There is a strain of thought that regards the island's surviving professional wayang troupes as antiquated creatures living on borrowed time, staid relics of history who cling to the past with no hope of a future. In contrast, assemblies of amateurs are feted for their dedication to new scripts, embrace of fresh approaches and displays of technical prowess. Having neither the linguistic mettle nor the aesthetic wit to judge the tapestry of this musical dialectic, ducks can offer no disagreement with established claims that societies of part-time performers enjoy higher standards, superior access to funds and a constant renewal of creative energies fuelled by private dedication to the craft and personal investments in operatic livery.
In this worldview, the few who still eke a living from the art of their forefathers offer a sorry sight. Their costumes are as old and daggy as the practitioners, who know in their hearts a mighty handful of tales but little more than the songs of their youth and the lore of their apprenticeship. These troupes, which once held sway over tropical nights and commanded the strength of pan-Malayan unions, now pay the price of professional privilege, lacking the wiles and will to woo worldly councils with sweet words and elevated visions in the language of administrative persuasion. Tradition also stands on flimsy scenes, offering mere sketches and loose outlines that rely on improvisatory whim rather than the rigour of formal rehearsal. The street holds no candle to the stage, for one can well afford to advance the art with injections of foreign talent, while the other merely bears the burden of a choice to give it all to a vocation well past its peak. For who in his right mind would choose a life on the edge of sustenance over the leisure of subsidised acclaim?
This dichotomy of artistic merit, which appears to favour permanent arenas over the planks of wayside theatres, sheds scant light on the way reenactments of worn yarns serve less the sensibilities of mortal men than the demands of immaterial lords. Dilettantes probably have no time for the thankless chores of the taoist calendar or the paltry budgets of temples and minor clans with little to offer but space for a ramshackle stage and the devotion of a night or two to the amusement of implacable deities. Photographers are also drawn to these acts of ritual like bugs to an incomprehensible bulb, but they, too, have no answer to why the troupes stick to their guns amid a barrage of disparagement from the powers-that-be and those who play only to the gallery. Is it kinship, a reluctance to breach rules of spiritual protocol or simply a gesture of kindness to obsolete souls that feeds the remaining strains of Teochew heard from the grounds of shrines at pains to honour their ancestors? Personal edification has no place in these tired liturgies, which aim to please none but the need to know that the past persists in the present. Some patrons now attempt to balance heaven and earth by giving a portion of festivities to evergreen crowd pleasers. But to a few of the faithful, such displays, which no doubt fatten the coffers of secular bodies, heighten the dilemma of those who'd question the wisdom of a leap of fate from what is rite to what amounts to a roaring revelry of song.