Wayang (Chinese Street Opera)

Singapore Infopedia


Wayang, a Malay word meaning “a theatrical performance employing puppets or human dancers”,1 commonly refers to Chinese street opera in Singapore, although it also refers to other forms of opera such as wayang kulit.2 In Mandarin, Chinese street opera is known as jiexi (“street show”).This traditional Chinese dramatic form was brought to Singapore by immigrants from China in the 19th century as part of their religious rites.4 Since then, the popularity of wayang has waxed and waned.5 Wayang is now considered an important part of Chinese heritage and culture, and is performed by both professional and amateur opera troupes.6

Although the first recorded use of the Malay word wayang to refer to Chinese street opera was in 1887,7 the earliest description of wayang dates back to as early as 1842,8 when Charles Wilkes, Commander of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, observed various ceremonies performed by the Chinese to celebrate Lunar New Year in Singapore. He described the show as “groups of people carrying shrines, flags, and banners, among other objects, and were accompanied by the playing of cymbals and gongs”.9

Chinese street opera was introduced to Singapore by Chinese immigrants who arrived in the latter half of the 19th century.10 These Chinese immigrants later built temples for worship, and wayang would be staged outdoors on the temple grounds for the amusement of deities and as a form of respect during the celebration of deities’ birthdays and customary festivals.11 Such performances were probably free to watch, as the opera troupes were engaged and paid for by businessmen or temples and associations.12

Wayang was so popular that the large crowds at these performances worried the authorities. The government attempted to curtail wayang performances through measures such as the 1856 Police and Conservancy Acts, which restricted assemblies, processions and street operas. However, such measures were met with protest, and wayang continued to flourish as the controls were eased.13

Wayang’s popularity subsequently resulted in the building of dedicated theatres. They were located mainly in Chinatown, such as Lai Chun Yuen at Smith Street (which the Cantonese colloquially called Hei Yuen Kai meaning “theatre street”) and Heng Wai Sun and Heng Seng Peng at Wayang Street (now known as Eu Tong Sen Street).14

Chinese opera continued to be performed at indoor venues and in the streets during the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), but the depressed economy and social and political unrests in the decade of the 1950s and ‘60s contributed to its decline.15 In the 1970s, with Singapore’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the staging of wayang was permitted at only designated sites to minimise noise and public disturbance as well as traffic congestion arising from these performances.16 As a result of these postwar developments, along with factors such as the government’s push to replace Chinese dialects with Mandarin as the lingua franca among the Chinese, the Westernisation of the population, and its ageing and dwindling audience, wayang slowly lost its appeal as a form of mass entertainment among the Chinese community.17

Characteristics of wayang
The three main genres of wayang in Singapore are from the three largest Chinese dialect groups in Singapore: fujianxi (Hokkien opera), chaoju (Teochew opera) and yueju (Cantonese opera), each with its own distinctive features and characteristics. The differences include the use of various local dialects and styles, although they may share similar costumes, tunes and stories.18

Gezaixi (“folk-tune opera”), the most popular type of fujianxi, is based on folk tales of the Fujian province and is described as having a characteristic “crying" melody. Chaoju is known for its clear and tender singing style, fan-playing and acrobatic stunts, while yueju is easy to understand and reflects reality.19

Stage and props
Wayang is performed on a makeshift, sheltered wooden stage. The backstage is separated from the main stage by a scenic backdrop called shoujiu made of embroidered silk. The musicians are seated at both sides of the stage.20

Stage props are kept to a minimum and often used symbolically. For example, a horse whip represents a horse, while flags and banners with cloud and wind prints represent gales. Stock props include chairs, tables, lanterns, candles, fans, wine jars, and cups.21

Wayang music is loud and distinctive. Live music is provided by a six- or seven-member orchestra divided into two sections: the wen (“civil”), consisting of stringed and woodwind instruments such as the huqin (spike fiddle), erhu (two-stringed fiddle) and suona (oboe); and the wu (“military”), consisting of percussion instruments like the bangzi (clapper), luo (brass gong) and bo (cymbals).22 The wen instruments accompany the performers’ singing and provide background music to set the mood, while the wu instruments provide rhythm, set the pace of the music, and heighten the mood in acrobatic action or fight scenes.23

