The World of a Kotai Singer

12 September 2017

Malaysia has a range of religious beliefs and festivals throughout the year. Here's a look at the life of one of the performers who sings during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Penang.

Veneration for the dead cuts across Malaysia’s mix of cultures and religions, all of them paying respect through their own rituals. From funeral rites to special festivals dedicated to honouring those that have passed, there is a mutual understanding that everyone deserves the space to mourn death, and at the same time, remember what it is to be alive.

Attending a kotai performance leans more toward the latter. Translated from the Hokkien dialect, kotai literally means “song stage”. Although traditional operas are mainstays, more often than not, something akin to a mini pop concert is put up to entertain roaming spirits during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Stage lights, smoke machines, glittering costumes and sometimes even a team of dancers accompany renditions of popular Chinese tunes. It has earned itself an unfair reputation for being about men watching scantily clad female singers. Here in Penang, though, things are tamer. It is small-town showbiz, the shiny but unglamorous kind.

Off stage, audiences sit on plastic chairs or remain on their parked motorbikes to watch the show. They are either boisterous with the encouragement of alcohol or placidly bathing in the glow coming from the stage lights. The enthusiasm of the kotai singers and the deflated energy of older folk watching give these stages their trademark combination of dejected cheer. Regardless, the music blares from the speakers into the night, announcing “showtime” to anyone who’d like to watch.

Fifteen years ago, Lim Pei See attended her first kotai performance in Penang. Calling herself “dark-skinned” with “drab clothes”, she was 17, very shy and hadn’t been performing much since she won second place in a children’s national singing competition five years before. Her friend had brought her to meet the kotai organiser after the show. He took one look at her and thought she wouldn’t be a very popular addition to his line-up but nevertheless gave her a chance.

The eldest daughter of a poultry farmer and a homemaker, Lim is 32 now but her shyness still appears when she’s offstage. Laughing nervously in her pastel pink dress, a contrast from the loud colours she favours onstage, she finds it slightly painful to be interviewed and to have her picture taken when she isn’t performing.

“I wouldn’t say anything,” she reveals of her early days as a kotai singer. Training her eyes into the far distance, she would just sing and get off stage the moment she was done.

Lim admits that she didn’t mix around much and was not very involved in school as a child. What captured her imagination were the music videos she’d watch during Chinese New Year, particularly the period productions where singers wore their hair in plaits and donned traditional costumes.

She started imitating the mannered style in which the singers moved and lilted their vocals, paying homage to the traditional Huang Mei Opera genre without even knowing the term for it at that young age. When she entered the kotai world as a teen, someone suggested she call herself Queen of Huang Mei Diao to set herself apart from other singers, a savvy move in branding that she still uses today.

At her peak, Lim would book more than 90 shows during the Hungry Ghost month, often rushing from one show to the next within one night. The strain resulted in her losing her voice right in the middle of the festival in 2005. “I sang until I cried,” Lim confesses. “Besides my vocals not being on par, I felt really guilty that I took the job and wasn’t able to deliver.” The biggest scare, however, was that her voice might not fully recover.

“It doesn’t sound like it used to,” she admits matter-of-factly. Nowadays, Lim manages 60 to 70 shows during the festival period and spends the rest of her time helping her sister with a clothing store.

There is not much comfort to be found within the network of largely female singers. Tension is inevitable as one singer is pitted against another by the comparisons they are forced to be a part of. It does not help that most of them earn extra if audiences tip them with angbaos (money in red packets) or gifts like food or beer, the cups of which she leaves untouched backstage.

“I can’t sing the latest hits, I won’t bare my cleavage, I can’t drink much, I’m so sorry,” Lim says without much sorry in her voice. “You can listen to me sing if you want to. If you don’t want to, then don’t,” she says resolutely, with a tone that holds her self-respect firmly intact.

But Lim knows the realities of the kotai industry. She knows that since her career depends on her voice more than her looks, that keeping her job then depends on the health of her vocal chords. To have everything hinge on the physical body’s capabilities of holding up is a precariousness she has learned to live with.

That is why when her five-year-old son sprung a perfectly delivered Cai Shen Dao (a popular Chinese New Year song) on her, she thought twice about being too encouraging.

She is protective and says she wouldn’t want her son to be a singer but might let him learn an instrument instead, like the piano. “His father will say, look, he doesn’t want to study because you’re distracting him with singing,” Lim says, referring to her more academically inclined ex-husband. She had fought to keep her son with her after the separation. Now she feels the pressure to outperform the motherhood expected of her.

Giving her son’s interest in music more thought, Lim goes back and forth about how much support she’ll show, zooming in and out of the present (he’s only five) and the future (male singers have less of a market). She tiredly settles on a “no” in the end, concluding that his focus should be his studies so that no one will “look down on us”.

With that, the interview comes to an end. It is past midnight and the crowds have cleared. Lim says a raspy goodbye while walking to her car, exiting kotai world for a short while, until the next show.

Kotai performances can be found during the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival in predominantly Chinese residential areas. Look out for flags, banners and a makeshift stage situated near a Taoist or Buddhist temple. Performances usually start after dinner and until midnight.

Text and photos by Adeline Chua


Chinese Calligraphy in Malaysia

MON, 02 JUL 2018

Nai Chuang Hak has devoted over 50 years in pursuing his passion for calligraphy, a technically demanding practice of handwriting tha...


Exploring Pengkalan Hulu

WED, 20 JUN 2018

Far in the north corner of Perak lies Pengkalan Hulu, a place where older Chinese, Malay and Indian folk may still turn around and sp...


Wats in Tumpat

MON, 26 FEB 2018

We take a look at the Buddhist temples that dot the town of Tumpat, Kelantan on the Thailand-Malaysia border. Situated on the nor...