Saturday, May 17, 2008
“Singapore’s streets are always seething with life. The noise is indescribable. London, New York, Paris and other great cities are bad enough; but they are a haven of peace in comparison with Singapore.”
– W. Robert Foran, Malayan Symphony (1935)
Nearly one and a half centuries ago, a certain Charles Wilkes, Commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, expressed his simultaneous fascination and disorientation watching a street performance of Chinese Opera in colonial Singapore during a Chinese New Year festival. Writing in February 1842, Wilkes described the “stage raised about six feet above the street … richly decorated with silk hangings, and banners with many inscriptions, and illuminated with coloured lamps” . Encountering this intriguing “spectacle” as an outsider, Wilkes expressed amusement with a certain mock fight-sequence in which:
“The two combatants draw their swords or handle their spears, and began turning round and poking each other without closing, when suddenly one runs off; the other, after having evidently informed the audience that he is the victor, then makes his exit, accompanied with a most tremendous noise from both the music and audience. After the performance had closed, it was with difficulty that I could determine whether it had been comedy or tragedy …” (My emphasis)
For Wilkes and many other Europeans visiting or working in Singapore since its humble beginnings as a trading settlement in 1819, Chinese Street Opera represented an encounter with an exotic, illegible other, eliciting responses ranging from fascination and bemusement to plain disgust. Indeed for these Europeans, “noise” was more than a mere barometer of confusion or intolerance; noise as a discourse operated as a mode of knowledge-production about Chinese Opera and the Chinese, that ultimately reified a relation of power between the Europeans and the Chinese – albeit one that was asymmetrical, Eurocentric, and implicitly racist. This paper will explore the ways in which the discourse surrounding Chinese Opera and “noise” eventually led to the need to discipline Chinese-Opera-as-noise, and the various methods of containment and control exercised by the colonial powers to do so.
To Wilkes, the “tremendous noise” which he witnessed during the Chinese Street Opera referred to an act that was both performative (on the part of the Chinese orchestra) and participatory (on the part of the roused spectators). Indeed for Wilkes, “noise” existed as a boundary which he could not transgress; “noise” indicated the limits of Chinese Opera’s legibility (or intelligibility), a domain of knowledge to which he had no access to because of his exclusion from the opera’s language, historical, cultural and social significance. To another Danish traveler HV Pederson, the “four or five Chinese [that] took charge of the music … played their primitive and hardly harmonious instruments of wood and metal with a truly irritating perseverance.” According to his account, noise was less a method of de-scribing what could not be understood than a strategy of delimiting the difference between civilization and primitiveness.
Jonas Daniel Vaughan, a colonial official in the early Straits Settlements was similarly intrigued with the confounding spectacle of Chinese Opera in Penang and Singapore, where he noted that the Chinese in the 1850s were “ardent admirers of the drama and will night after night sit to see what happens to us unmeaning spectacles.” For Vaughan, the performances were simply too much to bear:
“During the performance the audience smoke and chat away at the top of their voices; when anything interesting is going on they sit very still and pay great attention to the stage … To a European one or two visits to the theatre suffice for a lifetime. The din, smoke and foul air within are somewhat too much for his sensibilities …”
The “din” and “noise” that both Wilkes, Pederson and Vaughan described most likely referred to the wuchang [military or percussive] section of the Chinese Orchestra which accompanies the performers onstage. Usually consisting of up to eight kinds of drums, clappers, cymbals and gongs , the wuchang typically punctuated intricately choreographed fight sequences to cultivate an aesthetic climate of excitement and activity by mimicking the sound effects of war drums and swords clashing. To any spectator unaware of the narrative content of the performance he or she was encountering would most likely mistake the clamor of the wuchang for spectacular chaos.
