Did you know that Chinese opera exists in the Philippines?
It was in the 1640s when kao ka, earlier called Chinese comedias, was introduced by migrants from Fukien, China. Kao ka performances were most popular from the 1950s to the 1960s but started to deteriorate in the late 20th century due to the retirement, death or migration to other countries of kao ka performers. To respond to the situation, the Hokkien Opera Troupe decided to recruit Filipino youth and train them to become kao ka performers.
During the 1600s, kao ka was originally performed outdoors since electricity was still unavailable. It was also performed to entertain the Tsinoy community. Today, it is performed in Chinese Taoist temples to serve spiritual functions such as celebrating the feast day of a deity or god.
Religious associations or Chinese clans usually organize the celestial birthday celebrations to entertain the gods. Wealthy businessmen and religious Filipino-Chinese who are devout believers, volunteer their services in preparing for the festivities of a god’s birthday. They hope that through their services and financial contribution, they will be blessed and protected.
Nenita Chan is one of the Taoist temple devotees in the Si Ong Hu Temple in Manila who invites kao ka troupes so that the gods will be entertained. As an offering to the gods, fruits and food are placed before the shrine. After the ceremony, these are eaten by the family and also given to other devotees.
Before the kao ka performance, two rituals take place—the pat sian ho siu or the Invocation of Eight Immortals’ Blessings for Longevity and the kha kwan (dancing official). The eight immortals are legendary saints revered by Taoists. As they enter the temple in two’s, they bow to all the deities or gods and pray for blessings and longevity.
The kha kwan then enters wearing a mask. He serves as a supernatural official who hands over small red banners to the temple devotee who in turn drapes the banners in front of each god’s altar or shrine. Four Chinese words are written on the banner—kha kwan chin bien which means “crown in fullness of glory” signifying adoration and veneration.
Kao ka is performed to entertain not only the gods but their invited guests and friends as well. The first two rows of chairs in the audience area are unavailable to people for they are reserved for the supernatural spirits. Marie Fernandez, a 59-year-old Chinese who has a family temple in Manila, mentions that,
Kao ka is not for human, but for visitors of the gods. Like Kuan Kung, the god of war (who was a real historical character), who is originally a Taoist god, but now also a god for the Buddhists. His guests would be some others soldiers and friends. We can't see them, but these are all spirits, and this explains why I have a row of empty monobloc chairs here in front of the shrine. (Fernandez in Ng 106)
Aside from entertaining gods and their guests, kao ka performers depict the immortality of the gods. Fifty-two year old Buddhist devotee Bobby Ting narrates how his grandfather would mention that in a kao ka performance lives of real people were portrayed; because of their patriotism, they eventually are worshipped after their death. Mr. Ting fondly remembers, watching performances in the streets of Chinatown during his childhood.
Kao ka also serves the purpose of gaining earthly blessings such as employment, material rewards, travel benefits, artistic expression, as well are establishing good interpersonal relations.
H.T., a Chinese mestizo and a kao ka actor narrates his childhood days. His father came from Fukien, China together with his grandfather. Then his father met his Filipino mother… He was born to a very poor family. His father had no job and was always at the gambling house. His childhood mindset was always to think of how to earn money and help his mother and family. Sometimes his mother found an extra job through cooking…He said he studied until second year high school in English and did not take up Chinese classes unlike other Chinese mestizos. At age 12, he did all sorts of jobs and took every opportunity he could to earn money to help his family. He sold comic books and newspapers. If there was no newspaper delivery, he would shine shoes. At times his younger brother helped in selling and delivering newspapers. He got into kao ka when he was 17 years old. His older sister and his younger brother were the ones who joined kao ka first. He would tag along with them to watch them at rehearsals and trainings. Through observing, he later acquired interest, learned the skill, and finally applied to and joined the Sin Sieng Hieng Opera Troupe where his sibling belonged. This helped him and his family financially. H.T. … says that back in his early years, there was a great demand for kao ka when many of the old Chinese were still alive and the pay was good. The peso value of the Philippines was high. He worked as a kao ka actor for almost 20 years…Since his family’s expenses exceeded his income from kao ka and other jobs, it pushed him to seek greener pastures in a foreign country… When he returned at the age of 59, a former kao ka classmate, Teresita Carmona ‘Bi Hua’ Lim invited him to be part of the troupe she was managing, since there was a scarcity of actors. So he joined the Hokkien Opera Troupe, and until now, he is part of this troupe. He still performs even though he is past the age of retirement. His reasons is that it provides him recreation and release from boredom of staying home and doing nothing. (Ng 112-113)
Kao ka actors also consider their performance as a vow (similar to the Filipino concept of panata or religious vow) in exchange for good health and blessings. This was the case of one of the oldest Chinese kao ka performers, Rosita Lim, who was a sickly child. Her parents dedicated her to their god, Siu Kang Ya, in exchange for her to get better. Rosita was 10 years old when she started performing with the Siu Dian Hing Opera Troupe. After years of performing with the troupe, her health improved and was not as sickly as she used to.
Other benefits that kao ka actors experience are acquiring good fortune, strength, and happiness. S.A.S. attests to a change in her physical strength whenever she performs. Although she is a Catholic, she respects the god of her opera troupe.
As revealed in the testimonies, kao ka is not only a spiritual endeavor and a performance to entertain people (and the gods) but also a venue to express one’s gratitude and reverence to deities and gods who have continued to shower people with blessings, good health and the will to live. It is because of this religious function of the art form that even if many are Catholics, they continue to perform with a kao ka troupe. Their dedication to kao ka together with the support of the Filipino-Chinese religious community will hopefully ensure the survival of this art form.
Words by Dr. Amihan-Bonifacio Ramolete.
Photos by Ms. Percy Ng.
Ng, Percy G. Kao Ka, the Chinese Opera in the Philippines: A Preliminary Socio-Historical Study. MA Thesis, University of the Philippines Diliman, 2016.