This article was first posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore on 28 August 2020.
On a humid Friday afternoon, sisters Teresa and Tracy Ong meet in a nondescript three-storey office building along Sungei Kadut Street in northern Singapore. It’s the third day into the seventh month of the lunar calendar and the duo is booked to perform a getai performance set to take place in the office’s studio later in the evening.
For the uninitiated, the lunar seventh month sees most Chinese communities around the world observing the age-old traditions behind the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival — where it is believed that restless spirits are released from the gates of hell to roam the land of the living in search of entertainment and to feast. While most Chinese families would take the time to pay respect to their deceased relatives and ancestors by burning paper effigies or providing food offering, some would band together and set up boisterous getai shows — which means “song stage” in Chinese — to appease and entertain the wandering spirits.
On stage, the sisters have adopted the Chinese moniker “Bao Bei Jie Mei” — which translates to “Precious Sisters” in English — Teresa, who is the older sister, is referred to as “Da Bao Bei” (or “Big Precious” in English) while the younger sister Tracy is referred to as “Xiao Bao Bei” (or “Small Precious” in English). “It’s also for the people too,” says Teresa. “There’s always music, songs and interactions. It’s really a concert for the community. You’ll see people with different backgrounds coming together and using dialects to communicate with one another.”
At 5.22 p.m., Teresa starts working on her hair, pinning her wig in place.
On a makeshift dressing table, Teresa and Tracy spills the content from their makeup bag. Together, they share a single vanity mirror.
Under pre-coronavirus circumstances, the set-up behind a typical getai show in the heartlands is a simple affair. External contractors would be hired to erect a huge tentage. In it, a sturdy makeshift stage made from wooden planks and metal poles is swiftly assembled while rows of plastic chairs are meticulously arranged facing the stage. Superstitions have it the first row of seats are intentionally kept unoccupied for the wandering spirits that are attracted to the show. The stage is also well-equipped with modern sound and light system. These shows take place all year round, but it is during the Hungry Ghost Festival that their popularity soars.
When the pandemic hit, getai organisers scurried to comprehend the new state regulations and for the most part, this meant aborting plans to stage shows in neighbourhoods and ceasing operations. Performers, musicians and hosts, too, are equally affected.
Left: At 5.35 p.m., an empty stage inside the studio, hours before the live-streamed show begins. Right: Inside and right opposite the stage is the sound system, instead of the usual lines of plastic chairs at a normal getai show.
At 6.36 pm, during the rehearsal, the sisters get accustomed to the stage and warm up their vocals.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is a month of hustling for most getai performers. Many performers would land countless gigs throughout the month (or on a single night) across the island. For Teresa and Tracy, who had begun their foray into the scene since their early teenage years, they are well-accustomed to the hectic travelling. Often chaperoned by their father in their family car, the sisters would perform at multiple locations in a single evening. On normal months, the duo would perform an average of 20 shows a month. But during the Hungry Ghost Festival period, they may be engaged to perform over 100 shows in the month. “Performing eight shows in a single evening was our limit,” Tracy recalls.
Finding themselves suddenly sidelined by forces beyond their control, the sisters frequently compare the present status quo to that of the 2003 SARS pandemic. “It wasn’t as serious [as this] then,” Teresa posits. And Tracy quickly adds that despite the crisis, “the shows just went on.” But even with Covid-19 upending plans to organize in-person performances, some organisers are turning to social media to keep its spirit alive.
At 8.15 p.m., Teresa slips into her bejewelled costume she had specially made in Penang.
A routine practiced for decades, the sisters would often help each other in their preparations. At 8.21 p.m., Teresa helps Tracy tighten the corset of her identical costume.
At 8.48 p.m., watching a small screen right outside the studio’s doors, the sisters observe and await their cue to go on stage.
Elsewhere in the office, a rehearsal is taking place in the studio. There, a band and two backup singers — all of whom are masked and stationed within safe distancing measures — ready themselves as getai performers for the night take turn to pace around and get familiarised with the stage (an unlikely non-outdoors one) before belting out song numbers. Two cameras, each manned by different cameramen and poised away from each other, are set to live stream the entire getai show on Facebook later that night.
Outside the studio, Teresa and Tracy can be seen seated opposite each other while other performers rehearsed. The sisters have to make do with one portable vanity mirror. While one of them affixes her wig and applying her makeup on, the other sister either has her dinner, gets dressed or trawls on social media. When one requires any assistance, whether it be holding the wig in place or buttoning the back of a skirt, the other doesn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand.