Chinese operatic roles generally fall into one of four main categories: sheng (male), dan (female), chou (clown) and jing (painted face).24 Each category has several sub-types usually classified by age, status and/or personality. For example, sheng roles are broadly classified by age – lao (“old”) or xiao (“young”) – and status – wen (“scholarly”) or wu (“military”). Among the dan roles, the huadan is attractive and spirited, while the caidan is a comical character.25

Makeup and costume
In any Chinese opera, the performers’ makeup reflects the traits of their characters. There are two distinctive styles: the junban (“charming makeup”) is applied lightly at the brow and eye areas, usually on sheng or dan characters, and the distinctively patterned caiban (“colourful makeup”) is usually worn by jing and chou characters. Certain colours hold meanings. For example, red symbolises bravery, loyalty and uprightness, while gold and silver usually indicate that the character is a god or spirit.26

A performer’s costume generally consists of a headdress, robes, footwear and an artificial beard for a sheng, jing or chou role to add character. Attires vary between characters and give hints to their personalities, gender and social status.27 The costumes are mostly intricately embroidered and elaborately beaded.28 Some costumes have long, flowing sleeve extensions known as shuixiu (“water sleeves”), which performers use to express their characters’ emotions.29

Wayang in modern Singapore
Wayang continues to be performed in Singapore. The government and various community associations promote it as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage, and there has been a resurgence of performances by troupes from China and a revival of local amateur troupes.30

The difference between professional and amateur wayang performers do not lie in their skills; rather, professional troupes perform for profit, while amateur troupes do so for leisure and interest. Professional troupes perform during religious festivals and ceremonies, and are supported mainly by Chinese religious institutions.31 Amateur troupes perform in highly publicised government-sponsored events, like the Hong Lim Park Chinese Opera series staged annually at the park between 1978 and 1985,32 and the Singapore Street Opera Festival held in 2004 in the main business, shopping and tourist districts.33


Serene Cai

1. Oxford English Dictionary. s.v. “wayang,” accessed 24 November 2023. https://www.oed.com/dictionary/wayang_n.

2. Evelyn Teng, Wang Si Mei: Xi ban ren sheng (Singapore: Splash Productions, 2007), 11 (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 TEN); Ines Vente, Wayang: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Singapore: MPH Bookstores, 1984), 7. (Call no. RSING 792.095957 VEN)
3. Lee Tong Soon, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 17. (Call no. RSING 782.1095957 LEE)
4. Pitt Kuan Wah, et al., Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore (Singapore: National Archives, 1988), 25. (Call no. RSING 792.095957 WAY)
5. Vente, Wayang: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 14.
6. Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore7–8.
7. Paul van der Veer, Da Xi: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Netherlands: Paul van der Veer, 2008), 49. (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 VEE)
8. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore21.
9. Charles Wilkes, The Singapore Chapter of the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 (Singapore: Antiques of the Orient, 1984), 15–16. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WIL)
10. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore22.
11. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore22–23.

12. Vente, Wayang: Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 8Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore23.
13. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore23.
14. Van der Veer, Da Xi22.
15. Van der Veer, Da Xi51.
16. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore59.
17. Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore4, 150–51; Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore114.
18. Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore6, 43.
19. Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 7, 43; Lim S.K., Origins of Chinese Opera (Singapore: Asiapac Books, 2010), 32, 34–35. (Call no. RSING 792.50951 ORI)

