Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts at NAFA

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Siong Leng Musical Association traces its roots back to 1901 when it was first known as the Heng Yun Association and established a reputation as the most active Nanyin (literally “The Music of the South”) group in then-Malaya. Forty years later in 1941, the Siong Leng Musical Association was formed with the aims of preserving, developing and promoting Nanyin and Li Yuan opera.

In the 1970s, the association’s new chairman Teng Mah Seng (1915 – 1992) sought to augment the repertoire by composing several hundred new styles of lyrics which expanded and revolutionised the expressive range of an ancient musical art form. An indefatigable champion of Nanyin, Teng’s efforts to revitalize the art form included the organization of a Southeast Asian Nanyin Conference in 1977. These conferences gave impetus to Nanyin and stimulated a revival of the art in its country of origin: Quanzhou, China.

In 1983 the group participated in the Llangollen Musical Eisteddfod in Wales and won Third Prize in Folk Song Solo and Fourth Prize in Ensemble Performance. Four years later in 1987, Teng received the Cultural Medallion, Singapore’s highest honour for artists, for his work in the field of music.

Yet, despite the recognition and the tireless efforts of its members, Siong Leng Musical Association, not unlike many traditional art societies today, faces the challenge of securing a place for Nanyin and Li Yuan Opera in the modern milieu. As artistic director of Siong Leng Musical Association Lin Shao ling, tells Asia on the Edge 2011: “There is no doubt Nanyin songs and music, being serene and elegant, are reflective of an age where the pace of life is slower and more leisurely. In the 21st century Singapore the pace of life is hectic and fast changing, some may ask where is the place for Nanyin and there is no doubt that here is the challenge of searching for a space for such music.“

Such challenges however in no way displace the relevance of tradition and art form to contemporary society. Rather, the challenges have only spurred the determination of the group to continually search for innovative means to grow audiences for Nanyin.

In fact, that in the first half of 2011 alone Siong Leng Musical Association has already appeared in the Esplanade’s annual festival of sacred music, Tapestry and the Singapore Arts Festival is a testament to both the achievements of the group as well as a continued fascination and demand for Nanyin.