Gunong Sayang Association



Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Bonny, Tan, Joanna Hwang Soo

Background

The Gunong Sayang Association, or Persatuan Gunong Sayang in Malay, is a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) social club that aims to promote Peranakan performing arts. It has played an instrumental role in preserving the Peranakan version of dondang sayang, the singing of Malay poetry.1 The association also helped to revive wayang Peranakan (Peranakan theatre) in the 1980s.

History
Established in February 1910, the Gunong Sayang Association (gunong sayang means “mountain of love”) helped to bring the domestic art of dondang sayang, a form of poetry singing, into the public arena.2 Sometimes referred to as “musical debating”, dondang sayang is the singing of pantuns or four-line verses set to music.3 It is usually performed by two or more singers who compose and exchange pantuns extemporaneously.4 Dondang sayang requires great dexterity, wit and skill on the part of the performers who have to compose verses on the spot.5

In the early days, dondang sayang was performed at amusement parks and on radio, and soon gained a faithful following.6 In 1911, the five-volume Panton Dondang Sayang Baba Baba Pranakan was published by Koh Hoon Teck, a founder of the Gunong Sayang Association.7 In 1926, another collection of such poetry, Pantun Dendang Sayang dengan Cherita Buah Brakal, fuelled further interest in the art form.8

The Gunong Sayang Association was inactive during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), but experienced a post-war revival when pantun performances became popular and were held at the National Library and Victoria Memorial Hall.9

The association had no fixed premises until it moved to 140 Ceylon Road in 1940.10 It remained there at least until the mid-1980s. The association’s current registered address  is 80 Joo Chiat Place.11

Membership and activities
The Gunong Sayang Association initially accepted only men as members, who gathered on Sunday evenings for dondang sayang sessions.12 The art form was highly popular in the 1960s and early ’70s, and the association’s dondang sayang singers were frequently invited to perform at Malay community centres.13

By the late 1970s, however, the association’s dondang sayang section was made up of only about 60 men. These members were mostly pensioners, with the youngest in his 40s, as the younger generation was not interested to take up the art form. The members performed infrequently, usually once every six weeks and on public holidays.14 The increasing popularity of jazz, disco and other forms of popular music led to a dwindling interest in dondang sayang, which was further eroded by the lack of fluency in Malay among younger Peranakans.15

To increase membership, the association opened its doors to the general public in May 1980, with a monthly subscription of S$3.16

Wayang Peranakan
Following the success of Felix Chia’s Pileh Menantu (“Choosing a daughter-in-law”) which was performed as part of the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1984, wayang Peranakan was revived and plays have been staged annually by the Gunong Sayang Association since 1985.17

Performed using Peranakan patois (or Baba Malay) and Hokkien, these stage productions usually feature Peranakan customs and traditions surrounding occasions such as birthdays, weddings, engagements and funerals.18 In keeping with wayang Peranakan tradition which considers improper for women to be on stage, men tend to take on the main female roles. This led to the development of male actors with good acting skills as female impersonators.19

Over the years, the plays staged by the association have been written by well-known Peranakans such as Chia, Henry Tan and William Gwee, with the more recent ones mainly by G. T. Lye.20

Prominent members
Prominent members of the Gunong Sayang Association included the aforementioned Koh, who was a well-known dondang sayang singer. A pantun expert, it was one of Koh’s wishes to have dondang sayang sung at his funeral. Upon his death in 1956, his family members and close friends arranged for a “pantun party” at his gravesite at Bukit Brown Cemetery.21

Gwee Peng Kwee, Koh’s nephew, was a famous female impersonator who was regarded as a pantun master. He played an instrumental role in reviving the association after the Japanese Occupation through fundraising activities. Gwee passed away in 1986.22

Gwee’s son, G. T. Lye,  has directed and acted in many of the association’s stage productions over the years. Following the family tradition, he is a veteran female impersonator who has played the role of the Peranakan matriarch numerous times.23

William Tan was a popular female impersonator in the 1950s and ’60s. Together with his cousin Henry Tan, they wrote a number of the association’s annual wayang Peranakan productions.24

Actress Sally Gan was a veteran of the association who was well loved for her portrayal of the comical maid and senile grandmother in many of its stage productions. She passed away in 2006.25



