Seminar on “China’s Opera Diplomacy and the Chinese Diaspora in 1950s-1960s Bangkok and Singapore”

In this seminar, Dr Zhang Beiyu unravels how Chaozhou opera practitioners engaged businessmen in several nodal points (Shantou, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore), struggled to adopt new practices, and formed transnational alliances and networks to carry out the circulations of Chaozhou opera in this turbulent era.

The Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series

Monday, 30 September 2019 – Dr Zhang Beiyu, Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Macau, spoke at a Politics of Art in Southeast Asia seminar on the popular culture of Chaozhou-dialect opera and opera films in Southeast Asia and its role against the larger socio-political context of the Cold War.

Dr Zhang Beiyu (right) unravels how Chaozhou opera practitioners engaged businessmen in Shantou, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. Dr Benjamin Loh (left) chaired the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Zhang observed that Chaozhou-dialect opera was mostly consumed by Teochew speakers in Guangdong and in overseas communities in Southeast Asia before the 1950s. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to give greater attention to operas in their efforts at socialist reconstruction. Because of Chaozhou opera’s long history among the diasporic Chinese communities of Southeast Asia, these cultural performances were used in the PRC’s diplomatic interactions with Southeast Asia. Dr Zhang’s research indicated that the CCP spent tremendous efforts in reforming traditional operas, and curating carefully-selected opera repertoire to reach out to the overseas Chinese communities.

It was difficult for socialist opera troupes to travel to Southeast Asia during the Cold War, and Hong Kong filmmakers began to produce opera movies to disseminate these cultural performances overseas. In order to spread their own ideological propaganda, Dr Zhang said that both the Kuomintang (KMT) and the CCP invested in Hong Kong’s opera film industry which resulted in a leftwing and rightwing antagonism. The rightwing was endorsed by the KMT, and it was only by pledging allegiance to them that opera movies could enter the market in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaya and Thailand. The leftwing filmmakers, on the other hand, received financial backing from the CCP and had limited access to the Southeast Asian market, in particular Singapore and Malaya.

Dr Zhang talked about Thailand’s local Chinese diaspora and political environment to explain why leftwing films could not gain entry to the country. Throughout the 1950s, Thailand espoused strong anti-communist sentiments since the US was its foreign ally. The KMT also played a role in banning leftwing Chaozhou opera movies in Thailand, and the market for these films was readily taken up by the rightwing film companies. Thai Chinese businessmen also invested in the production of Chaozhou opera films, and this led to the rise of Hong Kong-Thailand cooperation, which was based on a combination of political lines and business calculations. Encouraged by the reception of Chaozhou opera films among local Thai Chinese, the Thai Rediffusion initiated the Chaozhou Opera and Musical Entertainment Show in 1961.

Moving on to the Chinese diaspora in Singapore, Dr Zhang explained that following World War II, the founding of the PRC and the success of its socialist reforms inspired the anti-colonial socialist movement among the Malayan Chinese, and this was largely expressed through labour movements. The local diasporic Chaozhou opera workers organized the Malayan Chaozhou Theatrical Trade Union in 1954, and initiated a Malayan Chaozhou opera reform to support the ongoing anti-colonial struggle. The urgent need for artistic reform in Chaozhou opera was explained using the Union’s expression of class oppression, and the Malayan Chaozhou opera reform laid the grounds for the circulation of socialist art through opera films.

By reviving the historical legacy of Chaozhou opera, Dr Zhang argued that the PRC was able to claim authenticity and cultural purity of Chaozhou opera, and also redefined new artistic standards in the circulation of Chaozhou opera transnationally. Local opera troupes in Singapore readily adopted mainland standards and took on the performances of opera plays that were revived by Chinese leftwing companies. Yet, in order to adapt to the local discourse of Malayan consciousness, the portrayal of native landscapes had to be appropriated into Chaozhou opera performances to appeal to the lives and struggles of the Malayan Chinese.

Dr Zhang concluded the seminar by emphasizing that Chaozhou opera was a hybrid creation as the films were made in Hong Kong, and the performances took on diasporic elements as they circulated through Southeast Asia. She also highlighted that the leftwing-rightwing divide among Chaozhou opera films needed to be reconsidered, as film producers usually crossed ideological boundaries. In the Q&A discussion that followed, the 30-strong audience engaged in a range of topics that included the collective memory of Chaozhou opera in Singapore, the Singapore state’s response to the ideological competition between the left and right, the impact of the socialist messages on Singapore’s dialect groups, and current policies in China regarding Chinese opera.

This seminar was supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).

The 30-strong audience engaged the speaker on a range of topics in the Q&A session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)