The Malay word wayang typically refers to a puppet theatre performance – wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, perhaps being the most famous among them – but in Singapore, wayang can be something quite different.
Wayang’s origins are tied to faith. Performances were held on temple grounds for the entertainment of deities and as part of festivals, and while the intended audience was celestial, crowds would gather on earth, too. Over the years, wayang became a fixture of life in Singapore, serving as a popular form of entertainment in the first half of the 20th century.
Its popularity has waned in the years since independence, but wayang remains part of the country’s identity, featuring in two recent local films, Wayang Boy (2014) and The Wayang Kids (2018), as well as the 2020 television series Titoudao: Inspired by the True Story of a Wayang Star, which was based on a 1994 play.
Though wayang is often spoken of with nostalgia for days long gone, and there are recurring lamentations that the artform is facing its final act, it is not something that exists in the past tense. Across the country, about a dozen troupes are keeping wayang alive, according to a 2017 report in the Straits Times. Founded in 1864, the Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe is the oldest among them, and it’s showing a way forward.