Bob Lee – ONSTAGE OFFSTAGE

The getai is a live stage performance held each year during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. It forms an integral part of the month-long festival: local Chinese would burn incense paper to appease the spirits and performances would be held at various neighborhoods. In the past, performances were Chinese opera or puppet shows but have since evolved into a kitschy and gaudy combination of songs, dance and stand-up comedy.

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TOP TO BOTTOM, from (“ONSTAGE OFFSTAGE“)
© Bob Lee, 2011

Former photojournalist/independent photographer, Bob Lee, had fond memories of getais while growing up in Malaysia, attending the shows with his grandmother. He remembered the thick smoky air, tables of food offerings and the painted faces of opera actors. In 2011, he ran around Singapore documenting 13 performances across 25 days, seeking to capture the people behind the scenes. It was a watershed year as the getai was brought to Orchard Road, Singapore’s swanky shopping street, away from the usual heartlands. In a way, the performers felt that they had gained more recognition for their efforts and were elevated to a new level in the industry.

Lee’s work is poignant. Onstage, the performers glittered in their shiny costumes (and revealing dresses that bring a smile to the older gentleman sitting near the front row). Backstage, they thrive in an environment of drama, sweat and tears. Steeped in tradition, many of the performers are getting older. Although younger ones do join each year, the shows’ still appeal largely to the older generation. Young people usually find it too boisterous and cannot appreciate its cultural value.

Lee questions the longevity of these performances, how long would it be before it becomes just that – a memory? I remember the times I watched the shows with my mother; it went beyond a raucous light show to form a connection between the present and the past. Nevertheless, the new generation of performers may find novel ways of obtaining and retaining audience – as evident in the monitoring of ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages and usage of social media to gain new fans.

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Pictured above are the different editions of the book. The first is for sale at S$35 while the one with the glossy cover sells at S$60. The books are available for order at Lee’s Facebook page.