I’m standing in front of the village’s wooden stage in Pulau Ubin. Meekly, I ask the wayang (Chinese opera) troupe if I can come backstage to photograph them. “进来吧” (come in)—and just like that I was allowed into the ecosystem backstage.
Traditionally, wayang stages are built opposite the temple as the performances are for the gods. The stage in Pulau Ubin is built right across the Tua Pek Gong Temple. On mainland Singapore, most wayang stages have been demolished and replaced with makeshift stages which are put up on occasion. The Pulau Ubin Stage is one of the few left in Singapore
There are little jars of preserved olive leaves and fermented beancurd on the table for the porridge that’s cooking in the rice cooker. A typical diet that is telling of their dialect group—the troupe is Teochew and performs in the dialect. A kid gnaws on his chicken wings as his mother gets ready to go on stage. I just got shouted at by the matriarch of the troupe; no photos of them when they are gambling. Two of the background actresses start speaking in Tagalog. They are the domestic helpers of the troupe members.
The fans are set on full blast but under the warm tungsten light and their heavy costumes, the actors are sweating profusely. Bottles of cough mixture to soothe their throats sit on the trunks that double up as makeup stations for the actors. An old actor, who plays the clown, sounds the gong signaling to the villagers that the show is about to start. The show tonight is "梅亭雪”. (Mei Ting Xue, which translates roughly to Plum Blossom Pavilion in the Snow) The story is about a scholar from a rich family who falls in love with a prostitute.
Backstage, the actors who are not performing in this rendition chime in on some of the verses nevertheless. A few villagers gather, standing in front of the stage. There are no chairs as the crowd is sparse but the show goes on.