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Phan Wait Hong was Singapore’s most celebrated Peking Opera doyenne. Since moving to Singapore in 1926, she dedicated most of her life to perfecting her art, becoming a celebrated performer and mentor to younger opera artists. Despite not being able to read or write, Phan was reputed for her flawless performances of intricate arias in crisp classical Chinese and was renowned both in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, particularly for her mastery of the roles of the laosheng (old man) and laodan (old lady). Phan received many honours in her lifetime, including the Cultural Medallion in 1992, and continued to give public performances into her old age.
Phan Wait Hong was born in 1914 in pre-war Shanghai, China, into an affluent family. She lived a pampered existence as the youngest child, with doting parents and nanny until her parents’ separation a few years later when she was still a young child. As Shanghai then was a thriving hotbed of the arts and culture and Phan’s mother was the owner of a successful teahouse, Phan was immersed in a dynamic and artistic environment from a young age. One day, Phan’s mother, a Beijing Opera lover, came to know about an old couple, a Beijing Opera actor called Hu and his wife, who had no place to stay in Shanghai. She offered them temporary lodging, and as repayment for her mother’s kindness, Hu taught a six-year-old Phan and her elder sister the basics of Beijing Opera. Phan proved to be an extremely rapt pupil and Hu offered to take her on formally as a student.
Thus, Phan began learning Beijing Opera from Hu and left school at the age of eight, virtually illiterate, never learning to read or write afterwards. In 1921, Hu told Phan’s mother he had formed an opera troupe and offered to take Phan to Hankou where they would perform. Phan’s mother agreed. However, once Phan had settled there with the couple, her life took a dramatic turn for the worse. The Hus neglected to teach her opera as promised and instead ill-treated her, beating her and forcing her to care for children and toil at all their household chores with little respite.
After two years with the Hus, she was taken home to Shanghai where she was pushed out of a rickshaw by the couple and left to find her way home. Upon Phan’s return home, her mother, shocked by what had happened with the Hus, attempted to file a lawsuit against them, but dropped it when Hu died shortly after. She employed another opera master to teach Phan. Named Lin Chenglin, Phan’s second opera teacher was a committed tutor who continued teaching her even after he was rendered blind in a freak accident. His efforts at grooming her led to performing opportunities and a year’s performing contract in Nanjing.
In 1926, a 14-year-old Phan was talent spotted by a Singapore opera company and invited to join them in Singapore. By then, tragedy had befallen her family; her brother had squandered their savings and her mother had passed away. That year, Phan left China for Singapore. Upon arrival, Phan started singing at the Nantian Teahouse and drew a full house every night. By then, she had discovered that she was blessed with a wonderful memory, and could commit entire passages to memory with practice. Thus, despite being illiterate, she quickly earned a reputation as a flawless singer with a crisp enunciation and faultless intonation.
In 1930, Phan married Gong Yu Tang, with whom she subsequently had a son and a daughter. Family life only seemed to spur Phan on. She quickly became the celebrated lead actress of a professional opera troupe, the Yong Chun Peking Opera troupe. Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, she toured Malaya and Indonesia with the troupe to much acclaim, performing to full houses and standing ovations in places like Penang and Surabaya. Already well-loved at home in Singapore, she became a regional opera star and also gained fame in Taiwan from the ’70s when she performed there on several occasions.
Phan became particularly celebrated for her mastery of the role of the laosheng (old man). Today, she remains famous for her performances as Emperor Han Xian Di in Emperor Han Xian Di Plans to Curb Cao Cao's Power, and also in Thrashing the Dragon Robe. In the latter part of her performing career, Phan also gained much renown for her role of the laodan (old lady). Among her most famous performances were her portrayal of the Song dynasty matriarch She Taijun in Women Generals of the Yang Family, a role she played for Singapore amateur opera troupe Ping Sheh's 40th-anniversary show in 1980, and which she reprised at the age of 71 during the Drama Festival held at the Victoria Theatre in 1983.
From the late ’50s, Phan began a concurrent career, teaching opera as well. She first started teaching at Singapore’s oldest Peking Opera troupe, Ping Sheh, as an opera instructor. Later on, she also taught at Hua Nan (the Hua Lam Dramatic Association) and, for a period in 1969, at the National Theatre Club. Through the decades, she mentored several generations of opera performers, mainly in Peking Opera, but also in Teochew Opera, which she crossed over to occasionally later in her career.
For her artistry and contribution to the field of Chinese Opera in Singapore, Phan received the Cultural Medallion in 1992. That same year, she withdrew from Ping Sheh and far from retiring, joined Tian Yun Amateur Peking Opera Troupe (天韵京剧社) as a founding member.
