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Teng Mah Seng

Singapore’s foremost nanyin music exponent.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Material wealth from the generations can all be squandered away but the culture and heritage passed down will not disappear so easily.

as told by son Teng Hong Hai to The Straits Times, 4 Nov 1997.

Teng Mah Seng was Singapore’s foremost nanyin music exponent. A prolific lyricist and composer, he was also a visionary chairman of the Siong Leng Musical Association. Unafraid of taking bold steps in modernising both Siong Leng and the traditional nanyin music style, his efforts brought the ancient UNESCO intangible heritage operatic art form to international recognition. In 1987, Teng received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to music.

Teng Mah Seng was born in Quanzhou, China, in 1915, and grew up learning nanyin music from a master in his hometown. In 1934, he moved to Singapore at the age of 18 and set up a successful business which left him time to devote himself to the promotion and development of nanyin—an ancient operatic music of the Fujian people with roots in the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century.

The Siong Leng Musical Association was officially founded in 1941 but had origins dating back to 1901 as the Heng Yun Association, the only nanyin organization of the time meeting the cultural needs of Hokkien Chinese migrants from Fujian. During the 1970s, Teng assumed the chairmanship of Siong Leng Musical Association at a crucial juncture when popular Western cultural influences were on the ascent, and nanyin music was increasingly marginalised. He convinced a sometimes sceptical public (in Singapore and particularly in Taiwan) of the need to revive and revise nanyin music. He also took the bold step of letting the younger members of the association take on leadership positions in Siong Leng Musical Association.

Teng himself penned several hundred new nanyin song lyrics (later published in three volumes as The Complete Book of Great Nan Yin Melodies), expanding the traditional expressive musical range found in nanyin music and introducing contemporary issues in its content, while also shortening the new nanyin songs to being no more than eight minutes long. By transcribing and adapting the ancient musical notation of nanyin music into a modern idiom he made it more easily understood by contemporary audiences. To achieve this, Teng worked in collaboration with Zhou Sheng Xiang, who composed the songs' melodies. Later, he published New Nan Yin Songs – A Selection of Compositions by Teng Mah Seng.

As General Secretary of the Pan-Southeast Asian (Nanyin Music) Association, he initiated the First Southeast Asian Nanyin Music Festival in 1977 in an attempt to revitalise the genre. This and other conferences gave impetus to the art form and stimulated a revival of nanyin in Quanzhou and Xiamen, where nanyin music was born in China.

Under his passionate watch, Teng built up nanyin into an art form that had cultural capital and that had the support and goodwill of a vibrant community base. He was also successful in preserving the transmission of this ancient art by recruiting new young talent and expanding the audience beyond the traditional Hokkien Chinese nanyin music lovers.

In 1983, Teng brought nanyin music to international attention when he led a Siong Leng Musical Association group to perform at the Llangollen Musical Eisteddford in Wales where they received the Third Prize in the Folk Song solo section (for the Teng–Zhou composition entitled Reminiscence) and the Fourth Prize in the Ensemble Performance (for the song Trotting Horses). This was the first time nanyin music received such recognition on the world stage. In 2010, Siong Leng Musical Association virtuoso Cai Yayi went on to receive First Prize at the festival.

For his efforts and success in contributions to nanyin music in Singapore and abroad, Teng received the Cultural Medallion in 1987. In 1992, Teng passed away, survived by his legacy with Siong Leng Musical Association and nanyin music.

Siong Leng Musical Association

Timeline

1915

Born in Qianzhou, China.

1934

Moved to Singapore.

1977

Organised the first Southeast Asian Nanyin Music Festival.

1983

Siong Leng Musical Association received 3rd Prize in the Folk Song Solo Section and 4th Prize for Ensemble Performance at the Llangollen Musical Eisteddford in Wales.

1987

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to music in Singapore.

1992

Passed away.


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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