Saturday, 29 September 2018

Beyond The Frame | Guo Gui Lian | The Diva

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
I spent around a week in Penang during the latter part of August while the Chinese Yu Lan (Hungry Ghosts) Festival was being celebrated in various sites on the island. My purpose was to photograph the Chinese opera shows -and their backstages- that are an integral feature of the festival, in order to glean material for my work-in-progress photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora".

(My black & white photo gallery The Unseen takes you behind the stage's curtain of this talented troupe).

One of the two main sites where Yu Lan rituals where to be held was Lim Jetty in an area called Pengkalan Weld. It's the site for the famous Sun Moon Temple dedicated to the Lim Tai Cor deity, the Lim clan patron deity. The Chinese opera (in this case, Hokkien) would be performing there on a makeshift stage of wood and thick bamboo.

The troupe performing on that stage was the “Southern Fujian Opera”, whose 16 members are mostly from this Chinese southeastern province. As I speak no Chinese, I initially communicated with Abao, one of the two male actors, using a translating app...and was able to obtain a few introductory nuggets of information, however it was with Guo Gui Lin, a lovely actress with whom I connected on stage and subsequently on WeChat on my return to New York City, that I was able to get additional information on the troupe and herself.

(Guo Gui Lian as one of the military generals)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
Guo Gui Lian is a 30 years old single mother with a son. She hails from the port city of Zhangzhou (漳州) in Fujian. She started her career at 18 along with her sister. Her parents are farmers, and she has four siblings back home.

Through ensuing WeChat conversations, I gathered interesting -albeit sometimes conflicting- details about her troupe's involvement in the Yu Lan Festival. She arrived in Penang with the “Southern Fujian Opera” troupe on July 20 and will return to China in December. They traveled by ship from Fujian to Brunei for two weeks' shows; the sea trip took a day. It was then a flight to Penang to perform during the Hungry Ghosts festival month, and in other venues in Malaysia till year end.

Guo Gui Lian has no favorite roles. Her versatility allows her to take parts of heroic warriors, evil people, elderly and wise scholars, young boys and more. I noticed that no actor has a set role...but there are a handful who seem to take the leading roles, while others take supporting ones. Lian is one of three who took martial roles, which include some spear-sword sparring.


(Guo Gui Lian as Zhao Qing) 
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
The troupe's costumes, headgear and various accoutrements are stored in Penang; presumably by the temple authorities, until it returns the following year. The amount of these items as seen backstage precludes traveling back and forth with them on flights....so I gathered they initially traveled by boat. The troupe's manager is paid by the temple(s) and provides lodging for the performers and their salaries. The actors, sound and stage hands are paid for each show...so if there's no performance, my understanding is that they do not get paid, although I may be mistaken.

Brought by Chinese traders, Chinese opera arrived in Malaysia in the mid-16th century, and was very popular in the late 19th century. Nowadays, this ancient art form appears to be largely ignored and/or unknown by the younger generations, although efforts are made to repopularize it in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong...especially during the Chinese festivals.

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
In Penang, Lian and her Southern Fujian Opera troupe performed its shows in Hokkien; the Chinese dialect of the south-eastern part of Fujian Province and Taiwan, and spoken widely by the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Hokkien opera is one of the most influential art forms in Malaysia and Singapore. This regional genre originated from Taiwan and flourished in Fujian. Of the more than 300 types of Chinese opera, only about eight varieties made it to Southeast Asia, the most popular ones being Chiu Chow (or Teo Chow), Cantonese, Peking and Hokkien.

The Southern Fujian Opera Troupe
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved