24.7.05

Drama(grand)mama

Today is my Grandma's birthday. I think 85 year-old Tan Poh Choo is the only bona fide artist in my family. For a long time, she was able to state on official forms that her occupation was "actress", or to be exact, "opera artiste".

F&N Family

Sold when she was a child to one of the oldest Teochew Opera Troupes (Lao Sai Toh) in Singapore, Grandma Amps was its star in the 50s and 60s. Her popularity was attested by a series of photographs (one above), commissioned by a wealthy fan to be taken on the grounds of his house. Once, looking through her chocolate boxes of photographs, I had also spotted one of her receiving a congratulatory banner from the now Minister Mentor himself!

Stage-Court damsel
L-Court of the Emperor (Centre: Grandma; 2nd from left: Grandpa)
R -The Rare Tear (Right damsel: Grandma)
Click for larger pic


Since her strong features were made even more striking by the mask-like opera makeup, it was seldom that she played the role of the damsel, whether in love or distress. Instead, in a twist of the gender-bending tradition(as on the Elizabethan stage and still so for the Noh stage, Chinese opera was traditionally practised by only male actors, including those who played only female roles - the "hua-dans"), she was more often the young scholar turned general; the general, first gravely misunderstood, then re-affirmed as the true hero; or the hero revealed to be the emperor in disguise.

Grandpa Amps must have been the envy of the troupe - married to the Emperor-girl! He, on the other hand, was only a bit-part actor. A skinny, monkey-like man, he would play the role of comic/servant/foot soldier or, at best, a nameless warrior. Off stage, they had seven children, the third my mother. (She was the only child whose features seemed made for opera: slim almond eyes, a slender chin and lips that pout to form a single rose petal). My mother told me once how sly Grandma Amps would have succeeded in taking her away at the age of ten to join the opera troupe, had she not ran through the village screaming her protests, leaving the embarrassed Grandma Amps to slink away.)

And when all six children had started school and the last female child was successfully placed in a wealthy family in Penang, Grandma Amps retired from the stage. Even then her theatre career did not come to an end. Rather, it continued with her reincarnation as a medium for the Sea Goddess. I suppose this was an upgrade - from Emperor to Goddess! From her new 14th storey HDB apartment, she entertained devotees before the altar with messages from the dead for the grieving, told the future to the curious, foolish and fearful, and gave advice (perhaps from a wisdom culled from opera scripts) to the troubled.

Today, the shrunkened and widowed Mrs Tan Poh Choo still keeps a healthy sense of drama, leaving her family guessing if she is somewhat senile or merely playing the part. Months ago at the crematorium, she stood before her husband's ashes and had an animated conversation with him. When he was alive, they had spent their days playing chup tzi ghee (a type of chinese card game, the cards slightly longer than a domino) in silence, speaking only to accuse the other of cheating or refusing to pay up. At the elderly care centre, she sang opera melodies for the other old folks and staff (this was quite contrary to her earlier refusals to sing or take part in any vaguely related opera activity). Now that she was alone and with the excuse of age, she generously kissed her grandchildren (whose names she could barely remember) on their cheeks - very modern.

Ah, xi4 meng4 ren2 shen1 (anyone has any idea how to get Chinese script?), literally, theatre dream life. Though theatre was clearly Grandma Amps' territory, I am glad dreams and life lie in public domain.

12 comments:

wahj said...

Your g-ma is v cool. =)

ampulets said...

Ya, when I was young and living with her, I didn't think of her this way. My most vivid memory was that she had made me drink these cups of water stirred in with burnt strips of paper charms/amulets - those strips of yellow paper they stick on forehead of "vampires" in those Hong Kong vampire movies. Yucks! But she's become quite an endearing weirdo, especially now with her fake/real senility.

wahj said...

I had to drink those as well. I remember thinking "ah, so this is what smoke and ashes taste like".

ampulets said...

you know, strangely enough, it doesn't taste too bad...

ampulets said...

Being brought up in a strong-taoist family, I have my fair share of the ash water. But never like the taste, and really dont know what to do with the ashes. Isn't disrespectful to dump it away if it is supposed to be sacred? - the other half of ampulets

said...

oh yes, the ash water. i had to drink it as well.

i thought the game was si sek?

chinese script - did you mean chinese characters? i use the "special characters" under "edit", then insert if i'm just using a few characters.

vandice said...

戏梦人生,人生如戏。Your grandma really happening siah. This post I like.

Chinese script. If you have XP, just go to Control Panel-->Regional & Language Options-->Languages-->Check Install files for East Asian languages-->Click details and add Chinese (PRC). You can change the input method (I use Pinyin) and the key setting to toggle languages (I use CTRL-SHFT). Cheers

Karate Kid IV said...

Whoa, cool post and kudos!

Ever considered getting your grandma on the net to do a podcast! I'd love to hear you and your grandma on it.

And I've got you the Chinese script: "戏梦人生"

ampulets said...

ru - Thanks! just tried on safari, it works. hey, you are right about si sek (four colours). but somehow i remember it was also called chup tze ki (12 sticks). Maybe the cards had 4 colour groups, but also 12 cards in each colour?

Didn't know so many people had to drink ash-water! Maybe it's something that ended with us 70s babies.

vandice - thanks for the XP tip too! hehe, at first i had thought it was another *mac* feature only.

AG said...

Grandmas rock.

strangely. i quite like the taste of ash-water. lol, i wonder if it made me the retard i am now. :P

戏梦人生 <-- macs rock. :D

Davester said...

Wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing. :)

ampulets said...

karate kid & davester - thanks ;> glad you liked it.

podcast of my grandma croaking...hehe, that's a privilege only for her friends at the elderly care centre.

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