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Goh Siew Geok, born in 1948, is one of Singapore’s most respected and dedicated Beijing opera performers, teachers and advocates. She has dedicated more than 50 years of her life to the art form—first as a Beijing opera artist trained in Singapore and Beijing, then as a co-founder and artistic director of Chinese cultural arts group TAS Theatre Company, and most recently, as a creator of locally-relevant and contemporised Singapore Chinese opera. Through many challenges and countless struggles, she has staged many Chinese opera productions over the decades, bringing art and joy to scores of aspiring performers, opera enthusiasts and loyalists, steadfast in her love for both the art form and the art lover.
Goh Siew Geok was born in 1948 in Singapore. As a young schoolgirl growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, she loved to draw and to watch popular movies based on Chinese operas. Back then, Chinese movies were largely China-made film adaptations of classic Chinese operas. Watching these films were a favourite after-school pastime for many Chinese school students and several such as Goh became captivated by Chinese opera because of them.
She started taking classes in Chinese opera at the age of 12 without her parents’ knowledge. At that time, with the exception of a handful of disparate performing arts troupes, some of which were part of Chinese dialect-based societies, there were not many Chinese performing arts institutions in Singapore. Goh’s teachers, appreciative of the traditional arts and well aware of their young students’ budding interest in Chinese opera, took them on excursions to watch and participate in the art form. One English teacher in particular took Goh and other students to Hua Nan Ping Ju Sheh (Hua Nan Ping Opera Society) where they watched artists perform. Several of the students, including Goh, enrolled in weekend opera lessons. But because their families were poor and would have objected to their participation in what they viewed as a ‘starving artist’s’ profession, they lied to their parents about studying when they were in fact undergoing opera training.
Two years later, in 1962, Goh became a member of the society’s opera troupe. Although training took up most of her spare time, she loved every minute of it. “When I started as a young girl, I was captivated by the traditional Chinese arts”, she says. “The early days [of my career] were marked by a tremendous passion, and I threw myself into my opera training and development without self regard.” At the society, she not only received invaluable training in Beijing opera techniques from veteran Beijing opera artists who had stayed on in Singapore after WWII, but was also given opportunities to perform.
Then in 1969, Goh decided to join Singapore’s oldest Beijing opera troupe, Ping Sheh (Singapore Amateur Beijing Opera Society). There, under the tutelage of renowned opera artists including the Beijing opera doyenne and 1992 Cultural Medallion recipient Phan Wait Hong, she matured further as an opera artist, particularly in the performance of female roles.
By then, Goh had graduated from school and, art being her other love, had become an art and home economics teacher at Changkat Changi Secondary School. She had also been put in charge of Chinese cultural extra-curricular activities, and, as her own teachers had done in the past, regularly took her pupils to her opera society where they too learnt the art form. For three decades, through subsequent appointments at First Toa Payoh Secondary School and Bedok View Secondary School until her retirement from the teaching profession in the mid ’90s, while bringing up her own young family, Goh would doggedly pursue her opera training, often after her day’s work as a teacher. She became known as a beautiful and lyrical performer of female roles, and gave acclaimed performances locally and, occasionally, overseas with the troupe.
Meanwhile, the ’80s saw a turning point in Goh’s opera vocation. She moved from performing to teaching and directing opera when she founded the SAGE Peking Opera Group in 1981 for elderly Beijing opera enthusiasts and became its artistic director, principal performer and principal teacher. From a personal passion, opera had become a responsibility, and Goh, firm in her belief in the value of arts in social work, felt this very keenly as she grew into her new roles.
From then on, Goh began developing the non-performative aspect of her operatic career. In 1983, she expanded the SAGE group’s activities to include choral singing and approached Chinese piano tuner, musician, choral teacher and composer Lee Ngoh Wah for his help in teaching and leading the newly-formed SAGE choir. Two years later, at the age of 37, she enrolled in a two-year correspondence programme to study Chinese drama, film and television at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, China and, in 1988 and 1990, received two scholarships to study the performance and teaching of Beijing opera at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing.
It was around that time that she disbanded the SAGE group due to overwhelming constraints. Fresh opportunities quickly presented themselves, and in 1991, she travelled to Scotland as Singapore’s Ambassador-of-arts for a Singapore-Scotland cultural exchange programme where she directed the Chinese opera The Dance and the Railroad to acclaim. Two years later, with Lee Ngoh Wah and Chinese multi-instrumentalist Chong Kah Hoo, Goh co-founded the TAS Theatre Company, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of the Chinese performing arts in Singapore. She retired from teaching a few years later to focus on her newly-founded company as a full-time employee, pouring into the company all her retirement income, relishing the experience of being a fulltime arts practitioner for the first time.
Since then, Goh has embraced her various roles as opera director, producer, artistic director and instructor. She draws upon her many years of experience in performing lead or key roles in classic operas and opera excerpts, including those of Sun Yujiao in Found a Jade Bracelet, Bai Suzhen in Madam White Snake, and her favourite role as Yang Guifei in Drunken Concubine, a role she was taught by several master performers and that she in turn taught to a British student and opera enthusiast who later won an award for his performance in a competition in Beijing.
