Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre – Now and Then

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Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre (牛车水人民剧场) was built in 1969.  The theatre has been revamped several times, including an entire overhaul which was completed in May 1979, before it became the well-equipped theatre seen on 30A Kreta Ayer Road today.

Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre currently is managed by Kreta Ayer Community Club Management Committee, it continues to stage various arts and culture groups to the heartlands, having strong emphasis on Chinese opera, and with a keen sense of social responsibility.

Theatre’s past and present

By LEONG WENG KAM
[Source:  The Straits Times, 22 October 1981]

Tucked away on a hill in Chinatown, is the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre which has succeeded in preserving and promoting Chinese culture.  LEONG WENG KAM traces the development of the theatre from its humble beginning 14 years ago … has been actively promoting the theatrical arts and is a popular place for Chinese opera performances, especially Cantonese operas.

The theatre has been the venue where many well-known opera groups such as the Hongkong Chor Foong Ming Opera Troupe and China’s Guangdong Opera Troupe have performed.

The present modern theatre, built in traditional Chinese architecture with huge red cylindrical pillars and temple-like green roof-tops, always has a busy calendar.

 

Besides shows by Chinese opera troupes from abroad, many local troupes have also performed at this 1,102-seat built only about two years ago.

Looking at its past and the present, the theatre has indeed achieved what it set out to do.  And that, in the words of the First Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Kreta Ayer, Dr Goh Keng Swee, was “to preserve and promote Chinese opera”.

The theatre has a stage which is 22.5 metres deep and 8.22 metres high.  It is equipped with good sound and lighting systems, and is ideal for even the big musical and dance performances, including concerts by symphony orchestras.

In between the stage performances, the theatre also screens first-run films – mostly Cantonese movies in a joint-venture with Cathay Organisation.

The theatre, built by the people, managed by the people and used by the people has come a long way from its humble beginnings.

The idea of building the theatre was first conceived 14 years ago when the need to have a permanent stage in the Kreta Ayer constituency was felt.

Since 1960, the Kreta Ayer community centre has been actively promoting cultura activities.  But for every performance organised by the centre then, a makeshift canvas had to be put up and taken down after the show.

That proved to be both uneconomical and tedious.  So, in December 1967, the centre’s management committee set up a charity and building fund to help construct a permanent stage at the centre’s Banda Hill premises.

The fund-raising projects in a series of charity shows received very good public support, and construction of the stage was completed in March 1969 at a cost of about $100,000.

While a permanent stage had been built, there were no proper seats for the audience.  Makeshift canvas still had to be put up to keep the rain or sun away.  And chairs had also to be hired whenever there were performances.

Before long, the theatre decided to raise more money to build a permanet roof.  The cemented stage floor was changed to one made of teak-wood.  This extension project which brough total building costs to $250,000, was completed in February 1971.

With the addition of a permanent rood, the theatre had another use.  Chinese clan associations which needed the place to hold get-together dinners.

The success of the first extension project prompted the theatre to embark upon a second phase of extension.  It included the construction of a toilet block, a ticket booth, repairs to the road and the car park around it, installation of lighting systems and a sound effects control room.

These additional facilities were completed in stages between 1972 and 1974 at a cost of almost $220,000.

Said one faithful Cantonese opera fan and a resident living near the theatre, Madam Kok Ah Mui:  “We were all wet when it rained.  It is much better now.  I can enjoy operas in air-conditioned comfort.  But I must also pay more for the shows.”

The theatre has started to invite top Chinese opera troupes from abroad since 1974 in a bid to provide local opera enthusiasts with the opportunity to see better shows.

Besides the famous Chor Foong Ming Cantonese Opera Troupe from Hongkong, other troupes from the colong, including Ying Ling Cantonese Opera Troupe, Hoong Ling Cantonese Troupe and Seng Ngai Teochew Opera Troupe have been among those invited to perform.

The theatre ws registered to become the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Foudnation in May, 1975, as a non-profit making and charity body.]

The foundation, with money from the many Chinese opera shows the theatre put up, has donated many thousands of dollars to charity and educational orgnaisations both inside and outside the Kreta Ayer constituency.

In 1976, the foundation planned to rebuild the theatre to cope with the changing demands and needs of the people.  The reconstruction which began in January 1978 and were completed in May 1979, changed the theatre into its present modern structure.  The reconstruction cost more than $1 million.

The reconstruction was also done in conjuction with the re-develoment of the Kreta Ayer community centre which is now occupying the three-storey wing adjacent to the theatre hall.