To these European observers, the condition of noise was less an immanent essence residing within the aesthetic of Chinese Opera, but a strategy of delimiting and controlling the unknowable, indeed a judgment call that allowed these observers to assert their power as bearers of the colonial enterprise upon the local Chinese population. Noise, Paul Hegarty shrewdly asserts, “is not an objective fact” , but is constructed through a dialectic. For Hegarty, noise can only be understood as “a negativity … it does not exist independently, as it exists only in relation to what it is not.” In other words, Chinese Opera as noise could only have been defined as such in juxtaposition with its other, that is, the tradition of European music that helped to define Vaughan’s particular “sensibilities”.
Till 1867, Singapore remained under the control, jurisdiction and governance of the British East-India Company before it came under the direct control of the British Empire as part of the Crown Colonies, placing Singapore and her neighboring colonized sisters under the direct supervision of the London colonial office. Together with the increase of Steam Ships to Singapore in the 1840s and a refashioning of colonial control, the traveling of artists and musicians between London and the Crown Colonies were greatly facilitated . As Margaret Shennan notes, Singapore’s Western musical climate thrived between 1880 and 1914, accommodating musical celebrities such as Edward Salzmann (once of the Royal Italian Opera Company in London), Marie Hall, CB Buckley, AP Ager and Abrose Cross . These prominent musical talents quickly established themselves in schools, organizations and churches, helping to organize amateur musical societies to cultivate a receptive climate for Western music. With the founding of the Singapore Philharmonic Society in March 1819, Singapore found itself struck with the history of Western music from Rossini to the show tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan (then widely popular in London) .
This burgeoning climate of Western music impacted Singapore’s musical landscape in multiple ways. Besides appealing to homesick expatriate families with a yearning appetite for the familiar, the introduction of Western music studies in numerous institutions in Singapore (most notably mission schools) helped to cultivate a receptive audience comprised of a particular social and racial class. This, in turn, led to a reinforcement of the previous civilized/primitive binary: the social classes in Singapore which had access to education mostly consisted of the children of Colonial officers and a smattering of wealthy Chinese merchants. The large majority of the Chinese working class had no or little education, and virtually no tools with which to navigate this new Western soundscape they were encountering. Inevitably, this led to severe social divisions fostered by differing musical tastes – while the colonial servants embraced Western music as “our” music – the music of an apparently educated and civilized social and racial class – other forms of music including that of Chinese Opera were construed as “other”, “primitive” and “inferior”.
The great musical-cultural division initially predicated upon subscription to differing musical communities therefore simultaneously reified racial differences between the Europeans and the Chinese. Indeed ‘noise’ originally attributed to mere sonic phenomenon became coterminous with the Chinese themselves, an essential category that was perceived by the Europeans as intrinsic to “Chinese-ness” which struck up images of disorder and chaos in opposition to European “sensibilities”. It must be noted that several other social phenomena fed into the fashioning of the “noise” paradigm. Although not all of them were interrelated nor did they have immediate associations with Chinese Opera, what must be stressed was the way in which these individual discourses concerning ‘noise’ came to inform and inflect upon each other, and, as a totality, had material and physical bearings upon the perception and attitudes taken up towards Chinese Opera and its disciplining.
As a sonic phenomenon, “noise” was generally used to describe much of the din and clamor that characterized Chinese celebrations during festivals. Following the Lunar Calendar, the celebration of festivals such as Lunar New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival gave occasion to the performance of Chinese Opera alongside several other traditional practices that were deemed “noisy” by the European community. One such practice was the lighting of firecrackers on the streets during Chinese New Year, usually in the hundreds, “[occasioned] so much alarm” that drove he British authorities to issue a ban in 1848. This move was countered by Chinese anti-British sentiments and “public disquiet”, forcing the authorities to lift the ban in the same year of its imposition . The frequent use of drums, gongs and cymbals during other celebratory performances such as “Lion Dance” (traditionally used in villages to attract other distant villagers) were deemed a “public nuisance” in the crowded cosmopolitan city of Singapore, which ultimately caused Chinese Opera (which capitalized on the use of similar percussive instruments) to be similarly classified as “noise”.