In a way, the performers, like Teresa and Tracy, are adapting to a new normal. Many of whom are acclimatising themselves to performing getai shows in a well-equipped and air-conditioned studio, which is uncharacteristic of a typical getai show. For the most part, they will likely miss the heat, the in-person interactions with a live audience and the bouncing off of energy between the stage and the audience. “In the past, you can rely on the audience to feed you the meds and get high,” Tracy jests with a laugh. “Now, you have to feed yourself.”
At 8.49 p.m., a backstage crew makes final adjustments to Teresa’s wiring.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, getai took to social media as means to engage to the larger community. At 8.49 p.m., in a separate room, organisers and guests stream the show on their smart devices.
Seconds before 8.50 p.m., the presents announce the Bao Bei Sisters’ upcoming act as the sisters watch from the side.
Even so, streaming a getai performance on social media is not without its difficulties. Solo acts, which rely on taking cues from the crowd, are likely to lose out in engaging the audience on the virtual space. “A huge part of the performance is about building chemistry with the audience,” Teresa says. “With getai going virtual, we are lucky to have each other. Even without a live audience, we can still continue bantering with each other and building up the hype that you’d typically see during in-person show.” The sisters also weigh in on the latency on live commentaries that appear on the stream. Teresa elaborates, “We see the comments on the live stream, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right responding to an audience’s response to a thing we said in the past minute. It’s like the moment is gone.”
Despite the differences, seasoned performers, like Teresa and Tracy (and the other performers in that very same studio), know that the show must go on and that delivering to an online audience is better than delivering to no audience at all. “We miss interacting with them,” Teresa says.
And the show begins. At 8.51 p.m., the sisters’s 20-minute set opens with the Hokkein classic, “A Half of Each”, to a live audience on Facebook.
On stage, the sisters are known for their glib, mutually-harmonising vocals and synchronised dance moves.
The show begins at 8 p.m., but it is not until 8.50 p.m. that Teresa and Tracy take the stage. Wearing identical outfits, comprising of pearls and artificial jewels embellished against bright pops of yellow, the sisters performed three songs for the evening. For 20 minutes, just like a typical getai performance, they synchronise their dance and harmonise their vocals against the backdrop of old-school computer graphics. In between Hokkein cult classic “A Half of Each” and contemporary mandopop pieces “Many Years Later” and “Hug You Away”, Teresa and Tracy banter excessively. Like an in-person getai show, the atmosphere is lively. But unlike an in-person getai show, there is no live audience. In place is a virtual 5,000-something Facebook audience who actively cheers on the performers via emojis and thumbs-ups. And, like any other televised broadcast, everything in the show has been regimented to a perfectly timed schedule.
The jarring differences don’t just stop there:
“We’d usually prepare new songs or new costumes for the show,” Teresa says.
“We’d travel to Penang and get our costumes made,” Tracy adds.
“This is the first time we have nothing planned.”
“I’m quite happy and relieved [that we still have virtual shows]. But it still feels weird.”
Teresa and Tracy’s view from the stage: On the side is a live band playing accompanying music to their songs, and not too far from the band are cameras and a screen displaying the stream of Facebook comments in real time.
At 9.06 p.m., towards the end of their set, Teresa and Tracy performs. a Mandopop piece “Many Years Later” which expresses one person’s forlorn love to an old flame.
At 9.12 p.m., the Bao Bei Sisters’ set ends. The sisters descend the stage and out of the studio. Outside, the organiser’s staff cheer and congratulate them.
To date, Teresa, now 39 years old, and Tracy, now 37 years old, have had more than two decades of experience performing in the getai industry. Starting out in their pre-teen years and having spent the bulk of their formative years getting mentored in troupes and performing alongside with seasoned veterans from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, it’s fair to say that the duo has seen it all. “Getai is like a second home to us, but growing up in the industry was harsh. Very harsh,” Teresa says bluntly. “You will see many things. But mostly, you see people.”
Whether it was navigating the cultural contrasts between performers of different nationalities or adhering to the rigid hierarchical social norms, or the 2003 SARS pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis, the sisters have survived and proven time and again of their mettle and their versatility as getai performers. It is unlikely that the present-day pandemic will stop them in their tracks nor will it extinguish their passion.
Elaborating on the future of getai, Teresa says, “We are all hoping that getai will return to the heartlands. I don’t think getai will ‘die’, but the thought of it scares me—”
“There’s always a small minority that that is trying their best to keep getai performances alive with e-getai. But there’s also a majority that is not doing anything and mocking those who are doing it,” Tracy interjects. “If we stand united and work towards the same goal of keeping it alive, then there’s still a future.”
Images courtesy of Bianca Husodo.