The secretary of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre management committee, Mr Tan Cher Peow , said the development of the theatre from a stage to its present million dollar building was a reflection of progress and the changing needs of the people over the past 10 years or so.

He added: “The theatre hopes to promote an interest in the theatrical arts among the population and at the same time aims to help the poor and needy.

“It will bring better troupes from abroad to perform in future so as to meet its objectives.”

Opening of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre

The Minister for Culture, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, officially opened the theatre’s auditorium on 16 May, 1971.

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20200321_223803Minister for Culture Jek Yeun Thong (wearing dark-coloured suit) and his wife Madam Huang Kek Chee (left background) are welcomed up arrival at the opening of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre on 16 May, 1971.

20200321_222414Minister for Defence and Kreta Ayer Member of Parliament Dr Goh Keng Swee attended the opening of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre on 16 May, 1971.

Pictures of Chinese cultural dance performance during the opening of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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TAKING OPERA TO THE PEOPLE

LIFE AFTER POLITICS
[Source:  The Straits Times, 8 July 2001]

When Phua Bah Lee entered politics 33 years ago, the promotion of Chinese opera could not have been further from his mind.  He tells LEONG WENG KAM how that all changed when he was asked to help in the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre.

MILESTONE

Mr Phua Bah Lee was born in 1932.  He married librarian Tan Cheok Tin, now 65, in 1968.  They have three children.  Elder son, Roger, 30, who is married with two daughters, is a business development manager  Second son, Robert, 26, is a lawyer, and daughter Tin Tin, 26, is a computer software engineer.

1959:  Graduated from the former Nanyang University
1960:   Joined the civil service as collector of land revenue
1968:   Entered politics, became MP for Tampines and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications
1970:   Transferred to the Defence Ministry as Parliamentary Secretary
1972:   Promoted to Senior Parliamentary Secretary and appointed founding president of the SAF Reservists’ Association
1973:   Elected president of the Basketball Association of Singapore
1977:   Appointed chairman of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre management committee
1979:   Awarded the Friend of Labour Medal by NTUC
1988:   Retired from politics and became general manager of Ngee Ann Development

When Mr Phua Bah Lee, 69, was in a taxi on his way to the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre in Chinatown last Monday evening, the curious cabby asked:  “So which opera troupe from China is performing there tonight?”

The driver had presumed that Mr Phua, who prefers not to drive at night because of his poor eyesight, was among the many opera afficionados going to a performance that evening.

And certainly he did not know that his passenger was the long-time chairman of the theatre’s management committee, responsible for bringing in top opera stars from all over China over the last 25 years.

He probably did not know, too, that Mr Phua was Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Communications and Defence ministries and the People’s Action Party (PAP) MP for Tampines for 20 years, before retiring from politics in 1988.

Relating the incident to Sunday Review, Mr Phua, now a director of several public-listed companies, says the taxi-driver’s query shows that the theatre in Chinatown has become a well-known venue for opera performances, the West End or Broadway of Chinese opera to all its fans here.

He said: :  “I told the taxi driver, a man in his 40s, that some of the top opera stars from Guangdong in China, including Peng Chiquan and Zeng Hui, were performing at the theatre and told me that he had brought his father to a Hainanese opera recently.”

Mr Phua has headed the theatre’s management committee since 1977 when he was still Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Defence).

He added:  “The greatest satisfaction in my work with the theatre has been to see the old folk, some with walking sticks in hand, and even a few in wheelchairs, coming to enjoy the Chinese operas we stage at least twice a year.”

Chinese opera, including that from Guangdong in China, was regarded as a dying art form here, with audiences dwindling in the early 1970s when Mr Phua first joined the management committee of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, a brainchild of former Defence and Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, who started it as an open-air stage in 1969.

“But look, after about 30 years, Chinese opera is still alive and the theatre is almost full every night when there is a Chinese opera troupe peforming,” Mr Phua said proudly.

In fact, interest in Chinese opera, he added, noting that at least two opra perfromances are staged here by both homegrown and foreign troupes, and thousands of people are enrolling in opera-singing and performing courses at community centres and clubs.

But he is not claiming in credit for himself or the theatres where more than 1,000 Chinese opera in the last decades have performed there.

They include the late Liang Xingbo and Wen Quefei, Chen Chuhui, Pei Yanling, Yang Lihua, Nan Hong, Luo Pingchao, Lin Jiasheng, Feng Huangnu and Hong Xiannu.

“I think Chinese clan associations and community centres, many with Chinese opera troupes, and professional opera companiesw such as the Chinese Theatre Circle, have also done a lot in promoting the art form all these years,” he said.

