Heritage, both human and natural, suffers a double blow in this island where there is little time and thought for life beyond labour and laidback leisure. For why should one care for treasures whose existence and passing are neither acknowledged nor regretted? Perhaps it’s because there’s no way to put a price, much less a mark-up, on a memory. So fleeting sights and sounds that yield little in the pleasure of profit remain ghosts in mortal shells until the earth spirits them away to realms beyond the reach of living men.
It’s no wonder that the vast majority of guests who sat, moved to rapt stillness, in the courtyard of the Thian Hock Keng Temple last Friday, were remnants from an earlier age. For who else cares about the past in the present save those who have lived through it and a few deviants who prefer their history alive and kicking than languishing in the luxury of gilded galleries? Few who walk by Telok Ayer Street and Lau Pa Sat would recall that these stately structures once gazed unobstructedly towards the southern sea to welcome and wave away those whose journeys led them to Singapore in search of good fortune or for good. And only the makers of the Hokkien Huay Kwan Building across the street could reveal exactly why the wind and the water decreed that their premises offer an open navel of nothingness on the ground level facing the temple gates. Nobody, however, seemed to have told the owners of PIL Building at Stanley Street that the gods prefer their view unblocked.
It was a rare din that rang from the temple grounds that evening, as the Siong Leng Musical Association offered a glimpse into the sonic world of Chinese palaces during the final centuries of Pax Romana. Probably little known even to those who reckon themselves Sinophiles, Nan Yin (literally Southern Sounds) is a form of music that traces its origins to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220CE). Court musicians who fled northern wars and purges settled in southern cities such as Quanzhou in Fujian, where they refined their art in what is said to be an unbroken lineage that survived the dynasties of Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing.
The orchestra that has become synonymous with Chinese music is a modern creation that uses a tiered, chordal-based orchestration and the tempered scale popularised by Johann Sebastian Bach. For all its ubiquity and semblance to tradition, it has little to do with the ancient music of the middle kingdom, save its “application of Chinese musical aesthetics… in embellishments and musical expression, particularly of the melodic lines.”1 Nan Yin offers fewer familiar favourites, in its use of a tonal system and musical notation wholly alien to players schooled in conservatoires.
It’s easy to see (or hear) why few take to Nan Yin. The music is serene, slow and deliberate in its casting of shifting halftones and fine inflections that demand a ear attuned to close attention. There are no pleasing cadences or tuneful manipulations of melodrama. Instead of soothing chords, the harmonies float unresolved in the melodic interplay of singer and instrument. The pace is relentless in its measured rendering of every phrase and paucity of texture that results from an ensemble so small each voice cannot but maintain a transparent intensity that resonates with subtle depth even from afar. Belted out in an archaic form of the dialect, the songs retell the melancholic fates of mountains and maidens and the men that moved them.
Guan Huai, performed by the Siong Leng Musical Association. Lyrics by Teng Ma Seng, Music by Michael Toh.
After a preamble, the audience was led to rise and turn to face the altar in a plea to Guan Yin for protection and peace. For the night’s repertoire honours the gentle bodhisattva who bestows mercy and manchildren to her faithful. A veteran master of ceremonies provides an earthy introduction to each number, and joins the troupe for one. The players take turns to deliver poetic solos, alternating with instrumental recitatives and a revolving chorus of aunties. In these darkened hours of long and languid shadows, it is not too hard to see a scene from a century past between the lacquered guards and ensemble robed in peony and gold, were it not for the polished lights and gleaming vending machine that offers a dose of reality by the doorway.
No sins of the flash disturb the musicians. This was an event guided less by rituals of etiquette than by rites of passage that call for earnest enjoyment unhindered by rules of decorum or barriers of dressing. While two ladies trade barbs in a scene from a Li Yuan opera, prayers are offered, incense lit, children wander, old men dream and dodgy ducks manage to waddle unrebuked and unhumiliated by the high thresholds that straddle every door. Unperturbed by frequencies beneath its field of vision, a brown bat flitted through the halls to capture a nocturnal brigade of bugs drawn to the floodlights. From the quiet street in a city of cold comforts, the temple glows with the warm red of lanterns and plastic chairs, inviting passers-by from all ages past and present to listen and linger to the music of souls who built a town now forsaken by both its makers and those who made their fortune in it.
1 Joseph E E Peters, Evolving Traditions in Music, in Presentations at the 2nd ASEAN Composers Forum on Traditional Music, 11-24 April 1993, ed. Joseph Peters, National Arts Council, 1994.