20. Van der Veer, Da Xi163.
21. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera102–105.
22. Van der Veer, Da Xi131.
23. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera106–107.
24. Teng, Wang Si Mei14,
25. Van der Veer, Da Xi86–90.
26. Lim, Origins of Chinese Opera88, 90–92.
27. Van der Veer, Da Xi121–7.
28. Pitt, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore, 70.
29. Van der Veer, Da Xi124.
30. Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore, 138; Van der Veer, Da Xi52.
31. Lee Tong Soon, “Chinese Theatre, Confucianism, and Nationalism: Amateur Chinese Opera Tradition in Singapore,” Asian Theatre Journal 24, no. 2 (Fall 2007): 397–421. (From ProQuest via NLB eResources)
32. Goh Beng Choo, “A NIGHT AT THE OPERA,” Straits Times, 30 September 1989, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore139–42.
33. Sandra Leong, “Reliving Wayang,” Straits Times, 4 August 2004, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Choo Liang Liang, Wayang: The Final Curtain (Singapore: MediaCorp TV, 2001–2004), videocassette. (Call no. RSING 792.5095957 WAY)

National Archives (Singapore), A Calendar of Street Wayang in Singapore (1987/88): With Special Reference to Major Chinese Festivals (Singapore: National Archives, 1988). (Call no. RSING 792.095957 CAL)

Lin Guan Ting, SingMan Wayang: A Chinese Opera Excursion (Singapore: Star Word Artistry Studio, 2023). (Call no. R 792.5)

Steve Lu, Face Painting in Chinese Opera (Singapore: M.P.H. Publications, 1968). (Call no. RSING 792.027 LU-[SEA])

The information in this article is valid as of February 2024 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Mediacorp Raintree Pictures


Mediacorp Raintree Pictures is the pioneering local film production company in Singapore. Formed in August 1998, the company produces and distributes local films as well as features made in the region. The company started out by producing Chinese films but later ventured into films made in other languages....

Singapore Symphony Orchestra


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is a fulltime professional orchestra that officially debuted in 1979 as Singapore’s national symphony orchestra. The SSO first trained under the baton of then resident conductor and music director Choo Hoey in 1979. Since 1997, its music director has been Shui Lan. The 96-member SSO...

Arts Theatre of Singapore


The Arts Theatre of Singapore (???????) is a Chinese-language theatre company whose beginnings can be traced to 1955 when it was established as the Singapore Amateur Players (SAP). In 1995, the SAP registered itself as a non-profit organisation, switched its focus from realistic modern dramas to Mandarin educational theatre for...

World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Singapore


World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) Singapore was an arts event that made its debut in 1998 at the Festival of Arts. The first WOMAD to be held in Southeast Asia, the event ran for 10 years in Singapore before it was put on hold in 2007....

Stefanie Sun


Sng Ee Tze (b. 23 July 1978–), better known as Stefanie Sun Yan Zi (???), is a Singaporean singer said to be the nation’s most successful musical export. When Sun debuted on the music scene in 2000, she became an instant Mandopop sensation in Singapore and Taiwan. She chalked up...

Ovidia Yu


Ovidia Yu (b. 1961, Singapore–) is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and playwright. She is the recipient of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore Foundation Culture Award (1996), the National Arts Council Young Artist Award (1996) and the Singapore Youth Award (1997). Her plays have been performed...

Stella Kon


Stella Kon (b.1944, Edinburgh, Scotland–), playwright, novelist, short story writer and poet, is best known for her monodrama Emily of Emerald Hill, which has been performed locally as well as internationally. The winner of several playwriting competitions in the early 1980s, Kon currently resides in Singapore. ...



W!LD RICE is a professional theatre company started in 2000 by actor, playwright and director Ivan Heng. Staging shows in Singapore and abroad, the company brings Singaporean theatre to international audiences and provides a platform for local theatrical talents. W!LD RICE also runs FIRST STAGE!, a programme that aims to...

M. Balakrishnan


M. Balakrishnan (b. 18 September 1938, Singapore–), or Mayandiambalam Balakrishnan, is a prominent author popularly known by his pen name – Ma Ilangkannan. He was the first Tamil writer to receive the South East Asian Writers Award in 1982, and was awarded the Cultural Medallion in 2005. ...

Heng Siok Tian


Heng Siok Tian (b. 1963, Singapore–) has published five volumes of poetry. An educator for more than 25 years, she received the National Day Honours for her long service with the Ministry of Education in 2015. She has been a stalwart of the Creative Arts Programme (CAP), an annual writing...