Then in her 80s, she gave acclaimed public performances, including a 1995 performance in Cao Cao's Cruelty and Thrashing Dragon Robe, featured in Palanquins and Paladins, organised by the Chinese Opera Society for the Chinese Cultural Festival. Although she announced that that was her farewell performance, she went on to give more public performances in the following years. In 2002, a 90-year-old Phan performed in Thrashing Dragon Robe at the Ancient Museum Theatre in Suzhou, China, at the invitation of the Suzhou Cultural Broadcasting Television Authority, to much acclaim, and followed up with a performance in Justice Bao's Apology in her 90th Birthday Gala organised by the Chinese Opera Institute that same year. Her next big performance was in 2006, in Fishing for a Golden Turtle at the International Conference organised by the Chinese Opera Institute and the National Museum of Singapore.
In 2014, she was, together with fellow Peking Opera artist Hor Chim Or, honoured with the Prestige Award at the Chinese Opera Institute’s inaugural Orchid Awards.
Well into her old age, Phan practised singing her arias while walking in the Botanic Gardens, illiciting chuckles from passers-by who, Phan mused, must have thought she was a lunatic. She lived to be a centenarian, enjoying the company of her daughter, son and several grandchildren, the occasional game of mahjong, and her daily singing.
On 1 Sep 2016, Phan passed away at the age of 102 in Singapore from a heart attack.
Image of Phan Wait Hong courtesy of National Arts Council, for the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award
Born in Shanghai, China, into an affluent family.
Started learning Peking Opera from a family lodger, a Peking Opera actor Hu and his wife.
Left school at the age of eight.
Moved to Hankou, China with Hu and his wife.
Returned to Shanghai, China.
Learned Peking Opera from Lin Chenglin, an opera master.
Moved to Singapore at age 14 to work as a Peking Opera singer.
Married Gong Yu Tang.
Lead actress, Yong Chun Peking Opera troupe.
Began career as opera instructor, Ping Sheh.
Invited to be honourable advisor of Liu Yi Ping She (六一平社).
Performer, Zhu Lian Zai for Ping Sheh's 29th anniversary show.
Teacher, National Theatre Club.
Performer, The Jade Bracelet at a fundraising show at the National Stadium with Hong Kong movie superstar Li Li Hua.
Peformer, Plum Dragon Town for the Chinese Women's Association.
Performer, San Niang Teaching Her Son, in Taiwan, organised by the Wen Hua Peking Opera Association.
Performer, Thrashing Dragon Robe in Taiwan organised by for the Wen Hua Peking Opera Association.
Performer, Thrashing Dragon Robe, in Taiwan.
Performer, Women Generals of the Yang Family for Ping Sheh's 40th anniversary show.
Performer, Amazons of the Yang Family (a.k.a. Women Generals of the Yang Family), Drama Festival, Victoria Theatre.
Performer, Mu Gui Ying Appointed as a Marshal.
Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to Chinese Theatre and Opera in Singapore.
Founding member, Tian Yun Amateur Peking Opera Troupe (天韵京剧社).
Performer, Fishing for a Golden Turtle, as part of A Musical Rendezvous, organised by the SAF Musical Groups.
Performer, Cao Cao's Cruelty and Thrashing Dragon Robe, as part of Palanquins and Paladins, organised by the Chinese Opera Society for the Chinese Cultural Festival.
Gave her farewell performance at the Chinese Cultural Festival.
Performer, excerpt of Women Generals of the Yang Family for the Chinese Opera Institute's fundraising dinner.
Performer, Chinese Opera Week organised by the Chinese Opera Institute.
Performer, the Thailand Cultural Centre with the Chinese Opera Institute.
Performer, Thrashing Dragon Robe and Cao Cao's Cruelty at the Chinese Opera Academy in Beijing, China.
Performer, Cao Cao's Cruelty for the Chinese Opera Institute's 6th Anniversary Show.
Performer, Thrashing Dragon Robe presented by the Chinese Opera Institute at the Ancient Museum Theatre in Suzhou, China.
Performer, Justice Bao's Apology for her 90thh Birthday Gala organised by the Chinese Opera Institute.
Performer, Fishing for a Golden Turtle at the International Conference organised by the Chinese Opera Institute and the National Museum of Singapore.
Received Prestige Award at the inaugural Orchid Awards by the Chinese Opera Institute, Singapore.
Passed away from a heart attack in Singapore.
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Phan Wait Hong holding her Cultural Medallion, which was awarded to her for her contributions to the Singapore theatre scene. 1992.
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.