Chinese wayang (more popularly known today as opera) was early forms of popular entertainment for the migrant community in Singapore. Many of these immigrants were labourers and indentured coolies who converged on the island from various regions in southeast China. Arriving between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought their respective styles of regional opera. Opera involves much dialect and music, and its stage conventions and stories are derived from Chinese literay epics and folk mythology such as Romance of the three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Journey to the West.


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As a form of folk art, popular opera tales empathised with the hardship faced by the common people and expressed their ideals and hopes through well-loved stories of military and social heroism, as well as romance. With its rich blend of colour, sound and movement, a Chinese opera performance was a spectacle commonly enjoyed as part of a larger religious or social occasion. During the economic boom of the 1890s to the early 1930s, performances were staged at temples and on the streets during festivities. Opera artists also performed in theatres and amusement parks.

As Singapore became more urbanised and new forms of entertainment such as the cinema emerged, the popularity of opera declined and opera theatres were converted to show films and revues. However, Chinese opera maintained its role as a religious performance and continued to be enjoyed as a highly visual and aural form of live theatre.