The Show: Members of a Cantonese opera troupe, one of the oldest of Chinese arts, help a fellow member into his costume on Tuesday before a performance of the epic Shi Jin Kwi, which is frequently performed during Lunar New Year celebrations. JP/P.J. LeoSalim Tan is a 68-year-old Cantonese opera player who has performed for more than 50 years to preserve Chinese cultural heritage. He is aging, but that is no deterrent to keeping his passion for opera performances alive.
After performing the classic Shi Jin Kwi war epic over the weekend, Salim told The Jakarta Post that he and other players from the Suaka Insan Foundation, social organization ran by Kong Hu Chinese-descendents in Indonesia, could perform a five-hour show.
“We may look old, but we can handle a five-hour show.”
It is easy for the audience to mistake their age as they use special makeup that makes them look at least 40 years younger. “We can make a 60-year-old man look 20,” Salim said.
Preparing makeup for the Cantonese opera is a long and specialized process. The thick “white and red face” makeup can hide the performers’ ages and at the same time, distinguish their own roles in the play.
Not everyone could apply the Cantonese opera makeup, Salim said. One should properly apply the white foundation and a red color, which determines the character of the show, around the eyes.
The villain usually had more red color in the face, Salim said.
“In our group, makeup has become my wife’s specialty. The rest of us are better in living the characters rather than applying makeup.”
According to Salim, his group masters dozens of epics, including Kho Han Bun, the popular white snake legend. “We don’t even need a rehearsal. We have memorized all the epics very well,” he said.
Salim’s opera group comprises five to six persons, most of them above the age of 60, who have performed opera for decades.
Salim performed his first epic at the age of 17 in Medan, North Sumatra. “My parents loved this Chinese art. I have known Cantonese opera since I was child,” he said.
The opera is a culture brought by Kong Hu people and is popular in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hongkong and Macau. It involves many Chinese art traditions including acting, singing, martial arts and acrobatics.
Another opera player, Asiak, said that the Cantonese opera taught morals and the goodness of the Kong Hu Cu philosophy, rather than solely acting as entertainment.
Asiak, who has been an opera player since he was 20, said that performing the classic epics refreshed his mind. “I feel young when I am on the stage and performing an epic. Being an opera player always entertains me,” the 78-year-old said.
Asiak said that he did not earn much money from the Cantonese opera performance. The money that his group would spend for a play’s preparation could be higher than the payment.
“Sometimes we spend up to Rp 10 million (US$1,090) for the costumes, the properties and the makeup while the payment is about Rp 5 to Rp 6 million,” he said.
Asiak admitted that there were not many requests for opera performances. His group usually plays three or four times a year, with most requests coming ahead of the Chinese New Year celebration.
Asiak said that the group members had chosen different jobs to earn a living.
Asiak was a mandor, a traditional construction supervisor who employed several workers.
Salim said that he ran his small business to cover his daily expenses.
Acknowledging that being an opera player could not satisfy his living expenses, Salim still hoped that more young Chinese would preserve the culture.
“The opera has become one of the oldest Chinese cultures in Indonesia. It deserves more attention from young players,” he said.
Salim said that he would be more than glad to train young players. “I always have courage to train Chinese culture to younger people,” he said.
He said that one should master the Canton Chinese dialect to play in a show. “All stories are always performed in Chinese, its original language,” he said.
Salim said that ideally, the players should also know the traditional musical instruments used in Cantonese opera, including strings and percussion.
“The musical instrument gives color to every story. It is an important part of a play,” he said.
However, Salim said that the musical groups were rarely found in Jakarta.
“We hardly find music players for the Cantonese opera. That’s why we choose digital instruments,” he said.
Before performing the epic, the players would record their voices based on the script. The players would later combine their voices with the digital musical instruments.
Given all the obstacles the Cantonese opera faced, Salim said that he hoped to introduce it to more people. (lfr)