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Lou Mee Wah

Co-founder of Singapore's first professional Chinese opera company the Chinese Theatre Circle

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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There are no real boundaries between the arts. These are all arts and arts performances. Some people ask me why I—a Chinese opera singer—would watch an English opera, musical or play. My reply is, ‘Why not?’

Lou Mee Wah is a Singapore Cantonese opera artist and educator. An ex-student of Singapore Cantonese opera pioneer Joanna Wong, she co-founded Singapore’s first professional Chinese opera company the Chinese Theatre Circle with her mentor in 1981. She became a sought-after opera instructor as well as one of the most luminous Cantonese opera lead performers ever seen in Singapore. Through a four decade career, she has performed and led large-scale productions and recitals in Singapore and overseas to acclaim and cultivated generations of aspiring Cantonese opera performers with dedication and care. Today, she is the only opera artist to have received both the Singapore Youth Award and Cultural Medallion.

Born in 1951, Lou Mee Wah grew up speaking Cantonese under the care of her Cantonese mother and nanny, and her Teochew merchant father. From a young age, her father brought her with him to many Chinese opera performances, and listened to Chinese opera records together with her, fostering and influencing Lou’s growing love for Chinese opera. Her childhood was filled with the sights and sounds of Teochew, Cantonese and Beijing opera, and she developed a love for them all.

After graduating from high school, a 19-year-old Lou got her father’s permission to attend Chinese opera recitals at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (Guangzhou Clan Association) near her home while she waited for her exam results. It was at the society that she met Cantonese opera artist and instructor Joanna Wong, from whom Lou began to learn Chinese opera singing, performance, makeup and staging. With Wong’s assistance, Lou also learnt martial arts from renowned Hong Kong Cantonese opera instructor Yam Tai Fan.

Lou remained at the society for 10 years training and performing, specialising in male roles, and often together on stage with Wong. In 1981, she received the Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture), becoming the first Cantonese opera artist to receive the honour. The same year, she became a founding member of the Chinese Theatre Circle, Singapore’s first professional Cantonese opera company.

In Chinese Theatre Circle’s early years, the company had no permanent home, and led a nomadic existence renting spaces for classes, practices and performances. The group consisted of dedicated Cantonese opera lovers who had full-time jobs outside of the company. Lou, too, was working full-time at a bank but spent all her spare time with the group. Three years later in 1984, the Chinese Theatre Circle began collaborating with opera artists from China. It also began taking its performances to the people by putting on excerpt performances in community centres around Singapore, playing an important part in the burgeoning Singapore Cantonese opera scene in the ’80s.

Lou took a break from opera in 1992 for a year to take care of her father, who had suffered a heart attack and was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her father passed away at the end of year, and an exhausted Lou resigned from her bank job in 1993 to recover mentally and physically. Not long after, Leslie Wong, the director of Chinese Theatre Circle and husband of Joanna Wong, asked Lou to consider becoming a full-time opera artist with the Chinese Theatre Circle. Lou agreed and rejoined the group.

Over the next few years, she became indispensable to the Chinese Theatre Circle as its lead actor, co-artistic director and trainer. She gave many acclaimed performances in Singapore as well as overseas, performing in festivals such as the Cantonese Music Festival in 1994. She performed in full-scale productions such as Chinese Theatre Circle’s A Costly Impulse, which after a highly successful performance in Singapore, was restaged numerous times in China, Germany and Romania from 1993 to 1995. A Costly Impulse went on to become the first foreign opera production to be recorded and broadcast to audiences all over China.

Chinese Theatre Circle became one of the leading Chinese opera training centres in Singapore, and its student numbers grew steadily. Lou gained a reputation as a strict but extremely detailed and dedicated teacher, and became well known for her successful onstage partnerships with Wong.

In 1999, Lou was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a two-year battle with the illness—which included a six-month sabbatical from Chinese opera and a relapse in 2001—Lou recovered fully, and reprioritised her Chinese opera activities to focus on teaching.

