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Home What to See Heritage Trail Penang Chinese Opera or Ko-Tai
Penang Chinese Opera & Ko-Tai PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator II   
Tuesday, 20 July 2010 10:43

Just a mention of Chinese Opera and Ko-Tai (an energetic singing and dancing show by lady singers with glittering costumes), one will automatically associate such activities with the annual Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations, which falls on the 7 month of the Chinese lunar calendar. In the western calendar, for this year 2010, that would be in between August and September. Apparently that’s just a month away from now, with exact dates from 10th August to 07th September.


Hungry Ghost Festival is considered as the eastern version of the American’s Halloween. Mostly celebrated by the Taoist community, it is believed that during this particular month, the gates of Hell will be opened and all the deceased spirits are released and allowed to roam about in our living world for exactly a month before they are summoned back to Hell again.

Therefore, as to appease these roaming spirits in our world and to prevent them from disturbing and cause harm or mischief to the livings, the locals from the Taoism community would make elaborated food offerings to them. Besides the food offerings, entertainments are also being staged with the distinctive belief that the shows will entertain and keep the wandering spirits appeased.

Thus, this is where the Chinese Operas and Ko-Tai shows are very much in demand during this month long celebrations. Penang is one of the few states that pre-dominantly celebrate this occasion on a bigger scale basis, be it on island or at mainland. You can easily spot Chinese Operas, as well as the Ko-Tai shows staged aplenty near roadsides and around the outdoor neighbourhood areas.  Temporary wooden or steel stages are erected for this purpose and the shows are usually performed from a minimum of a few days to a week or more and are usually held at night.


For Chinese Opera shows, normally the story or plot is based on legends or folklore and the value the shows are conveying are mostly about love and patriotism. The opera performers will adorn themselves with elaborated olden traditional costumes, headgears and heavy cosmetic paint on their faces. The various patterns and colours of their painted faces depict the role or ranks of their characters which the performers will be acting in it. The same goes for the costumes too, the more elaborated they are, the higher the rank and importance of its role in the performance as well.

In Chinese Operas, performers will have to bring out their characters to live by the way they use their eyes’ movements, hand gestures and body languages as well. Mostly in a show, halfway singings by the performers themselves are not uncommon. It is indeed done in perfect pitched voices and the lyrics in the songs convey important meanings that are relevant to the plot of the whole show. Sword-plays and a bit of acrobatics are also to be expected in the show which makes the performances even more intriguing and entertaining.

Traditional music played the few musicians, sitting behind or beside the stage but out of the audience view, will usually consist of string and wind instruments, as well as, some light drums or percussion. It’s always a joy if one really listens attentively to the melody of the music of the instrument when they are played simultaneously, accommodating the pitch and pace of the opera performers’ singing. In Penang, normally, Hokkien is the dialect that is used for the opera show, apart from other dialects such as Cantonese, Teochew, etc.


Other than Chinese Operas, Ko-Tai shows nowadays are also very much in demand during this festival celebration month. These Ko-Tai shows are well liked by the young and old generations as well. Lady singers will dress up in glittering and eye-catching attires and their performances are always accompanied by energetic dancing routines. The background music and songs are sung similar like karaoke style but at times, certain Ko-Tai shows do engage band musicians to play the music live, instead of from a karaoke machine.

In between each song, it’s a norm that the singers will engage the audience, the living ones that is, to informal banters and jokes. One can never fail to see a large crowd of spectators, young and old, women and men enjoying themselves with Ko-Tai shows.

It’s a common belief already that the main purpose for Chinese Opera and Ko-Tai shows is staged is to entertaining the wandering spirits. That is why if one do notice carefully, the space or row in front of the performing stage is always left empty. The space or seats are reserved on purpose for the visiting deceased spirits.

Nonetheless, the shows, whether Chinese Operas or Ko-Tai, apart from appeasing the wandering deceased spirits, the living spirits are being entertained as well. For every year during this festive month, it’s already synonymous with both folklore music for Chinese Opera show and energetic dance music for the Ko-Tai shows. This will end after a month, until the celebration will begin again on the 7th lunar month next year.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2010 11:08

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