At the same time, the bustling environment of Singapore’s Chinatown struck many travelers new to the area’s chaotic street-life, which they took to be not a sign of the activity particular to Chinatown, but a condition of noise particular to an essential “Chinese-ness”. For Isabella Bird, a “mature, middle-class Scotswoman” who travelled to Singapore in the late 1870s, Chinatown represented a “heathenish” soundscape of “vociferation … [mingling] with the ringing bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms, an intensely heathenish sound.” To another RCH Mackie, Chinatown was “a street of a dozen languages, but the people are mostly Chinese and the noise is like the roar of a cup-final crowd gone crazy.” This chaotic turmoil of noise perceived of the Chinese way of life was perhaps best captured by John Maccallum Scott who reflected on a dining experience in Chinatown:
“At one end of the room a Chinese Orchestra strummed away on an incredible variety of instruments, and produced a perfect bedlam of noise. Out in the street someone was honouring the occasion by letting off fire-crackers in a manner which seemed to bring Chicago dangerously near.”
It was these coexistent geographical, social and cultural activities that intertwined to represent the European’s experience and perception of the sonic worldview of the Chinese: a worldview that was characterized by dischord, disharmony, and noise. “Noise,” Hegarty also points out, is not merely a sonic phenomenon but is also “cultural” , a knot formed by the knitting together of various cultural discourses. “Noise” in the creation of the European perception of the Chinese, therefore also exhibited an extra-musical or non-sonic phenomenon that cannot be simply ignored. Indeed other forms of extra-musical “noise” played an indispensible role in weaving the complete colonial fabric of the imaginary Oriental other, which, in turn, affected the (imagined) cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was viewed.
At the level of public peacekeeping, the local Chinese population was cause for much social “noise” in the form of unrest and gang rivalries. As early as the 1830s, the British authorities had much to worry about regarding Chinese secret societies – “kongsis” or “Chinese Hoeys” as they were called . According to a journal kept by Major Low from 1840 – 1841, the Singaporean Chinese settlers “[upheld] … the kongsis or Secret Societies of which the Emperor of China is so much afraid. […] The largest proportion of charges of felony is found on the side of the Chinese: who, in the main, at this island, are little better than the refuse population of China.” With a vast majority of Chinese migrating from the coastal strip of east Kwangtung and south Fukien – provinces notorious for their “bitter clan feuds” , the Chinese settlers in Singapore were quick to mobilize secret societies of their own, enacting their violent rivalries on local pastures.
In addition to providing new settlers with a sense of brotherhood, community and protection, the power of these underground societies were used to “maintain or consolidate certain lucrative businesses such as mining, opium and spirit farms, gambling and prostitution.” As CM Turnbull notes, clan-based Secret Societies and gangs also flourished in the late 19th Century alongside these associations (usually closely related), some of which reenacted longstanding feuds from China in Singapore, leading to a series of unruly fights and casualties in 1824 . By 1840, it was reported that the Triad Society (a notorious political secret society) had some five to six thousand members who were responsible for “much of the violence and crime which plagued Singapore” . To make existing matters worse, the secret societies demonstrated open hostility to European religions, especially Christianity. In 1851, the hoeys instigated the island-wide slaughter of Christian converts, killing almost 500 Christians and destroying 30 agricultural settlements.
Further troubling the authorities was the intimate relationship between Secret Societies, prostitution and Chinese Opera. Since Chinese women were initially forbidden by tradition to emigrate , early Singapore’s Chinese demographic was predominantly male, creating a climate conducive for industries of the flesh. According to Terence Chong, Cantonese Opera in particular “thrived alongside prostitution” by the end of the 19th Century, with brothels blossoming “side-by-side with other businesses, including opera troupes and teahouses”, serving as a geographical one-stop-shop for pleasures of all kinds. For Chong,
“It was customary for prostitutes and their clients to frequent operas together, and opera actors regularly patronized the brothels as well. Furthermore, the accessibility of the Cantonese opera made it a communal activity closely related to other activities such as social eating, drinking and, in this case, sex.”
