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Painted faces: 15-year-old Nanyang Girls' High School student stands out in traditional Teochew opera

SINGAPORE — As a young child, Tan Wei Tian remembers watching “live” Teochew opera performances with her grandmother at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre in Chinatown, and Bukit Gombak community centre.

In August last year, 15-year-old Tan Wei Tian was made an ambassador of the Singapore Tourism Board's Passion Made Possible campaign, and she also performed at a TEDxSingapore event.

In August last year, 15-year-old Tan Wei Tian was made an ambassador of the Singapore Tourism Board's Passion Made Possible campaign, and she also performed at a TEDxSingapore event.

SINGAPORE — As a young child, Tan Wei Tian remembers watching “live” Teochew opera performances with her grandmother at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre in Chinatown, and Bukit Gombak community centre.

Watching the performers on stage in their elaborate headdresses and costumes, she was so inspired that she tried to sing the opera songs and mimic their movements on stage, using her father's long sleeve shirts as a substitute for water sleeves, the flowing detachable sleeves used by performers in Chinese opera.

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While her peers were glued to the television watching cartoons, Wei Tian, who was then three, had begun taking lessons in Teochew opera.

Having spent the last 12 years honing her craft in a traditional art form — particularly one that is not associated with young people — it is clear that Wei Tian, who is now 15, is not your average teenager. 

"My friends are very, very shocked (when they learn about it for the first time). And they will say, 'why is a normal teenager doing something weird?'," said Wei Tian, a Secondary 3 student at Nanyang Girls’ High School.

"They will then go online to search my name, and they get blown away by the things that I've been doing because they have no idea.”

Her unusual hobby has prompted some of them to support her by watching her performances, said the teenager, who also plays the piano and enjoys shopping in her free time.

She may only be 15, but Wei Tian has already carved a name for herself on the traditional Chinese opera circuit, having performed with the Nam Hwa Opera Troupe in front of audiences from Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and China.

In August last year, she was made an ambassador of the Singapore Tourism Board's Passion Made Possible campaign, and she also performed at a TEDxSingapore event.

A video screengrab of Tan Wei Tian, 15, performing at a TEDxSingapore event. Photo: YouTube Screengrab

However, Wei Tian’s journey to master this traditional art form is not an easy one, as she has to juggle her opera training sessions with her studies and co-curricular activity, Chinese Dance.

Wei Tian, who will be taking her O-Levels next year, said: "Normally, Nam Hwa will try to schedule my training and performances during the school holidays, but if there are practices during school days, it will be quite tiring for me."

Each weekly training session usually lasts for two to three hours, although the frequency can increase to alternate days as her show dates approach.

For the petite performer — who stands at 1.6m-tall and weighs 43.5kg, donning full regalia can be a challenge, as the headdress can weigh over half a kilogramme and take up to 45 minutes to wear.

She told TODAY: "The biggest challenge is putting on the headdress. Some headdresses are really heavy, and it can hurt quite a lot, especially when it is tight.

"Some performances also require physical actions, such as splits, spins and turns. I also had to wear a 5.5 feet (1.6 metre) long water sleeve, which was hard to control due to the length."

Wei Tian has clocked in over 50 performances on stage in her career, playing characters such as Zhu Yingtai from the popular opera, The Butterfly Lovers, to young servant Taohua in Peach Blossom Takes The Ferry.

Her most memorable performance was her lead role in the 135-minute Teochew opera classic, Lady Liu Ming Zhu, in June this year at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, added Wei Tian.

"Out of 12 scenes, I was in eight scenes... It was my first time doing a full-length performance," she said.

"It was also memorable because the training period was very short, because it was right after my exams so I only had June to practice. There was a lot of training and hard work, but it was worth it."

MAKING TEOCHEW OPERA HIP

To attract a younger audience, Nam Hwa Opera troupe, which was founded in 1963, is also looking beyond tradition by creating a social media presence on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

The non-profit company, which has an opera group and a music ensemble, also unveiled a new website and logo this year to commemorate its 55th anniversary.

Instead of sticking to the classics, Nam Hwa is also experimenting with non-conventional storylines with more action, such as wuxia xiaoshuo (martial arts stories).

At a recent performance at the George Town Festival in Penang, Malaysia, English subtitles were also provided for the benefit of members of the audience who did not understand Teochew.

It is also looking to recruit younger troupe members. Of its 130 members, Wei Tian and another 16-year-old girl are the youngest. The rest of the performers are in their 30s, 40s, or older.

To nurture a younger generation of opera connoisseurs, Nam Hwa also has a programme for children aged between four to 12, with about nine currently enrolled.

Acknowledging that more needs to be done to revive the fading tradition, Wei Tian said: "Youngsters don't appreciate, and won't perform and learn this art form. We need more youngsters to learn and pass down this art form so it won't die off."

For Wei Tian, who hails from a family that is passionate about arts, Teochew opera is a way for her to carry on the culture and heritage of her forefathers.

"I won't stop performing Teochew opera... I have the passion for it, I love it, and it is something I enjoy doing," she said.

"I am not sure if I will pursue it professionally, but I hope I can bring more joy through my performances to people who appreciate and love this art form."

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