“Chou” – the comic actor in Chinese opera

by Chris Ng | 1 September 2014

For me going to the Chinese opera was an event.

My earliest memory of a theatre performance was the Chinese opera. As a child growing up in a small village in Melaka, Malaysia, the Hungry Ghost Festival was an event not to be missed. This was when temples in the neighbourhood would invite Chinese opera troupes to perform on makeshift stages erected on open fields near the temple (the poorer temples would erect a screen and show movies instead). I was always told never to watch the first performance because it was dedicated to the dead – the “souls” that had been set free during this period.

For me going to the Chinese opera was an event. I would even carry a stool for my old aunt to sit on to enjoy the performance. I would go early to catch the opening act, usually a mini-concert featuring a loud band and girls singing the favourite songs of the day. After that, the Chinese orchestra would play signalling the start of the proper show. To a child, the colourful glittering costumes, the swordfights and the actors flying across the stage was a visual feast. The cacophony of sounds that came from the shrill high-pitched singing and the noisy orchestra were but an inconvenience to be endured. Even more fascinating was going backstage where actors applied makeup, got into costumes or played cards and smoked cigarettes. What a fascinating world, I thought.

What I did not know at that time was that the Chinese opera that I saw was one of many regional theatre styles; each developed to cater to a particular area or region in China.

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