Woo…woooo: Songs of the Hungry Ghost Festival, Singapore Getai

Posted on August 24, 2013


bukit batok west ave 8, foto@me

bukit batok west ave 8, foto@me

We must be now… mid-week? into that month of the year which everyone dreads/ looks forward to with morbid fascination. Someone once said to me, “What is it with Singaporeans and ghosts?” WELL, buster, we can’t help it if we get a little bit obsessed concerned when the gates of hell open for one entire month and releases all these pissed off spirits, ok?

For the post-1970s babies aka still-of-age-to-be-hipsters, the Hungry Ghost Festival was a rather orbit, if vaguely creepy, affair. Orbit is the local dialect adjective used for shoulder pads, mom jeans and polyester sweaters. It was something your parents and grandparents cared about. The month-long… er, festivities only became cause for concern because of all that smelly burning stuff and the flying ash that got into your over-gelled fringe and flaring nostrils.

Then along came Royston Tan, and the Hungry Ghost Festival (known as the Seventh Month, in Chinese: 七月, in Hokkien: chit guey), became pretty damn cool again.

881, Royston Tan, 2007

881, Royston Tan, 2007

I think the getais 歌台 that year and the year after saw massive upturns in attendance. For the uninitiated, getai literally translates to “song stage”, and these are cabaret-esque song and dance performances put up to entertain the dearly departed, otherwise known as our 好兄弟 (our dear brothers). They’re usually kitschy good fun and a rollicking good time. Things can also get pretty crazy:

Yup, this is an exaggerated version of what usually goes down. I doubt the actual performers have that big a costume budget. And so far I have yet to see so many backup dancers at the getai shows I’ve attended, but then I haven’t attended all that many. Still, the point is – HOW COULD THAT NOT PUT A SMILE ON YOUR FACE?

And I don’t mean to turn this post into a 881 review, but it’s worth taking a listen to a lovely, lovely Hokkien song (sung here by Malaysian crooner Wu Jiahui in Hokkien and Chinese). Jit Lang Jit Pua 一人一半 means “each takes half” and refers to the sharing of goodwill and friendship.

Here’s the full Hokkien version by popular getai queens, Mingzhu Sisters 明珠姐妹. It’s more upbeat than Wu Jiahui’s nostalgic and admittedly more contemporary take. But this was performed at an actual getai setting. Their pipes are flawless.

This video demonstrates what’s so fun and incredibly endearing about getai. Audience interaction is paramount. You’ll see this at around 3:10 min when the Mingzhu Sisters pause their song to get the crowd singing along. Playing to the crowd pays off literally, as well-loved singers get showered with angbao (red envelopes with sweet cash). In the video below, you’ll hear the getai host jokingly yelling for a path to be kept clear so that the angbao stream won’t be interrupted. Getai also features a lot of banter between performers, performers and emcees, and performers, emcees and audience. Typically it’s semi-flirty talk with plenty of good-natured teasing.

Getai isn’t quite dead to all the young ‘uns, as you’ll see here. Pint-sized 20-year-old student Li Bao En 李宝恩 engages in hilarious repartee with veteran getai host Liu Lingling 刘玲玲, switching effortlessly between Chinese and Hokkien. Liu, by the way, also starred in Royston Tan’s 881. The bumblebee dress naturally came in for some ribbing – Liu accused her of breaking out in spots – but don’t let that distract you from the vocal range of a kickass goddess. (Li’s singing starts about 3:45.) And I’m sorry but did I mention this: she’s 20 years old!

Jeeesus. Did you hear that? And see the amount of angbao the sweet babe got?

It’s a pity the videos don’t show the audience, who sit on flimsy plastic chairs to watch the performances. The first row of seats are normally left empty for the spirits, but at the more well-attended getai shows, the overwhelming audience turnout means that the chairs in the first row get pressed into service as well. But usually in this case at least one or two chairs would be left empty as a symbolic gesture. Suck it ghouls. You snooze you lose.

One last getai song to send you on your way. This was uploaded just a couple days ago, performed on 21 Aug 2013. Yes this year. Beware: the strobe lights might send you into seizures. The title reads “dance uninterrupted”. That’s pretty accurate. It’s one crazy techno dance party. You might not make it past the first minute.

If you’d see to see more getai, rather than hear it (and who can blame you at this point), here’s a photo essay from the talented Bob Lee.

And for bibliophiles out there, here’s some fat juicy academia-style information for your to sink your teeth into. Seriously, go ahead. It’s chockful of brilliant information about the history of getai and how it has been affected by state policy. Plus, titling your tumblr iGetai deserves either a pat on the head or a little smack on the bum.

Singaporeans, you might want to visit the Singapore Getai – yes, I’m going to say it – Facebook page. Ah well.

Next up: an international take on the Hungry Ghost Festival.