“There’s a secret language in Teochew Opera,” reveals Mdm Lim, singer, teacher, and trustee of Singapore’s second oldest Teochew Opera troupe.
We meet her at Thau Yong Association, a musical group formed in 1931, at a small lane in Geylang one evening, and were unexpectedly treated to a short demonstration of this “secret language”.
“Look, what’s there in the pond?” she asks, daintily pointing to the left as her gaze shifts. “There are lotuses aplenty, symbolising eternity together,” she recites, bringing her two index fingers to join. Her tone is unhurried, and her movement graceful and controlled, as she guides us in comprehending these gestures.
She repeats the sequence—this time without words.
It’s like watching poetry in motion.
At 65 years old, the grand dame of Singapore Teochew Opera looks younger than her years. Her skin is smooth and taut, and her smile radiant and bright.
“With a set of teeth, I can smile and sing confidently,” she says.
Age, clearly, has not dampened her spirits. And it is perhaps this same cheery disposition that got her into opera in the first place.
As a teenager, fresh out of secondary school, she often tuned in to Rediffusion, Singapore’s pioneer cable radio. She was hooked on the dialect songs the station played and eventually learnt to sing them. Her melodious voice caught the attention of a neighbour, who invited her to join Thau Yong, a Teochew music and opera association established in 1931.
Initially sceptical of her own abilities, she was finally - and funnily enough - coerced by a packet of famous fried rice that her neighbour offered her. The 17-year-old decided to have a go at opera and was eventually won over by the hospitality and sincerity of her newfound family. She has not looked back since.
What sets Teochew opera apart from other forms of Chinese opera is its emphasis on music and singing. I need to be able to achieve the right pitch and tone, and project my voice clearly. For this, having a full set of teeth is important.
When she was starting out, she would select the most difficult songs to train herself in the different techniques and emotions required, and practised them until the songs were perfect. She also incorporated breathing exercises to ensure that her voice can be projected smoothly.
For Mdm Lim, her greatest challenge is to sing with an authentic Teochew flavour - hitting the right notes getting the right intonation.
A good Teochew opera singer is one who can master what is called “四功五法” (four skills and five methods). These skills refer to 唱, 念, 做, 打(singing, reciting, acting and performing), while the methods refer to 手, 眼, 身, 发, 步 (hand gestures, eye expression, bodily posture, hair technique and walking styles). All senses are key. I am lucky that mine are still sharp.
Despite retiring from the stage a few years ago, Mdm Lim continues to play an active role in the association, teaching singing and acting. She conducts three classes a week, teaching mostly seniors, with her oldest student 81 years of age.
My greatest joy is seeing my students succeed in their performances. But for some of the older folks I teach, projecting their voice can sometimes be challenging.
For as long as she can still see, hear and talk, she hopes to spread the art of Teochew opera to more people, staying true to her passion.
The sun is setting as we leave. But we know that for as long as people like Mdm Lim are around, the light of Teochew Opera will not be diminished.
Our seniors lead more colourful lives than you think.
But some may need a little more help.
Let their silver years continue to shine by helping to reduce the out-of-pocket expenses of their seeing, hearing and eating aids.