With both TAS and the now-defunct SAGE Peking Opera Group, she has taught acting, singing and performing to many aspiring performers and amateurs and staged many productions. In spite of the many financial struggles and manpower constraints both non-profit companies have faced, SAGE managed to present annual performances as well as ad hoc productions occasionally with the assistance of organisations such as the Singapore Tourism Board (which once provided them with opportunities to perform at the Singapore Handicraft Centre, National Library and Clarke Quay), and TAS has persisted in staging production after production including the Beijing opera The West Chamber, Huangmei opera Jiangshan Beauty, and folk opera, Liu Sanjie, for which, due to manpower constraints, she was producer, director, costume maker, instructor as well as performer.
She has also assisted in the presentation of other organisations’ Chinese and English productions such as M. Butterfly and Reproduction, as well as large-scale events including the River Hongbao. Through the decades, she has helped to develop the local Chinese opera scene, improving stage sets, introducing English subtitles for audiences and theatrical stage lighting to Beijing opera productions.
Today, Goh remains dedicated to keeping Beijing opera alive in Singapore and to the nurturing of local opera talent. Among her many hopes for the future of Singaporean Chinese opera is the hope that it will one day have a championing and representative body that will unite the many Chinese opera organisations and groups operating individually in Singapore.
She is concerned about Chinese opera’s future. “In the past, it was common to like Chinese opera. There were no Korean dramas, computers”, she says. “These days, young people have many diverse interests and distractions. A lot of these provide rapid gratification… Chinese opera, however, requires a lot of time, study and effort, for one to gain gratification from it [both as an artist and audience], unlike some other modern art forms. A lot of young people may feel three years to learn one subject is not worth their time. Perhaps Chinese opera itself has to evolve to attract new and young people."
Thus, rather than promote the art form of Beijing opera in a purist way to younger generations, Goh has begun developing a more contemporised and locally-relevant form of Chinese opera that Singapore artists and audiences today can relate to. At present, with TAS, she is writing her own original scripts and developing shorter, localised, contemporary Chinese operas featuring Singapore Chinese vernacular, narratives, themes and motifs. Three of these original operas have been performed successfully so far, and are being developed further for future restaging, together with new upcoming works.
At the same time, Goh cherishes her memories of her performing career, holding close to her heart two beloved keepsakes. One is a pair of Beijing opera shoes, her first, bought at the beginning of her opera career with her own income and patched countless times over the years, comfortable from having been custom-made and moulded to her feet after decades of use. The other is a phoenix headdress (feng guan) ornamented with iridescent blue feathers from the kingfisher bird. Bought in Beijing in the ’70s for use in her roles as the empress, princess or concubine in her early days of opera performance after a headdress she had once borrowed for a performance in Taiwan was sabotaged by stagehands because she had failed to give them “angpow (red packet) money” as was the custom there in the day, the headdress is one of the last of its kind for it is now illegal to adorn headdresses with feathers from the endangered kingfisher.
Old, worn and yet all the more treasured for their intricate beauty and rich histories, both are beloved reminders for Goh of the reasons she remains faithful to her art, students and audience.
Born in Singapore.
Began Beijing opera lessons at the age of 12 without her parents’ knowledge.
Joined the Hua Nan Ping Ju Sheh (Hua Nan Ping Opera Society)
Graduated from Nanyang Girls High School.
Taught Art and Home Economics at Changkat Changi Secondary School, First Toa Payoh Secondary School and Bedok View Secondary School. Was in charge of traditional Chinese cultural extracurricular activities. Took students for lessons at the opera society.
Joined the Ping Sheh Singapore Amateur Ping Opera Society in Singapore. Tutored by renowned opera artists including the late Beijing Opera doyenne and 1992 Cultural Medallion recipient Phan Wait Hong.
Graduated from Teachers’ Training College.
Participated in a performed at cultural exchange programme in Taiwan.
Founded the SAGE Peking Opera Group and became its artistic director, principal performer and teacher.
As co-founder of SAGE Peking Opera, approached Chinese musician, choral teacher and composer Lee Ngoh Wah for his help in teaching and leading the SAGE Peking Opera’s Chinese Orchestra.
Enrolled in a two-year correspondence programme studying Chinese drama, film and television at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, China.
Received a scholarship to study the performance and teaching of Beijing opera at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing.
Received a second scholarship to study at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing.
Appointed as the Ambassador of arts for Singapore in a Singapore-Scotland cultural exchange programme.
With Lee Ngoh Wah and Chong Kah Hoo, co-founded the TAS Theatre Company Singapore Limited.
Retired from teaching at Bedok View Secondary School to become fulltime artistic director of TAS Theatre Company.
Invited to stage a solo performance at a Friendship Art Festival in North Korea. Invited again in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005.
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Goh Siew Geok (front row, second from right) aged 14 backstage at a Wu Hua Dong performance. 1964.
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Goh Siew Geok performing in A Peach Blossom Face, at the 2nd Traditional Theatre Festival organised by the Ministry of Community Development. c.1990.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.