July 4, 2018
| On 5 months ago

Getai (歌台) In Singapore: The Allure Behind This Live Stage Performance Overlooked By Our Generation

By Esther Chan

When getai is mentioned, one usually thinks of it as a performance put up for the spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore, with the front row seats left empty for ‘VIP’ audiences from the spiritual realm. That is not the case however, as getai (literally “song stage”) performances are also organised throughout the year.

Curious about what it is that sustains the getai industry today, I went to watch one of the performances to try to understand the appeal.

As I walked closer to the location, I could hear a female emcee speaking animatedly in Hokkien, as disco lights illuminated the stage with purple and pink splashes. The lady was dressed in an eye-catching red mini-dress with silver and gold embellishments. Not the most tasteful, but certainly flashy.

She chatted with the audience, most of whom were aunties and uncles ranging from the age of my parents to grandparents.

After some idle chat, she introduced the next singer, and then the performance began.

As the getai singer belted out soulful lines from a Teochew song, I noticed a change of mood. Even though the song wasn’t a sad or emotional one, the audience listened quietly in a zombie-like trance.

The song was lively and the singer danced on stage (it looked like the cha-cha), but there was no one clapping along to the beat.

After the performance, the emcee and singer would chat for a while, and sometimes members of the audience would come forward to gift them with red packets – tips for their performance.

One thing I noticed throughout the getai was that the uncles and aunties were always addressed as either 大哥 or 大姐 (big brother / big sister). I’m guessing it’s done deliberately to make the older generation feel young, which is nice.

The next singer, much to my surprise, was a girl way younger than I was. My curiosity was piqued instantly as she sang line after line of Hokkien songs fluently. After kaypoh-ing through people in the crowd, I learned the she was actually one of the youngest getai singers in the industry today, and that she was Malaysian.

She also has a fan club.

Wherever she goes, a lot of people want to take photos with her,” a fan tells me.

I approached her after her performance, and asked if she sang specifically for getais or if she sang in general too.

She replied that she sings for getais mainly, and that she enjoys it a lot. Despite being only 17 years old and still schooling, she does not find it stressful to juggle her studies and performances.

The president of her fan club informed me that she reaches her home in Johor Bahru as late as 2am some nights, and still has to complete her schoolwork. Talk about true dedication and passion, two traits that are rarely seen in the younger generation today. Meanwhile, I can’t even commit to finishing a novel I bought months ago.

I left her to her fans and continued to watch the next singer perform. The mood was still melancholic as aunties and uncles (or should I address them as 大哥大姐?) sat there to while their night away.

After two more Hokkien and Cantonese songs, I walked away. Despite attending a getai in person, I still unfortunately had no interest in the art. The main reason for that was because I didn’t understand the songs, but also because it wasn’t my jam (I tried, okay?).

However, as I looked back at the huge crowd enthralled in watching the getai, I realised that it was not simply a free concert of popular oldies. To the older generation, watching a getai probably feels like being suspended in time, and for the length of the performance, they were 大哥s and 大姐s again.

With the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival on 25 August 2018, we’ll be seeing a lot more getai performances around. Maybe this year you should actually stay for a performance or two like I did, and experience this tradition before it disappears forever.

Esther Chan

I sip tea in the face of adversity.