The hot humid air, the white tentage, and the sea of red chairs. The deep melodic tones of the bass guitar, the distinct piercing sounds of erhu, and the conversations in unfamiliar Chinese dialects. Here we are, standing right in front of the getai stage in the heartland of Hougang hours before the boisterous live show opens at 7pm.
Aug 11 marks the start of the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore. Amidst other rituals and traditions, getai (literally ‘song stage’ in Chinese) remains the heart and soul of the festival. Celebrated every seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Chinese believed that the gates of hell are opened for spirits to roam on our realm and getai are staged as entertainment to appease them.
To understand more about getai, we sat by the makeshift getai stage at Hougang with Wang Lei, Singapore’s veteran getai singer to talk about his new book, Wang Lei: Tales from the Night (路边歌王 雷动舞台) and what goes on behind the curtains of this mysterious, colourful and fascinating song stage.
Wang Lei in grey suit singing with his protégé. (Photo Credits: Wang Lei: Tales from the Night)
You may be aware that the front row VIP seats of getai are reserved for our “good brothers”. But, here are five things that you probably didn’t know about the Singapore getai culture.
1. ‘Getai’s Law - it doesn’t matter if you are the Jade Emperor or the famous Ming Zhu Sisters, you still need to queue’: Wang Lei
Did you know that in the past, getai does not have a fixed performance schedule? Singers had to perform in the order in which they arrived, regardless of one’s seniority or popularity level. This was extremely important for a getai singer who was booked for several shows in a night, as queuing early means that they could perform first. Wang Lei recalled how he used to reach the getai at 7am in the morning, about 12 hours before the show just to claim the first spot!
The is the event rundown of the getai at 685 Hougang St 61. Currently, fixed performance slots are allocated to each singer, relieving performers the distress of long waiting hours.
2. Always be respectful and abide all superstitions and rituals.
For the past 20 years, Wang Lei has never skipped this ritual - that is to pray behind a getai before his first performance every night. Bringing both palms together and praying in four directions, Wang Lei and his proteges would pray for a smooth and successful getai performance.
In his book, Wang Lei also shared several spooky tales, including how everyone panicked when a traditional Hokkien opera song started playing by itself during the show. Even when Wang Lei requested the power supply to all sound systems to be switched off, the music just kept playing. If you are curious to find out what happened thereafter, grab a copy of Wang Lei: Tales from the Night (路边歌王 雷动舞台)!
3. Getai live bands may soon be a thing of the past.
The keyboardist of veteran getai live band, Feiying (飞鹰大乐队).
Apart from playing classic Hokkien hits that we are all so familiar with, veteran live bands such as Feiying (飞鹰大乐队) are integral to getai as they provide a level of spontaneity that cannot be replicated with recorded music. These musicians are capable of handling impromptu songs requests and are quick to play quirky sound effects when jokes are told on stage.
However, getai live bands may soon be a thing of the past with its lack of successors. Wang Lei predicts Singapore will experience its decline of getai live bands in the next 10 years and shows will be gradually replaced with pre-recorded music or karaoke systems.
4. It’s good money.
Getai singers are usually booked for 4-5 shows per night and they are paid $80 - 200 based on their popularity and experience. At his peak, Wang Lei shared that he was booked for 9 getai shows in just one night. That year alone, he completed 157 getai shows across different parts of Singapore. Now, you do the math.
5. It wasn’t always about the flashy costumes or death-defying stunts.
Before getai, Chinese opera and puppet shows were the staple of Hungry Ghost Festival performances. However, the popularity of getai among Singaporeans also meant the decline of these two forms of entertainment.
Getai organisers today continue to find new ways to innovate - such as providing Facebook live streaming, death-defying stunts or even resort to racy, raunchy content to sustain audience interest and attract more to watch getai.
Photo Credits: Wang Lei: Tales from the Night
Interested to read more insider stories of the getai? Grab a copy of Wang Lei: Tales from the Night (路边歌王 雷动舞台) at any major bookstores now!