When I was a child, I used to follow my parents to the Chinese associations to watch their performance rehearsals. It was truly a joy to see the close-knit Cantonese community coming together to share the love of music.

Those were the good old days in George Town, Penang, a UNESCO World Heritage City where music was the pulse of the community. The performers came from different social backgrounds and yet, they put aside their differences to perform together.

Life was simple back then. There were no karaoke pubs, reality shows and internet. Singing and performing Cantonese operas and musicals in these associations became the entertainment of the community.

But sadly, this has virtually lost in time.

The Dying Art

George Town has many Chinese clan houses and associations which are over 100 years old. The Cantonese community was dynamic and actively engaged in performing arts.

Cantonese operas and musicals used to be very popular in these associations like King Wan Association, Cheng Wah Club, Ng Fook Thong Cantonese Districts Association and more. But today, only two associations, namely the Penang Ladies Chin Woo Athletic Association and Nam Hooi Association still carry the tradition of conducting Cantonese operas and musicals at their own premises.

According to Au Yoke Yen, 79, music advisor of Penang Ladies Chin Woo Athletic Association, the lack of interest among the young generation is one of the key reasons.

“Our members are mostly between 40 and 60 years old. Your father and I are perhaps among the oldest ones,” she smiles, referring to my 82 years old father, Yip Mun Kong, a self-taught musician who can play many instruments like the erhu and saxophone. In fact, it was here at the Chinese association that my father met my mother. Their love for music together created an everlasting bond of love between them.

The Living Heritage

I call the senior performers like Au and my parents “the living heritage of Penang” as many performers have either retired or passed away. So it is not surprising that the performing troupe has less members now. In fact, karaoke CDs are used now instead of real musicians during rehearsals on alternate Sundays.

“We still perform every Sunday afternoon although we have less members now,” says Ng Chooi Lian, 86, President of Penang Ladies Chin Woo Athletic Association.

“In the 40s and 50s, short arias or “siu kuk” was popular while in 60s and 70s, long Cantonese opera arias or “tai kuk” (Cantonese operas) which stayed true to its original form were a huge favourite among the performers. The 80s saw us following the trends of Cantonese operas and TVB show tunes from Hong Kong. Since then, the popularity of our performing arts took a dip,” Au says.

In the past, members would perform during Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival and other anniversaries. They also had the opportunity to sing live on radio like Rediffusion Malaya and in old folks home, much to the joy of the inmates. I even remember on one occasion, a young male performer brought the house down with his high pitched female voice in “Princess Chang Ping” (Tai Lui Fah) performance.

I miss those good old days of seeing this performing art after I left George Town over two decades ago to settle down in Kuala Lumpur. This art may be dying but the legacy and joy it brought to the community will always remain forever in my heart.

Words & Photos by Francis Yip

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