From Stardom to Opera Performer
He traded the bright lights of the camera for a stage with a minimal audience. His comfortable career was replaced with a path forsaken by many. Who would have guessed he would take it upon himself to revive the dying traditional art of Chinese opera? In this piece, we take a look at Chinese Opera and the man trying to preserve it in Singapore.
Nick Shen Weijun, a former award-winning TV actor, ceased his full-time job at MediaCorp earlier this year to focus solely on his career as a Chinese opera performer. Nick first caught the attention of viewers with his resounding win in Star Search 1999, an Asia-wide talent hunt organised by MediaCorp TV. Today, he is recognised as an artiste with multiple talents - one who can sing, act and host events.
Yet he's decided to leave most of these behind and pursue a different career instead. Lets find out why.
A passion for Chinese opera
Nick deeply appreciates the traditional art form that is Chinese opera. It had been his childhood aspiration to become an opera performer and this aspiration stood the test of time. Nick had never given up his interest even during the peak of his acting career - in fact, his determination and hard work had made him the first-ever actor in Singapore to master the unique Chinese art of Mask Changing!
Other than being a singer, TV host and actor, Nick is also a Teochew opera artiste. He founded his company, Tok Tok Chiang Arts and Culture Events Management in 2011 and has since been trying to promote local interest in Chinese opera. He brings Chinese opera to local schools, libraries, community centres and other corporate and public events, engaging around 30 opera performers that would otherwise have trouble surviving on just performing street opera.
Chinese opera is not just a hobby to Nick - it's an incredible love and passion for the art that drives him to make sure it doesn't disappear from the local arena.
Saving the dying art
It's not a secret that local interest in Chinese opera has been dwindling over the years. In fact, the situation in Singapore has become rather dire. Age-old and established firms are slowly closing down. There is no new blood to continue the art. Before we know it, Chinese opera will completely cease to exist in Singapore.
It is not simply Chinese opera that dies. Our rich tradition and culture, our history - disappear along with the art, too. Today, primary school students don't even know what their dialects are. When questioned, the replies are "Singaporean", "Chinese" or "English". This simply proves that Singaporean Chinese children are dangerously and sadly rather divorced from their Chinese roots.
This is why Nick has decided to make it his life's work to promote and preserve the dying art of Chinese opera.
A brief introduction to Chinese opera
If you think Chinese opera is only about acting the part, think again. Chinese opera is much more than that. It also involves music, singing, martial arts and acrobatics. Performers have to spray fire out of their mouths when they act as spirits, or gallop while squatting to act as a dwarf. It really isn't as simple as it seems.
Chinese opera is one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world. It has been passed down from generation to generation since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), and has evolved from folk songs, dances, dialogue, anti-masque and distinctive dialectical music into a combined performance of music, art and literature on the stage.
A performance is accompanied by traditional musical instruments like the erhu, the gong, and the lute. Today, there are over 300 dazzling regional opera styles which are adapted to represent local traits and accents. It is not only a impressive performance that's being delivered - actors also present beautifully written dialogues of high literary value.
Our Interview with Nick Shen
We had a chat with Nick to find out what made him make this decision.
Q1: Hi Nick! First off, congratulations for being announced as one of the 10 finalists in the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of The World Singapore. (For his contribution to promoting and saving the dying art of Chinese opera)
Update: Nick has been named the Honouree Winner in the Cultural Achievement category in the JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World Singapore 2014.
Tell us, what have you been up to lately?
I've been very busy, as I've been trying to revamp Chinese opera so that I can reach out to the younger generation or even some of the adults in Singapore. In January, we had a performance for Shan You Counselling Centre. We actually invited some of our non-Chinese volunteers, Malay and Indian friends to perform Chinese opera. And that was a breakthrough.
A group of youths from NTUC nEbO actually came and watched the show as well. In fact they were quite inspired, and they recently approached me to request to perform for old folks to watch. They're going to invite old folks from various old folks' homes, and NTUC will be supporting this project. The youths would be performing for the first time.
Q2. Saving the dying traditional art of Chinese opera is a pretty unconventional route to embark on. What was it that really sealed your decision to pursue this?
I'm still acting and working with Mediacorp on a freelance basis. While I was still working full-time with MediaCorp, I took up some courses. There, I met some teachers who gave me some advice. They said, "You should do something that you truly enjoy".
And so I started Tok Tok Chiang 3 years back. I wanted to give up initially, but a teacher from "Cheng Kang Culture" sat down with me and said that what I was doing is actually very meaningful. Through these cultural performances, I'm not only helping to preserve this heritage, but also letting more people understand the value of life through Chinese opera performances.
Chinese opera is not just about performances - it's also about filial piety, it's about how you can become a better person. Somehow, that conversation had this huge impact on me, and it gave me the motivation to carry on. He said that as long as you're doing something meaningful, then you will find success eventually.
Q3. You left home when you were still studying in secondary school to join an opera troupe. Can you tell us more about that?
My dad was worried that about me getting too crazy about Chinese opera. Firstly, in Singapore, the majority thinks there's no future for opera artistes. Secondly, he was afraid that I would neglect my studies. He was so reluctant that he would slap and cane me, and I became very rebellious as a result of that.
I left home, but I wrote a letter to him saying that I wanted to go to a friend's place to stay to lead an independent lifestyle for a month. At first he thought, "Wow, my son wants to try to be independent." But I secretly just want to join an opera troupe. He found out eventually and he was mad.
But I was very persistent. I think my dad, like any parent, has the best intentions. He has also helped me to become more persistent in the things that I want.
Q4. You had stage fright when you were younger. How did you manage to overcome that fear?