In 2009, after four decades of performing only male (sheng) roles, Lou performed a female (dan) role for the first time, portraying the character Wang Xifeng in A Dream of Red Chamber. The next year, she performed as Emperor Shun Zhi with young Singapore artists. In 2011, she achieved another first when she was invited by director Danny Yeo to perform Chinese opera arias in the role of a deceased grandmother in contemporary Chinese play《玉梨魂》 The Jade Bangle.

Lou’s artistry and efforts to promote Chinese opera were recognised in 1993 when she received the Commendation Certificate from the Ministry of Culture of China. In 1997, she received the Cultural Medallion for her contributions to theatre in Singapore. She is the only opera artist to have received both the Singapore Youth Award and the Cultural Medallion.

In 2010, Lou left the Chinese Theatre Circle to become a freelance performer dedicated to teaching and mentoring a new generation of opera artists. She performed with young Singapore artists in 《顺治皇帝》Emperor Shun Zhi in 2010 and 《花染状元红》Love’s Trials in 2012.

She currently serves as an opera instructor at the Tanjong Pagar Community Club.

Timeline

30 Mar 1951

Born in Singapore.

1958 to 1969

Attended St Nicholas Girls’ School.

1970

Joined Kong Chow Wui Koon.

1981

Received Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture). First Cantonese opera artist to receive the honour.



Founding member, Chinese Theatre Circle.

1981 to 2010

Deputy chairman, artistic director and lead actor, Chinese Theatre Circle.

1984

Singapore representative, Annual Rose Pasadena, California, USA. Received Special Trophy Award.

1987

Performed in Istanbul, Turkey.

1988

Performer, Edinburgh Festival, Scotland, UK.

1989

Performer, International Children Festival, New Opera House, Cairo, Egypt.

Performer, International Children Festival, Virginia, USA.

Performer, Montage 89, Texas, USA.

1990

Performer, The Patriotic Princess, Tokyo International Festival, Japan.

Performer, The Patriotic Princess, Guangzhou International Guangdong Opera Festival ’90, China.

1991

Performer, Women Warriors of Yang Family, Panyu, China.

1992

Performer, Palace of Fine Arts, USA.

1992 to Present

Instructor, Cantonese opera singing, gesture and movement, and opera make-up classes, Tanjong Pagar Community Club, Singapore.

1993

Performed at China Theatre Festival in Fuzhou, China.

Performed A Costly Impulse in Bremerhaven and Berlin.

Performed A Costly Impulse and The First Emperor in Beijing, China.

Live recording of A Costly Impulse by Central Television in Beijing.

Received Commendation Certificate, Ministry of Culture, China.

1994

Performer, Guangzhou International Cantonese Music Festival ’94, China.

Performed in Bucharest and Craiova, Romania.

1995

Performer, Guangdong International Festival, China.

1996

Performer, Guangzhou International Cantonese Opera Festival ’96, China.

1997

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to theatre in Singapore.

Organised Cantonese opera concert for students, Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore.

2000

Performer, Hong Kong International Opera Festival ’99.

2001

Performer, 《荆轲刺秦皇》 The Emperor and the Assassin, fundraising event for Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, Li Chun Yuan (Spring Pear Theatre), Singapore.

2003

Performer, 《凄凉辽宫月》A Costly Impulse, Victoria Theatre, Singapore.

2004

Performer, Guangzhou International Opera Festival ‘04, China.

2005

Performer, Cantonese opera concert, Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore.

2007

Director, Madam White Snake, Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, Singapore.

2009

Performer, 《王熙凤》Wang Xi Feng, Drama Centre, Singapore. First performance in female role.

2010

Performer, 《顺治皇帝》Emperor Shun Zhi, Drama Centre, Singapore.

2011

Participated in fundraising performance for the victims of Japan earthquake, Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, Singapore.

Performer, 《玉梨魂》The Jade Bangle, Drama Box, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore.

2012

Performer, 《花染状元红》 Love’s Trials, Drama Centre, Singapore.


TributeSG

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.

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