Prostitution, on the other hand, was closely controlled by the numerous secret societies in Singapore, who provided a constant influx of Chinese woman through illegal trafficking . For Ching-Hwang, the link between secret societies and brothel keepers was not completely clear, since “some of [the keepers] were secret society members turned into brothel keepers [while] some were businessmen, who joined the secret society ranks because of instant benefits” . While the revenue collected from prostitution helped to fund a significant part of the societies’ activities, Chinese Opera came to serve as a mark of the societies’ wealth and distinct dialect identity, thriving on the support of wealthy Chinese merchants who were themselves members of secret societies .
All these activities were thus instrumental in constructing a complicated web of sonic and social “noise” as perceived by the colonial powers, a manifestation disorder, anarchy and, above all, a form of misbehavior and resistance in the eyes of the colonial parent. This web was the ascertained cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was inevitably part of, a ‘noisy’ cog in the machine of Chinese unruliness, threatening the hegemony of colonial rule. “Noise”, Hegarty explains, “threatens [the subject and] is part of the other I define myself against. Noise is a phenomenology of noise, insofar as it exists in relation to individuals, who define themselves as being subject to noise” . This total matrix of “noise” of which Chinese Opera was seen to be a part of was subjected to being perceived as threatening. This noise, therefore, had to be disciplined not only to remove it as perceived threat, but also to rearticulate the hegemony of Colonial power over the local Chinese. To exercise discipline on the various forms of Chinese “noise” was to reaffirm a discourse of dominance over the Chinese, and, to correspondingly (and actively) construct the Chinese as racially inferior. In order to sustain and reproduce the colonial fantasy of superiority and Eurocentrism, it was necessary to prove that the disciplining of noise was both necessary and the Chinese “noise” deserved to be disciplined, serving a particular language of colonialism that reinforced notions of (European) parenthood and (Chinese) infancy.
In 1837, an acerbic article appeared in the Singapore Free Press regarding the disorderly circumstances in which Chinese celebrations were held. Criticizing the unchecked liberal usage of firecrackers, the writer (presumably European), likened the “little Chinese urchins” to “boys everywhere else who are allowed to have their own way”, arguing that the “customs of the natives” should “be restricted at least to particular hours and places” . Consequently, in 1850, the authorities issued a set of restrictions on public street performances and street processions in a bid to maintain public order, which sparked an outcry from the local Chinese population . Despite a petition submitted in February by 83 Chinese businessmen and well-regarded personalities, the government implemented the Police and Conservatory Acts in 1856 to “further restrict assemblies and processions, including wayang [Chinese Opera]” . To protest the Acts, Chinese shops, markets and transport workers staged a strike on 2 January 1857 , claiming that the Acts “had been brought into force without their objects properly made known to or understood” . 2 months later in Penang, when colonial police attempted to stop an opera performance, a fierce riot ensued which culminated in several casualties and deaths . Despite these clashes, the colonial authorities failed to relent, and it became necessary for all organizations to apply for public licensing from the police to stage Chinese Opera – a practice which still continues today.
