Media personality Nick Shen aims to keep this traditional heritage alive
It’s unusual that someone so young is interested in Chinese Opera these days. But popular actor and entertainer Nick Shen, who represented Singapore in Germany and bagged the honouree award of JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World in 2014, has a deep affinity for this Chinese art form and hopes to keep it alive in Singapore.
Nick began his career as a drama and movie actor, singer and host. He won the Singapore Star Search competition after completing his acting course with MediaCorp. After being in showbiz for close to 20 years, he is now a drama trainer at Singapore Media Academy, where he has been since 2014. Being well-versed in English, Mandarin, Teochew and other Chinese dialects broadens his range for entertainment opportunities.
But no matter how wide he casts his net in the world of showbiz, he will always have a heart for Chinese opera. He believes the stories portrayed have deep meaning, moral values and life experiences.
In 2011, Nick started his own company – Tok Tok Chiang as a platform to promote Chinese opera, and has since been invited to partner with People’s Association to bring awareness of the artform to the Singapore public. Nick mastered the art of Sichuan Mask Changing in 2013 and eventually brought the traditional art of Chinese Opera to greater heights by performing Teochew Opera and Sichuan Mask Changing internationally.
To make Chinese opera attractive to young Singaporeans Nick created a hybrid genre of traditional Chinese opera dance with western magic techniques. He has worked with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay to co-produce their mid-autumn festival programme, and has done so for 4 consecutive years. He conducts these performances in bilingual format, with supporting English subtitles onscreen while the troupes, including himself, are performing on stage with the original script and music in the respective dialects.
With much perseverance, Nick realised his childhood dreams in 2017 when he took over Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe, a local troupe with 154 years of history, as the youngest troupe leader in Singapore. Nick also represented the troupe in their performances in Toyama, Japan, as part of a Cultural Exchange programme.
Nick continues to reach out to the younger generation and propels the appreciation of Chinese opera by engaging with them through film, drama, documentary, conducting workshops and social media marketing.
A Chat with actor and media personality Nick Shen about his love for Chinese opera
1 How has life as an actor with Mediacorp shaped your views of Chinese opera?
It’s actually the other way around. It’s my passion for Chinese opera that sparked my interest in acting. In the course of my acting career, it has crafted my acting skills which, in turn, fine-tuned my Chinese opera performance on stage.
2 Chinese opera is an ancient art form that goes back many centuries. What do you like most about it?
Chinese opera is a theatrical art in which music, song, dance, speech and acrobatics are woven together to create a unique form of drama. To me this is a beautiful art, and I grew up watching Chinese opera with my grandparents who also taught me to appreciate and learn about the moral values portrayed in each of the stories.
3 Are there personalities in Chinese opera that you admire?
The warrior roles in Chinese opera first captured my attention with their elaborate and stunning costumes. My admiration grew as they are heroic figures with a good sense of justice, courage, perserverance and resilience.
4 You must be credited with starting your own company to promote Chinese opera in Singapore. What is the best way to attract the young and keep this art alive?
It is now a digital age and the best way to connect to the youth is to be very active on social media and keep oneself updated with the ever changing popular platforms. Information now transmits at such a fast pace and can be readily accessible anywhere in the world. Making films based on Chinese opera – TV series, documentary or short films are good ways to keep this art alive.
5 You have even come up with a hybrid form of Chinese opera that combines traditional Chinese elements with western forms and English subtitles. Is this popular with the audience?
These innovative performances have indeed been very well-received as the audience now includes many foreigners and the English subtitles have enabled them to understand the Chinese opera plays a lot better. Also, incorporating magic elements into Chinese opera arouses more interest in the younger generation.
6 Do you think Chinese opera can be made into a movie? If yes, which traditional storyline would be best?
Definitely possible! The story Lady White Snake is a very successful example. I personally like this significant story in Teochew opera titled 柴房会, which is a horror-comedy. I believe that bringing this story to the big screen would be interesting with all the CGI effects making it more enthralling to watch.
7 How do you relax after a hard day at work?
By indulging in foot reflexology and traditional chinese tui-na. Don’t underestimate the health benefits that these bring.
8 What advice would you give a youngster who wants to be in the world of showbiz and entertainment like you?
I have been a trainer at Singapore Media Academy for the past 4 years for its Diploma in acting course, and my advice to the students is to be humble and keep enriching themselves. Don’t strive to be famous overnight but rather, work towards being an artiste with substance; and this can only be achieved through consistency, perseverance and constant learning.