I don't remember that, but there will always be some nervous moments, even if you're a very well-trained actor. Sometimes, the "feel" just doesn't come. Just as writers need some inspiration to write, for actors, we need to have a certain kind of "feel" to get into character.
So if we were to perform a musical continuously for 2 to 3 weeks live, we might not be able to get into character every single night. I spoke to some veterans before, and they feel the same at times. It's very normal, and we would get very nervous and frustrated.
Q5. Local interest in Chinese opera has been dwindling over the years. How do you feel about that?
I feel very disheartened because the actors are getting older, and the audience is getting smaller. In fact, sometimes, there is no audience at all. At times we even joke that we're really performing for the spirits and deities to watch. If there is no audience, there is no motivation, and you're doing something that you feel no one is appreciating. That's the reason why Chinese opera troupes are closing down.
The reason why I joined the JCI Young Persons Award this year is because a 104 year old Hokkien opera troupe, Sin Sai Hong, closed down. They told me that this opera troupe has been passed down for 4 generations. Last time there were no buses or MRTs, they couldn't go home and they literally had to sleep on the stage. Can you imagine how hard the life is? But now that transport is so convenient, they can't even sustain the business. They kept crying, so I thought that I really need to start creating more platforms for these people. Otherwise, all the opera troupes are going to close down one by one. Right now in Singapore, there're only 3 Teochew opera troupes left. In the past, there were 30 and 40.
Q6. What do you find most fulfilling about being an opera performer?
Maybe it's because that's been my aspiration since young. I always tell myself that it's a blessing when you can do something that you truly enjoy, and you can bring meaningful joy to others. And right now, schools are actually supporting this. We have this platform to go to school, and sometimes I bring these opera artistes to school as well.
So if you ask me what I find fulfilling, I find it very fulfilling when the youths in schools enjoy themselves and when they finally know which dialect group they belong to, and that they understand more about the Chinese heritage.
In fact, Indians and Eurasians are keen to know more about Chinese opera as well, and I find that very fulfilling. When I see youths coming to me to saying that they want to perform Chinese opera, especially for a charity cause, I find that very fulfilling as well. And when I see veteran actors and actresses from the opera troupe finally having this opportunity to perform, with an audience coming to support them, I feel that they finally get the "feel" on stage, the kind of happiness is beyond what words can describe.
Q7. What are some recent experiences that left a deep impression on you?
Recently, the youths from NTUC Nebo group came to me and said that they want to perform for the old folks. I said that it'll be very tough, but they said they will be very committed. So last Saturday I brought them to another 130 year old Chinese opera troupe (Lao Sai Tao Yuan). They came in the afternoon and we rehearsed under the hot sun, we painted their faces, and gave them small roles to play on stage.
But because they immediately performed in the evening after rehearsing in the afternoon, and because they put in a lot of effort and were very serious on stage, all the veterans backstage stood up and clapped for them after the show. I think the actors felt very encouraged as well because there's finally new blood coming in. And I can see the youths really enjoying themselves. So if you're asking me why I want to continue, it's because I find meaning in my work.
Q8. You founded Tok Tok Chiang in 2010 and have since invested in efforts to promote the local scene for Chinese opera. What do you ultimately hope to achieve?
First of all, I hope to create more platforms for the opera troupes so that they are able to continue to sustain their livelihood, and probably even more income, better platforms with more audience, and getting overseas opportunities. I think another goal and mission of mine is to let the younger generation appreciate this art and keep this dying art alive.
Q9: Would you consider it your life’s mission to revive the dying art of Chinese opera?
Recently, there's this composer called Huang Hong Mo who wrote a very encouraging article. We were performing at Wan Qing Yuan last year, Sun Yat Sen's Memorial Hall, and he was from Xin Yao. He's one of those veteran composers. He wrote an article saying that in my past life I was probably a deity that opera performers pray to backstage, and in this life, I am here to protect the troupe. He wrote some other very encouraging words as well.
So maybe my mission is to try to preserve this art because there's a lot of sentimental value from my grandparents, and I don't come from a rich family. My parents and grandparents don't actually give me any money or property, but I think this is a priceless treasure, so I treasure it a lot.
Q10. What are some of your plans to grow the local scene?
I'm a grassroot leader from Tampines Changkat Community Centre, and I'm in the Changkat CCAC commArts Cultural committee. We do have activities to reach out to the residents regularly, and we've organised mask-painting activities and puppet shows are coming up in June.
Chinese opera is not just about performing - there's also hand puppets and string puppets and stuff. Through all these activities, I hope more people can learn to appreciate the art. One of the directors of 'Money and You' also invited me to China to perform and attend events, and I'll bring the artistes along, so this will create a platform for these opera artistes.
Q11. To end off, do you have any words of advice for the young people who, like you, aspire to pursue their passions in the future?
I think for students especially, we always ask ourselves this question - Is our academic achievements more important, or our values in life more important? If you have the values in life, it doesn't matter if you don't do well academically because they will bring you far. Other than that, is happiness or success more important?
Many people think that you have to be successful in order to be happy. But actually, it's the other way round. You have to be happy in order to be successful. So when you're doing something that you truly enjoy, and you find meaning in it, you feel happy. And this motivation will create success for you.
So do something that you love, and if you put your heart and soul into it and add meaning to people's life, you will find success eventually.
Reviving this beautiful tradition
We hoped with this article we've helped create more awareness for Chinese Opera and the work that Nick is doing. Nick's unwavering determination to revive this dying art form is inspirational and we can all help make this a reality if spread the notion. Chinese opera encompasses a rich history and culture of the Chinese, it would truly be a shame if we allow our traditional roots to disappear.
You can find out more about Tok Tok Chiang and their upcoming shows on their facebook page.