Authors

Bonny Tan & Joanna Tan



References
1.
Jeman Sulaiman. (1988, June 7). Courteous, thoughtful dondang sayang. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2.
Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 5–8. (Call no.: RSING 899.2304 THO); Hoe, I. (1980, May 3). Dondang sayang with some dancing thrown in. New Nation, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3.
Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 899.2304 THO)
4.
Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5.
Chia, H. (1960, February 13). Faithful 45 who keep the dondang sayang alive in Malaya. The Singapore Free Press, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.
Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 899.2304 THO)
7.
Page 8 Advertisements Column 1: Pantun Dondang Sayang. (1911, January 5). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8; Romanized Malay books. (1919, April 9). The Malaya Tribune, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8.
Thomas, P. L. (1986). Like tigers around a piece of meat: The baba style of dondang sayang. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 899.2304 THO)
9.
Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1987, April 24). Oral history interview with William Gwee Thian Hock [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000658/30/26, p. 240]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4; Lee is an old hand at Malay art of pantun. (1978, December 11). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10.
Tan, B. L. (Interviewer). (1982, October 28). Oral history interview with Gwee Peng Kwee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000128/13/12, p. 108]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Page 11 Miscellaneous Column 1. (1933, October 6). The Malaya Tribune, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11.
Oon, V. (1985, February 7). A play on manners. Singapore Monitor, pp. 16–17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Registry of Societies. (2017). [Untitled]. Retrieved 2017, May 21 from Registry of Societies website: https://www.ros.mha.gov.sg/egp/eservice/ROSES/FE_SocietySearch
12.
Gunong Sayang Assn. trying to keep the “pantun” alive. (1948, August 3). The Malaya Tribune, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1987, April 24). Oral history interview with William Gwee Thian Hock [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000658/30/26, pp. 244–245]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Rudolph, J. (1998). Reconstructing identities: A social history of the babas in Singapore. Aldershot: Ashgate, p. 360. (Call no.: RSING 305.80095957 RUD)
13.
Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14.
Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
Chandy, G. (2002, November 29). Give this Mr Bibik an Oscar. The New Paper, p. 22; Chandy, G. (1980, February 19). Gwee, grand old man of dying world. New Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16.
Musical thrust and parry. (1980, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17.
Chew, D. (2004, September 8). Peranakan play all can be proud of. Today, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, R. S. G. (1999, January–March). The Peranakan performing arts in Singapore: Moving into the next millennium. The Peranakan Association newsletter, pp. 8–9. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 PAN)
18.
Lau, E. (2008, July–September). Pageants of progress. The Peranakan Association newsletter, pp. 10–11. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 PAN); Gwee, W. T. H. (2006). A baba Malay dictionary: The first comprehensive compendium of Straits Chinese terms and expressions. Singapore: Tuttle Pub., p. 9. (Call no.: RSING 499.28321 GWE)
19.
Tan, T. (2008, November 19). Beat of babas. The Straits Times, p. 59. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20.
Tan, R. S. G. (1999, January–March). The Peranakan performing arts in Singapore: Moving into the next millennium. The Peranakan Association newsletter, pp. 8–9. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 PAN); Hong, X. (2005, September 6). A Peranakan’s progress. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21.
Goh, P. (1956, February 16). ‘Sing pantuns for me at my funeral’. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22.
Speeden, M. (1982, November 11). Tigerish art. The Straits Times, p. 1; Gwee Peng Kwee. (1986, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23.
Gasmier, M. R. (1990, June 19). Men behind the women. The Straits Times, p. 2; Chandy, G. (2002, November 29). Give this Mr Bibik an Oscar. The New Paper, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24.
Oon, V. (1985, February 7). A play on manners. The Singapore Monitor, pp. 16–17; Yaakub Rashid. (1990, June 26). What’s in a surname? The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wee-Hoefer, C. (2009, July–September). William Tan Wee Liam (1928–2009). The Peranakan Association newsletter, pp. 36–37. (Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 PAN)
25.
Ong, S. B. (2006, February 11). Actress Sally Gan dies. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Gwee, W. T. H. (2007, July–September). Remembering Baba Koh Hook Teck. The Peranakan Association newsletter, p. 19.
(Call no.: RSING 305.895105957 PAN)

Koh, H. T. (1911). Panton dondang sayang baba baba pranakan. London: India Office Library and Records.
(Call no.: Malay RCLOS 899.281 PAN)

Tan, W. (Director), & Tan, H. (Writer). (1992). Nasib. [Videorecording]. Singapore: Gunong Sayang Association.
(Call no.: Malay RSING 792.27 NAS)



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 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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