of the contemporary threats to opera and the counter-strategies it deploys.

The deterritorialisation of Chinese opera

Chinese opera is often popularly referred to by the Malay term wayang, meaning 'show' or 'theatrical performance'. It is difficult to gauge the exact number of Chinese opera troupes in Singapore today, since many disbanded troupes do not bother to de-register themselves with the relevant authorities. Furthermore, a certain troupe may undergo several name changes for a variety of reasons including a change of management or a desire to usher in good luck, thus making it harder to identify. There are, however, at least eighteen active opera troupes funded by the National Arts Council on a regular basis: two generic Chinese opera troupes; five troupes of Cantonese opera; three each for Beijing, Hainanese and Teochew; and two Hokkien troupes. The actual number of troupes in existence is higher since many do not seek state funding. (4) The relative inactivity of many local troupes also hides them from public awareness compared to the more prolific ones like the Chinese Theatre Circle, the Chinese Opera Institute and the Chinese Opera Society.

One of the key concepts in globalisation studies is 'deterritorialisation'. Different scholars have articulated this concept differently, sometimes as 'delocalisation' or 'displacement'. For our purpose, a helpful definition is 'the loss of the "natural" relation of culture to geographical and social territories'. (5) Chinese opera has a history of nearly a thousand years and manifests itself in approximately 300 forms around China, varying according to province and dialect. One of Singapore's earliest experiences of cultural globalisation came during the nineteenth century when Chinese immigrants flooded in from the southern coastal provinces of China looking for work. …

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