Phan Wait Hong
Grande dame of Beijing opera in Singapore
Phan Wait Hong is the grande dame of Beijing opera in Singapore. She was hired by an opera troupe to come to Singapore from Shanghai when she was 14 and rose to become a lead actress in a popular professional troupe that toured Malaya and Indonesia in the 1940s and 1950s.
Wait Hong’s specialty was playing the laosheng, or "old man”. She is famous for her lead role of Emperor Han Xian Di in Emperor Han Xian Di Plans to Curb Cao Cao's Power and in Thrashing the Dragon Robe. Later in her career, Phan also played laodan, or "old lady". Her portrayal in 1980 of the matriarch She Taijun in Women Generals of the Yang Family set a benchmark for younger performers.
“I dropped out of school after two years [at the age of eight] and am illiterate. But when it comes to opera lines, you have to sing to me just once or twice and I can remember them by heart,” she once said.
A dedicated professional, Wait Hong, affectionately called Master Phan by her fans, worked way past normal retirement age. She bowed out with a bang when she was 82, giving a farewell performance where she starred in excerpts from Emperor Han Xian Di Plans to Curb Cao Cao's Power and Thrashing the Dragon Robe.
“Opera is in me. I may be bidding farewell to the limelight but it will always be my hobby. My life will probably still revolve around opera,” she said.
And so it did. In 2002, at the age of 90, Wait Hong performed at the Ancient Museum Theatre in Suzhou, China, to much acclaim. She had been invited by the Suzhou Cultural Broadcasting Television Authority. When she was 92, she was invited to perform at the Nanjing Festival where she played a favourite role, that of Tang Ming Huang in Mei Fei.
Besides performing, Phan was one of the first to teach Beijing opera in Singapore. At times, she would take on Teochew opera as well. In 1992, Phan was awarded the Cultural Medallion, Theatre/Chinese Opera.
"I do agree there may be a dwindling audience for opera now, be it Beijing opera or that of other dialect groups. But as long as there are high standards of performance and people promoting it, opera will still have a place in the society and people’s hearts."