Thus, by the late 1850s, street Chinese Opera was both spatially and temporally disciplined. In order to perform, troupes had to seek permission from the police, who issued licenses based on time-slots in which these troupes were allowed to perform, at pre-destined locations that were deemed suitable for performance. Facing sudden obstacles in the freedom of performances, Chinese Opera was forced to make the transition from street to indoor stage in order to find alternative performance spaces. In 1887, a Chinese diplomat by the name of Zhen Jie noted that there were already four to five permanent theatres erected for the performance of Chinese Opera . The relocation of street Opera to indoor venues were valuable in the colonial disciplining of noise for several reasons. Firstly, the sound produced by the opera troupe was contained as opposed to exposed, greatly reducing Chinese Opera’s audibility on the streets. Secondly, the limited sizes of the theatres effectively restricted the number of spectators that could watch the opera at any one time, thereby reducing the possibility of social chaos within such contained quarters. Thirdly, the move from outdoor to indoors drastically reduced the immediate visibility of Chinese Opera, removing to the realm of invisibility. This geographical disciplining of Chinese Opera’s performance spaces was therefore a material manifestation of the social and cultural divide between the Europeans and the Chinese communities, helping to keep their cultural worlds as far apart from each other as possible. Although these restrictions did not entirely efface street performances of Chinese Opera, it greatly reduced the number of troupes performing on the streets. For the Europeans, the movement of Chinese Opera indoors was also a method of containment, indeed a way of controlling of the Singaporean cultural soundscape which – in their belief – rightly belonged to them.
If the spatial disciplining of Chinese Opera were not enough, in 1896, the Municipal Commissioners drafted and effected the Theatre Ordinance Law to regulate and control all native theatres. Under this law, municipal committee had the right to evict theatres that did not meet their standards of cleanliness and safety. Buildings used as theatre halls were required to possess certificates of fitness issued by the committee if the building adhered to the conditions specified by the commissioners . By 1917, the supervision over native theatres was tightened, and the colonial government found ways to make their disciplining essentially a productive one. During the performances, since theatres used kerosene and oil lamps for lighting, theatres were required to employ government-owned fire brigades to be on standby. Jokingly called the “fire brigade watching theatres”, the revenue collected by the government from the theatres rose from $2,025 in 1915 to $5,146 in 1924 . Such tight control meant that certain buildings were made unsuitable for the performance of Chinese Opera, which further limited the number of spaces troupes could perform in. To make matters worse, the fees demanded for these “fire brigade watching theatres” made Chinese Opera a pricey endeavor, creating economically difficult circumstances for the staging of Chinese Opera. As a result, only theatres run by wealthy Chinese merchants were available for renting; naturally, these rental fees were extremely high. As Opera actor Chang Tik Ying recalls,
“You had to pay rent to the owners of the theatres and there was no guarantee that you could recover that cost from your revenue.”
Under these disciplinary conditions up till the early 20th Century, it appeared Chinese Opera hit a brick wall. Had these practices continued to stand without intervention, the presence of local opera troupes in Singapore were likely to have completely vanished were it not for a new phenomenon of “amusement worlds” in the 1930s, opening up lucrative new spaces for performance which led to a mini-revival of the genre.
Despite its freedom from colonial tyranny, Chinese Opera in Singapore today has been perceived by many to be on the decline. Indeed, owing to a different set of political circumstances particular to Singapore’s post-colonial history, Chinese Opera became subject to a different kind of disciplining that was unforeseen by her forefathers. Liberated from her colonial parent in the 1960s, Singapore’s homegrown leaders scrambled to construct a sense of shared ethnic identity coupled with a new cultural aesthetic, leading to the valorization of “indoor” amateur opera troupes over “outdoor” professional troupes . The decentralization of Chinese living quarters in Chinatown into multi-ethnic high-rise flats forced more non-Chinese speakers into closer proximity, leading the government to issue tighter performance regulations which echoed the early 1856 police Acts. Furthermore, with the decline of the use of dialects by second generation Singaporeans , Chinese Opera has once more returned into the obscure shadow of unintelligibility from whence it once emerged. Indeed for these second generation Singaporeans, Chinese Opera became associated with a different form of noise: that of generational noise. Younger citizens who have come to embrace English and standardized mandarin as their language of commerce perceive not only linguistic distance from their dialect-speaking forefathers, but also a sense of alienation from dialect-dependent art forms such as Chinese Opera . For many of these citizens, the cultural importance which Chinese Opera once represented has faded into a ghost of a distant past, lodged somewhere between ossified or museumified artifact and a persistent noise haunting the city-scape of modern Singapore.