With their own share of fanatics, Chinese opera stars of yesteryear were as in demand as the Hollywood and K-pop celebrities of today. During show intervals, children as young as 10 would clamber backstage and beg them for autographed photos.
Growing up in Chinatown, Ms Cindy Chat would pound the opera circuit in the area, watching performances and collecting autographs of artists from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore in the 1970s.
Ms Chat, now 57, has loaned several photos to the upcoming Kreta Ayer Heritage Gallery - the first gallery to focus on the intangible cultural heritage of the area and the Chinese community.
Apart from opera, the gallery will showcase Chinese puppetry, painting and calligraphy, and Nanyin music, among other things.
It is set to open early next year at the Kreta Ayer Community Centre and will be co-curated by the community centre, National Heritage Board (NHB) and key stakeholders.
Some in Chinatown have welcomed the effort, saying it is time that the community's stories are captured from the ground and consolidated. Kreta Ayer was a settlement for early Chinese immigrants. Opera groups and theatres were particularly active from the late 19th century till the 1950s, said NHB.
Ms Chat, head of the new gallery, said of her collection of photos: "These were hard to come by because photographs were expensive to print then and some of the performers shooed me away."
"But I managed to persuade quite a number to share with me their printouts by using my (late) father's name, Chat Thye Poh. He, too, was a successful Cantonese opera performer," added Ms Chat, who is an executive director at Gao Ji Food.
She also donated a 1930s book of handwritten song scripts and herbal remedies for opera performers belonging to her late father and his mentor.
Yesterday, NHB and the community centre launched a public drive seeking donations and loans of items related to Kreta Ayer and its community.
More than 30 artefacts have been loaned so far, including hand-sewn, sequined post-war opera costumes salvaged in the 1990s by the Chinese Theatre Circle from a defunct clan association and its opera group.
Chinese Theatre Circle's artistic director Joanna Wong, 79, a Cultural Medallion winner and Cantonese opera artist, shared material from her private collection, including photos of the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre in 1969. It used to host performances by international opera troupes in the 1970s.
NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan said: "We hope to showcase the richness and diversity of the Chinese community's 'living' intangible cultural heritage and provide a platform to facilitate greater community involvement in heritage."
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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.