Siong Leng Musical Association 湘灵音乐社is a cultural institution founded in 1941 to promote Nanyin 南音and Li Yuan Opera 梨园. They are located in Singapore Chinatown and perform regularly in different venues in Singapore.
Although the official founding date of Siong Leng was 1941, its origins in Singapore can be traced back to around 1901 as the Heng Yun Association.
Migration and cultural transfer
Heng Yun’s establishment in Singapore addressed the cultural needs of Hokkien Chinese who migrated from Fujian 福建 in Southern China. They hoped to make enough money to return to China and as they accumulated economic resources outside of China, demand was generated for cultural performances they knew and that reminded them of home.
Heng Yun’s Nanyin performances satisfied cultural needs of migrants and allowed them to hear melodies of home. Heng Yun Association was well known all over Malaya.
Sino Japanese war
When the Second Sino Japanese War erupted in 1937, overseas Chinese in Southern Islands, 南洋群岛, today’s South East Asia, rallied in support of China. In 1938, the China Relief Fund was founded and headed by Mr. Tan Kah Kee. At that time, a popular slogan was to “contribute in whatever ways you can”, “有钱出钱，有力出力”.
Being part of the Chinese community and as the only Nan Yin Organization, Heng Yun Association responded to relief efforts by organizing fund raising concerts in support of China. Such performances also served to educate the general public about the war situation in China and to generate ethnic consciousness among overseas Chinese.
Great Britain as a neutral party in the war between China and Japan restricted activities in her colony that might affect her neutrality. This policy created obstacles for Heng Yun Association’s participation and they disbanded as a result of internal issues.
However, the passion and the desire to contribute to society in time of crisis was still strong. Several members from the disbanded Heng Yun established a new organization called The Yun Lu NanYin Association.
Yun Lu NanYin Association continued to organize fund raising concerts in support of China Relief Fund.
However, their license was withdrawn by the colonial authorities and Yun Lu NanYin Association was forced to close. The loss of legal entity did not erode their commitment to their arts or to society.
Their members probably contributed their talents in many other public plays or performances that were going on in Singapore in support of China Relief Fund.
In 1941, some members founded the Siong Leng Musical Association but within a year of its founding, the British surrendered and during the Japanese Occupation, Siong Leng ceased all activities.
Post war and cold war
In the post war years, Siong Leng continued to perform and to use their performance for different social purposes like fund raising or to celebrate important events.
During the 1970s, Mr. Teng Mah Seng, 丁马成 assumed the chairmanship of Siong Leng.
Mr. Teng was born in Quanzhou, 泉州 China and learnt Nanyin from a master in his hometown.
At the age of 18 (circa 1934), he came to Singapore and founded a business after the war. With a successful business, he was able to devote time to pursue his interests in Nanyin. Encouraged by friends, he contributed significantly to the development of Nanyin in Singapore.
Singapore went through dramatic changes after the war. Singapore had transformed from a British colony to become an independent nation state. More important to the Chinese, China had undergone great changes after 1949 forcing overseas Chinese to reevaluate their relationship with China.
These social changes became sources of inspirations for Mr. Teng. He produced several hundred new Nanyin lyrics many of which expanded its traditional range and introduced contemporary issues as subjects of his inspiration. Mr. Zhou Sheng Xiang composed songs for these pieces.
Llangollen Musical Eisteddford award
In 1983, Siong Leng brought Nanyin to the world stage when they performed in the Llangollen Musical Eisteddford in Wales. They won the Third Prize in the Folk Song Solo section and Fourth Prize in the Ensemble Performance. In recognition of his achievements, Mr. Teng Mah Seng was awarded the Cultural Medallion by the Singapore government in 1987.
In 2010, they won the gold prize. For the first time in Nanyin history, the musicial form won an internaitonal award and marks its arrival at the world stage.
In 1990/1 Siong Leng renovated it premises with donations from supporters. The successful renovation demonstrated the strong support and goodwill that Siong Leng acquired over the years in generating cultural capital through it pursuit of Nanyin.
With regards to cultural reproduction, Siong Leng management has been successful in the transmission of this ancient art by recruiting new and young talents. Many of them are young English educated professionals and some of them have been sent to China for training.
During Siong Leng’s performances, artistes of different ages perform on the same stage. Siong Leng member’s encouragement of new artistes can be seen from the introduction and interviews of young artists during performances with special focuses on new artiste especially those who are performing for the first time.
Siong Leng today
Siong Leng’s promotion of Nanyin has also been successful. In Singapore, their audience profile has expanded beyond the traditional Hokkien Chinese to include Chinese of all dialect groups, Singaporean of all ethnic groups, young professionals, expatriates, and tourists.
Performance opportunities include temple occasions like Thian Hock Keng celebrations, cultural events, charity events and private functions. Many performances are free and at interesting venues such as the Kusu Island or historically significant venues like the Thian Hock Keng Temple.
A typical performance attracts veteran Nanyin fans, heritage lovers, tourists, expatriates and even other racial groups who do not understand the language but appreciate the beauty of the music and the ascetics of their performances.
Siong Leng’s history and development shows an extraordinary ability of an ancient art form to resonate with changing social landscape and its corresponding needs. Through their performances and in their endeavor to perfect an ancient art, they produce cultural capital for Singapore and act as a cross culture platform.