Saturday, May 3, 2008

Noise: Making a din about Wayang

After prolonging my research to cater to other scholarly needs, I returned to the study of "popular" Wayang in Singapore, as viewed through the tripartite relation with professional outdoor troupes, amateur indoor troupes and the steady rise of Getai (literally translated: song-stage) as a potent contender to the entertainment of those-that-cannot-be-seen. One thing that struck me during my research was how neatly Chinese Opera tended to develop along lines of restriction and policy. There are many ways to theorize Chinese Opera today that drastically calls into question the "ethno" in ethnomusicology. For a postmodern collage state continually re-negotiating the boundaries of identity, how does "ethnicity" (itself initially begotten of Diaspora) seize history, ossifying and commodifying it into National property, so to speak?

In the early history of Chinese Opera, Diasporic identity was closely intertwined with clan associations. The strategic Rafflesian spatial allocation of living quarters of foreigners in early Singapore of the 19th Century allowed the Chinese community to enjoy close proximity to other natives from mainland China. Within the temporary space of relocation, identity was forged via dialect and district - the Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese and Hakkas all performing difference through their individual unique take on Chinese Opera - partially inherited from their specific region from mainland China, and engineered to fit the constraints of new territory. The first signs of control exercised over the public performance of ethnicity was expressed through the 1895 municipal bill passed to regulate "the construction of theatres and for the control and supervision thereof" by Alex Gentle - then the Municipal commissioner. Apparently, the colonial powers expressed concern over the overcrowding situation in theatre halls as well as the dire sanitary conditions they were in. Initially born out of a desire to cultivate an colonial vision of the obedient native, supervision over local theatres were tightened from 1917 onwards as the Chinese population swelled in size, clearing away a space for surveillance by introducing doctrinal guidelines for "correct" performance under the eyes of the colonial parent.

The most interesting remarks made by colonial masters in Singapore were their bewildered confusion at what seemed to be an unintelligable spectacle, indeed a ghastly din of sorts. The earliest mention of Chinese Opera in colonial Singapore came from a certain Charles Wilkes, who was the Commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, examining the colonial successes of the British empire in the 1840s. At a loss for words, Wilkes likened the performative dialogue to "a kind of recitative" which was accompanied by "beating with two small sticks on the bottom of a copper kettle of the shape of a coffee pot." For Wilkes,

"The two combatants drew their swords or handle their spears, and began turning around poking at 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 the audience. After the performance had closed, it was with difficulty that I could determine whether it had been comedy or tragedy"

Of course the local Chinese community were deeply aware of their linguistic and performative Otherness - Wayang not only allowed them to perform, ritualize and reify their commonalities, but demarcated a space where they could be contrasted against the local colonial British powers. These were more than acts of symbolism, but also acts of Symbolic resistant that resists (and rebukes) intelligability by the spheres figured by colonial knowledge. Reveling in these performances by the rabblement was thus, in a way, rebel-meant. Cheers of heroic triumph meant restaging the script of personal history so intimately linked with Diasporic nostalgia; for a history that was all the more cherished in opposition to one that was being constructed along Colonial sentiments. For the foreigners witnessing the Opera, noise was a heavily weighted sentiment. According to another colonial officer Jonas Daniel Vaughan (writing in the early 1850s),

"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..."

Another early traveller, HV Pederson had much to say about the racket:

"Throughout the entire performance, they [the musicians] played their primitive and hardly harmonious instruments of wood and metal with a truly irritating perseverance."

Here, an emerging implicit discourse was being formulated about unintelligability and the Other. For these early initiates to the din of Chinese Opera, the 'unharmonious" persistance of the Opera stirred up mixed feelings about the craft. However, fueled by the Orientalist impulse, the condition of "noise" quickly aspired to the condition of characterizing the Other. For Vaughan, the "noise" was not simply the performative idiom of Chinese Opera. "Noise" was the combined phenomenon of audience participation and the action onstage. "Noise" came to embody what was exhaustingly confusing or flabbergasting to foreigners who encountered Chinese Opera: how could these natives stand such spectacularly crass forms of entertainment that so offended the hypothetical "European"? Unlike the early anthropologists who thronged Bali, there was thus no serious attempt to understand Chinese Opera in Singapore by visitors and local Colonial authorities alike. To them, "noise" was a strategy of distancing, a strategy of naming what cannot be made intelligable in their Symbolic-discursive sphere. Or, musically put, "noise" was a strategy of making musically intelligable what they could not listen to.

1 comment:

Rayann said...


I am trying to tack down a piece of music for a theatre show and I stumbled upon your blog and thought perhaps you might be able to pint me in the right direction. I am looking for an old, well known Chinese dialect folk/opera song, that is more than 70 years old. If you have any suggestions I'd be very grateful.

Many Thanks