A glimpse of a getai performance at block 309, Hougang Avenue 5 on 18 August 2013. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, it is believed that the gates of hell open to allow spirits and ghosts to roam the earth. The front rows at most getai performances are left empty, “reserved” for these ghosts (Photo: Lim Weixiang)
For those who are not familiar with the culture, you may be wondering why there were overly colourful Chinese musical performances taking place last month in makeshift tents set up in carparks and open grassy fields.
This period comes round once a year in Singapore. And the set-up is known as getai.
Check out the gallery: A look-back at 2013’s seventh lunar month getai season
Getai, which translates into “song stage” in Chinese, are live musical performances that take place at Chinese festivals, but are usually associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Zhong Yuan Jie, or Mid-Year Festival, which happens during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This tends to fall around August to September.
Held almost every night during the month, they are usually found in public housing estates.
Sometimes, they are also held at temples, within industrial estates, shopping centres, and there was even one in a shipyard. The Franklin Offshore company held its own private getai performance within the shipyard at Pandan industrial estate on 15 August.
In 2011, there was a getai extravaganza along the shopping belt on Orchard Road, in front of Ngee Ann City. It was attended by more than 6,000 people.
Getai performances typically begin at 7pm and ends by 10.30pm due to mandatory police restrictions.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is tied to a Chinese belief that the souls of the dead and the unborn are released to wander the earth for 30 days during the monthe. If these souls are ignored, they may do acts of mischief, so measures have to be taken to appease the spirits.
Joss-sticks, incense paper known as “hell money”, and other offerings such as paper cars, paper mobile phones, and paper clothes are burnt as “gifts”, and food is also offered to these “hungry ghosts”.
Musical performances are held so that the spirits are entertained and this is where getai shows come in.
Traditional performances used to be in the form of Chinese opera and puppet shows, but getai shows have proven to be more popular among the public with the shining strobe lights, open-air ambience, and performers dressed in flamboyant costumes doing comedy skits and singing popular Mandarin and dialect (usually Hokkien) songs with a live band.
The shows are free, but there will be a first row of chairs which are empty. They are reserved for the “ghosts”.
While older getai performers tend to dress more conservatively, the younger ones sometimes choose to wear more revealing outfits. And the sexy costumes and routines of some performers have proven more daring than the authorities would like these days.
It was reported that in 2009, getai organiser Lex Entertainment, who engaged Taiwanese getai performer Ya Ya, received a verbal warning from the police.
She had been performing a “striptease” act onstage, removing layers of her costume until she was wearing just her bra and bikini bottom.
The more daring acts which involved pole-dancing and cross-dressing routines appear to have been scrapped, judging by this year’s performances, in favour of more conservative and less revealing but still flamboyant costumes.
Besides performers, each getai show has an emcee who introduces the singers and who banters with them in Mandarin and Hokkien. To engage the audience, crude humour is often used.
During the seventh month, getai performers typically perform at three or four different getai venues spread across the island in one night.
Performers have to pao tai or rush from one venue to another. They usually have a chauffeur, who is paid an average of $50 a night to whisk them off to the next venue.
Depending on popularity and experience of the performer, they can be paid between $80 and $200 for a performance of three to four songs.
A getai emcee rakes in about $400 to $800 a night. Popular ones include Liu Ling Ling, Wang Lei, Lin Ruping and Marcus Chin.
This is not to say being a getai emcee or performer is an assured job. Even the getai scene is seeing competition from foreign talent over the years.
Singers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Malaysia have been performing here during this lucrative period.
One of the big names specially flown in for this year’s performances was Huang Shang from Taiwan, who impersonated popular Taiwanese rock singer Wu Bai.
No longer just for the older dialect-speaking Chinese generation, getai performances have gained renewed interest from the younger generation.
Thanks in part, maybe, to Singapore filmmaker Royston Tan, who made two movies about them,
The 2007 movie, ‘881’, proved to be highly successful at the box office, earning more than $3 million, making it the top grossing Asian film in Singapore for that year.
Tan’s follow-up movie about getai, ‘12 Lotus’, was darker in tone and was released in 2008.
In recent years, pictures of these shows have been popping up on Instagram and have been the focus of professional and amateur photographers, who are out to explore interesting subjects.
Getai is also the focus of a photography book called ‘On Stage, Off Stage’, which is a collection of photographs by professional photographer Bob Lee, launched on 30 August 2013.
No longer just mentioned by word of mouth or in the Chinese dailies, getai artistes have caught on to having their own Facebook pages. Check out some of them:
Lee Pei Fen - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=44565700253
Zhuan Qing Yu - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=270834128576
Zhong Yao Nan - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=262884080661
Hong Xiao Ling - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=183717506157
Kiyo Ting Ting - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=117541334925628
Tan Kai Qing - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=229459857306
Zhang Xiong - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=260292031165
Sherraine Law - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=380818915701
Cai Xiu Wen - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=266202077357
Lim Zi Yee - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=236235959053
Luo Mei Yi - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=263605243519
Chen Xiao Xin - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=252324739398
Liao Wen Kai - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=147555638635
Chloe Lim Shi Ling - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=38914078218
Babes In The City - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=62137025321
2Z Sisters - https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=324720463241