“Like so many of his characters, he [Yeng Pway Ngon] was sidelined by a shifting society, yet persisted in recording his view from the margins with great clarity”
—Jeremy Tiang, “In Memoriam Yeng Pway Ngon (1947-2021)” , QLRS
Yeng Pway Ngon’s Costume (2015), translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, derives its title from the novel’s enduring symbol throughout the Leong family’s history: a Cantonese Opera costume passed from Leong Ping Hung to his grandson Kim Chau. Part 1 focuses on Ping Hung’s boyhood and growth before and during the Fall of Singapore (1942), while Part 2 centres on his 31-year-old granddaughter Yu Sau’s navigation of a globalised Singapore and reconnections with estranged family members. In an expanding Singaporean economy, Ping Hung’s and Yu Sau’s struggles to connect with the zeitgeists of their respective eras emphasise the stabilising potential of collective imagination as represented by Cantonese Opera.
Culminating in the Fall of Singapore, Ping Hung’s migration to the Lion City sets up a culturally vibrant but economically fragile ecosystem susceptible to disorder and change. The Fall refers to the Japanese victory over British naval forces in Singapore which left the then colony under Japanese control (Blackburn & Hack, 2012). The corporeal imagery combined with destroyed architecture (e.g. “walls… smeared with blood and brain matter”, “ruined roads littered with corpses”) highlights the event’s widespread social and cultural rupture. Even before Singapore’s fall, however, Hall (2015) notes the country’s volatile status: beneath a façade of vibrant multiculturalism and activity, the overcrowded Chinatown district hid poverty and squalor.
The contrast between Ping Hung and Tak Chai’s “rags-to-riches” idea about their journey to Singapore and reality’s sordid first impressions reflects pre-war Singapore’s vulnerable starting point. During post-war recovery, attempts to unite diverse groups under a Singaporean nationality are manifested in Ping Hung and Yu Sau’s Filipina maid Maria, who is intimately involved in their domestic life despite her having the most basic Cantonese. While national harmonisation among racial groups facilitated Singapore’s accelerated growth in a global economy, it also risked drowning out individual narratives for the sake of collective harmony (Blackburn & Hack, 2012). Costume illustrates the cacophonous echo of individual memories through Ping Hung’s blurred perceptions of past and present, most notably his insistence on the costume’s existence despite multiple people explaining it had been discarded.
Confronted with Western liberal notions, Yu Sau’s arc represents Singapore’s transition from strategic to ethical cosmopolitanism (Choo, 2016). After World War II, the dependence of Singapore’s prosperity on economic and political co-operation in a global market led to what Choo (2016) names strategic cosmopolitanism. Strategic cosmopolitanism encouraged economic globalism through free trade and welcoming foreign investment, while retaining traditional social values (Choo, 2016). The introductory chapter’s display of the characters who speak multiple languages and the rapid sequence of Yu Sau’s transnational family reflects Singapore’s complex linguistic and social mosaic. Despite this, Yu Sau retains traditional images about femininity, such as virginity before marriage and the expectation that wives be younger than their husbands. Throughout the story, strategic cosmopolitanism’s promotion of economic globalism inevitably undermines Singaporean communities’ social and political insulation. Yu Sau’s anxieties about being “left on the shelf” contrasts with her colleagues Geok Leong and Sandy, whose lax views of relationships and friendship represent the importation of Western values via Hollywood and other popular American or British media. Challenges to dated social norms facilitate the development of ethical cosmopolitanism, which extends beyond strategic cosmopolitanism’sfocus on global economic dealings to promote a profound sense of human relationality and worldly being. Yeng foreshadows the novel’s relational nature through the contents page: each chapter is named after one or more characters, usually Yu Sau and a family member. Yu Sau’s reconnection with her family members and excavations of their migratory pasts emphasises the concept of global citizenship.
The transformation from strategic to ethical cosmopolitanism occurs through collective imagination, which refers to common spiritual bonds assembled through shared literatures and arts (Choo, 2016). In Costume’s case, Cantonese Opera’s nomadic, grassroots history makes it an appropriate connective tissue for Yu Sau, Ping Hung and their transnational family. Cantonese Opera is a performance style which originated in small Cantonese-speaking market towns and village communities like Ping Hung’s home town (Ng, 2015). It then achieved popularity among mass audiences in commercial theatres across Chinese cities and diasporas before undergoing periods of financial downturn and dwindling public interest (Ng, 2015). Despite the genre’s global spread, Cantonese Opera’s regional flavour maintained its status as entertainment for common folk, contrasting it with other widespread modes such as Peking Opera which became popular in royal courts (Ng, 2015). The costume, like Cantonese Opera, is deemed superfluous for most of the narrative to symbolise the supposed burial of Cantonese traditions and customs. Despite its physical absence, the costume lingers throughout Yu Sau’s and Ping Hung’s dreams and memories, illustrating the genre’s penetration of social consciousness. For Ping Hung, Cantonese Opera enables him to filter his experiences of military violence and poverty through the genre’s meaningful narratives and emotive displays. In a postcolonial era, Yu Sau’s re-learning of Cantonese and engagement with a local Cantonese Opera club are attempts to reclaim the collective myths which enlivened her family and community.
Costume’s multigenerational cast showcases Singapore’s tumultuous social, political and cultural landscape. Like their writer, Ping Hung and Yu Sau are marginalised by shifting values, the former during Singapore’s fall and the latter during globalisation. However, the characters’ alienated perspectives magnify Cantonese Opera’s role as a symbol of enduring collective identity for Cantonese populations around the world.
Blackburn, Kevin and Karl Hack. War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore. NUS Press, 2012.
Choo, Suzanne S. “Fostering the Hospitable Imagination through Cosmopolitan Pedagogies: Reenvisioning Literature Education in Singapore.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 50, no. 4, 2016, pp. 400–21.
Hall, Timothy. The Fall of Singapore. Australia: Methuen, 1983.
Ng, Wing Chung. The Rise of Cantonese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.
Jeremy, Tiang. “In Memoriam Yeng Pway Ngon (1947-2021).” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, vol. 20, no. 1, Jan. 2021.
How to cite: An, Frances. “Cantonese Opera as Collective Imagination: A Review of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Costume.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Jun. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/06/14/costume/.
Frances An is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction and non-fiction writer based in Perth. She is interested in the literatures of Communism, moral self-perception, white-collar misconduct and Nhạc Vàng (Yellow/Gold Music). She has performed/published in the Sydney Review Of Books, Seizure Online, Cincinnati Review, Sydney Writers Festival, Star 82, among other venues. She received a Create NSW Early Career Writers Grant 2018, partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet Literary Program 2019, and 2020 Inner City Residency (Perth, Australia). She is completing a PhD in Psychology at the University Of Western Australia on motivations behind ‘curbstoning’ (data falsification in market research).