Chinese street storytellers

Singapore Infopedia


Chinese street storytelling was a popular form of entertainment in Singapore during the colonial period and up till the 1960s. The storytellers set up makeshift premises in various locations in the evening, and read aloud in dialect to paying customers seated around them on crates or straw mats. However, with the rise of alternative forms of entertainment such as radio and television broadcasting, as well as the reduced use of dialects, this traditional form of street storytelling faded into Singapore's history.

Characteristics of the trade
Popularly known as jiang gu (讲古), which means “telling old stories” in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, storytelling became a popular form of street entertainment before World War II. The stories were told in different dialects to cater to different Chinese communities in various locations. For instance, Teochew storytellers would perform for audiences in the Boat Quay area, Hokkien storytellers would read to audiences in the Telok Ayer area, while Cantonese storytellers entertained audiences in the Chinatown area.1

Although the dialects they used differed, the Chinese street storytellers often told similar stories. These included myths such as The Legend of Deification (封神榜),2 historical fiction such as The Jade Hairpin (碧玉簪), and snippets from familiar novels such as Romance of Three Kingdoms (三国演义) and Water Margin (水浒传).3 Apart from these folk tales and classic Chinese literature pieces, the storytellers used contemporary martial arts novels by authors in Hong Kong. According to Tan Giak, a street storyteller active in the 1960s, the martial arts stories were particularly popular with his audience because they were thrilling and often had a central theme of upholding righteousness.4 In addition to entertaining audiences with animated renditions of well-known stories, some Chinese street storytellers read news reports and ordinances, thus acting as newscaster to their illiterate listeners.5

The predominantly male audience of the Chinese street storytellers tended to be illiterate and from the working class, comprising mostly labourers, trishaw pullers and hawkers. They were usually at least middle-aged, as older people generally favoured passive forms of entertainment.6 During their heyday, street storytellers could attract as many as 100 listeners.7

Chinese street storytellers tended to be literate men in their 50s or 60s who could not do menial labour.8 While the reasons for these men taking up street storytelling differed, all possessed certain traits, such as a clear and expressive voice to bring the story to life, familiarity with the texts in order to field possible questions from the audience, and enough stamina to project their voices over prolonged periods every night.9

The street storytelling trade enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with hawkers, who would peddle snacks such as peanuts and cold drinks, as well as more substantial meals such as noodles to the listeners.10 In other instances, storytellers picked locations close to popular coffee shops to cater to audiences already congregated in the vicinity, such as the Malacca Bridge area, which had a popular Hainanese coffee shop.11

Itinerary of the street storyteller
Chinese street storytellers usually began their trade after work hours and around dinner time. At about 6 pm, the storytellers would set up their makeshift performing area by sweeping the area, spraying water to cool the air, and laying out straw mats, boxes and benches.12 Before beginning his story, the storyteller would light up an incense stick for keeping time. He would then sit by a wooden crate by a dim light and begin reading from a book or a newspaper, with his audience seated around him. When the incense stick burnt out after about 20 minutes, it signalled the end of the first session of storytelling, and the storyteller would collect his payment for the session, which was about 5 cents in the 1960s. Only those who sat on the seats provided by the storyteller were obligated to pay; those who chose to stand could listen for free as long as they wanted to. The performance usually ended around 10 pm, after six to seven sessions.13

Dressed in casual clothes only slightly more formal than those of their singlet-wearing audience, Chinese street storytellers blended in with their listeners.14 They relied on little more than their novel, a dim light, their dramatic voices and occasional gestures to narrate their stories.15 At the end of each night, the storyteller would close with a cliffhanger or announce a new story, in order to encourage his audience to return the following night. In that way, the storyteller created a community of listeners. While audiences tended to gravitate to storytellers who catered to their personal preferences, the storyteller also tailored his material to suit his audience, such as by selecting stories of a certain genre or altering passages to make the narrative more engaging.16

Beyond the streets
With the rise of radio broadcasting, Chinese storytelling moved into studios and was propagated over radio stations such as Radio Malaya and Rediffusion. Famous storytellers of this medium included Lee Dai Sor (李大傻), Ong Toh (王道) and Ng Chia Keng (黄正经), who catered to the Cantonese-, Hokkien- and Teochew-speaking radio listeners respectively.17 Unlike their street counterparts, radio storytellers enjoyed the comfort of a recording studio and a stable income. While street storytellers brought home a meagre few dollars each night, Lee reportedly earned $700 a month in the late 1950s.18

While Chinese street storytelling declined with the rise of alternative storytelling mediums such as radio and television, the reduced use of dialects in public due to the Speak Mandarin Campaign, launched in 1979, also led to the demise of Chinese storytelling in dialect on radio. After Rediffusion stopped its dialect programmes in December 1982, Lee, Ong and Ng ended their careers in broadcast storytelling.19 Traditional Chinese storytelling, both the street and broadcast variants, has thus become a trade of the past.20

Fiona Tan

1. Chan Kwok Bun and Tong Chee Kiong, eds., Past Times: A Social History of Singapore (Singapore: Times Editions, 2003), 162. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PAS-[HIS])
2. Heng Kin Ching@Wang Sha, oral history interview by Tan Beng Luan, 9 September 1992, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:34, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 001371), 133.
3. Mo Meiyan 莫美颜, “Zuihou yi wei jianggu dashi huang zhengjing zuogu: Yige minsu wenhua shidai jieshu” 最后一位讲古大师黄正经作古: 一个民俗文化时代结束 [The end of a cultural era with the passing of the last master storyteller], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 9 June 2003, 27 (From NewspaperSG); Li Dasha 李大傻,  Jianggu de yisheng: Li da sha zizhuan 讲古的一生 : 李大傻自传 [A life of storytelling: Li Dai Sor's autobiography] (Singapore: Commonwealth Press, 1984), 23. (Call no. Chinese RSING 790.20924 LDS)
4. Chan and Tong, Past Times, 163.
5. Li Dasha, Jianggu de yisheng, 23.
6. Li Dasha, Jianggu de yisheng, 23.
7. Sit Yin Fong, “Wong Has a Dream for Sale,” Straits Times, 29 May 1949, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Hor Chim Or, oral history interview by Jesley Chua Chee Huan, 11 November 1999, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:11, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002199), 177–8.
9. Tan Giak, oral history interview by Irene Lim Ai Lin, 15 June 1989, transcript and MP3 audio, 17:47, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 001040), 9–11.
10. Li Dasha, Jianggu de yisheng, 23–24.
11. Oral History Department, Singapore, Recollections: People and Places (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1990), 32. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 REC-[HIS])
12. Oral History Department, Singapore, Recollections, 32.
13. Sit, “Wong Has a Dream for Sale”; Chan and Tong, Past Times, 163.
14. Li Dasha, Jianggu de yisheng, 23; Hor Chim Or, oral history interview, 11 November 1999, 177–8.
15. Li Dasha, Jianggu de yisheng, 23.
16. Tan Giak, oral history interview, 15 June 1989, 9–11.
17. Mo Meiyan, “Zuihou yi wei jianggu dashi huang zhengjing zuogu.”
18. Chan Chin Bock, “Meet Malaya's Best Paid Story-Teller,” Straits Times, 14 July 1957, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Sit, “Wong Has a Dream for Sale.”
19. Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 51. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN C)|
20. Mo Meiyan, “Zuihou yi wei jianggu dashi huang zhengjing zuogu.”

The information in this article is valid as of 29 July 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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