POLITICS CAME FIRST

With such enthusiasm and accomplishments in this art form, one might think that Chinese opera has always been in Mr Phua’s blood. Wrong.

Indeed, it was the last thing on his mind when he made his first foray into politics in 1968  …..

OPERA WAS HIS NEXT CHALLENGE

In the early 1970s, Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee asked him to join the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre management committee in Chinatown, a largely Cantonese-speaking area in his Kreta Ayer constituency.

Mr Phua, a Teochew, felt that he was in a strange place at first, for he spoke no Cantonese then.

Nevertheless, he took up the challenge to promote Chinese opera – especially Cantonese opera – in the area, by helping to develop the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre from a simple makeshift stage to a 1,102-seat, air-conditioned auditorium today, and bringing in top opera stars from China.

As chairman of the theatre’s management committee, one of the highlights was the return in 1980 of diva Hong Xiannu, now in her late 70s to Singapore, after 50 years.

She was the undisputed movie and opera queen of  the 1950s and she created a stir when she came as artistic director of the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Troupe.

Another hindsight was China’s Xiamen Hokkien Opera Troupe’s performance in 1985, which grossed a record profit for the theatre, with a collection of over $300,000.

But the most memorable was Guangdong’s Foshan Cantonese Opera Troupe in 1991, starring young opera stars Peng Chiquan, Cao Xiuqin and Wu Guohua, who played to a record 28 full-house nights.

Looking back, Mr Phua said: “I still admire Dr Goh, a Peranakan who knows little Chinese, but was zealous in promoting Chinese opera as chairman of the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Foundation, an non-profit, charity organisation formed to help the poor in the constituency.

Besides promoting Chinese opera, the foundation also used the money raised from performance by both local and foreign troupes for charitable causes, such as distributing hongbao to old folk during Chinese New Year and giving bursaries to children from poor families.

Inspired by Dr Goh, Mr Phua did not step down from his role at the theatre in Kreta Ayer, when he retired from politics in 1988 to make way for younger leaders in the PAP.

With more time now, Mr Phua said he watches and enjoys the Chinese operas he brought over from China even more.

He added: “The stories are from well-know Chinese folklore or history, lften with good moral teachings, I also like listening to opera music.”

After all these years, Mr Phua said he now speaks Cantonese as well, and converses easily in the dialect with officials from China and the opera stars.

“I am considering bring in Peking operas to the theatre next,” he said.

His work and interest in Chinese opera has influenced his wife, Madam Tan Cheok Tin, 65, a retired librarian, who is considering taking lessons in Cantonese opera singing.  “She is a regular at opera performances now.” he added.

Mr Phua said he hopes to retire from the Kreta Ayer Theatre when a successor is found.  “After so many years, I think someone younger should take over from me,” he said.

And when he retires, he will still go the opera, probably with his wife  – and in a taxi.

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The big night jitters of  Madam White Snake

[Source:   The Straits Times, 21 February 1972]

Queen Elizabeth on Saturday night ended torment of Mrs Joanna Wong, the deputy registrar of the University of Singapore.

She had been in a flutter of anxiety since a local newspaper report a few weeks ago said that hte Queen and her family would come to see the Cantonese opera, “Madam White Snake” the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre.

06105807-story-image-122258_cover_640x400(Right of photo:  Mrs Joanna Wong)

The Royal Family was coming to see the opera, in which the leading lady was none other than Mrs Wong.

And Mrs Wong had no doubts about the Queen not understanding the play.

20200321_225255Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew seated beside Queen Elizabeth at the theatre

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave the Queen a running commentary of the opera.

The opera is based on a legendary story of a white snake falling in love with a man.

They wed but the marriage is broken up by a monk who lures the groom into a temple which in turn is flooded by the snake with its magical powers in a bid to release him.

Did the Queen enjoy the opera?

Her Majesty was overheard telling the produces:  “Thank you very much for the very good show.”

The archived photos of Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family visit Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre on 19 February, 1972.  Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

20200321_224557Queen Elizabeth II being greeted by Diretor of People’s Association Lee Wai Kok upon arrival at Kreta Ayer People’ Theatre in Chinatown.

20200321_224710Queen Elizabeth II signing the guestbook at Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre.

20200321_225407Queen Elizabeth II accompanied by Director of People’s Association Lee Wai Kok leaving Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre after watching a Cantonese opera  on 19 February, 1972.

Motorcade of Queen Elizabeth II leaving Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre (photo below).

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