“I AM NOT RICH BUT I HAVE NO REGRETS” – Born in Malaysia – A Photographer's Journey
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Chinese Opera Troupe, Ipoh

Goh Kwooi Thai, diva

I met Madam Goh when she was in Ipoh with her troupe to perform at a Chinese temple in conjunction with a festive celebration.

It was quite remarkable experience to photograph and talk to this veteran while she put on her make-up backstage. The stage was a makeshift one, erected on the temple grounds, and the dressing area provided was rudimentary to say the least. Fans were blowing away at full blast but they could do little to cool things down. However, Madam Goh inhabited her hot and airless quarters serenely, even meditatively, unperturbed by the pesky photographer and his questions.

Her make-up took an hour although she confided that she could do it in half the time if necessary. Her dressing table was the wooden chest in which she had kept her costumes, stage gear and all the accoutrements of her professional life for over 40 years. These were her life blood as she could not afford new costumes.

Madam Goh was apprenticed to an opera teacher in Kuala Lumpur at the age of 14. She recalled how according to custom, the teacher first had to ask permission from her parents. Four decades later, she hadn’t lost her passion for the art even though it was a hard life which offered very little financial security. Her daughter had followed in her footsteps but left the profession when she got married.

So Madam Goh soldiered on, a diva of a dying art form. Where once, Chinese opera performances were a fixture in most Chinatowns throughout Malaysia, today, they are reserved only for festive occasions.

When she took to the stage, I was struck by a realisation of loss. Hers was not a performance but a transformation as she became the character she played, delivering well-remembered lines perfectly yet with such spontaneity. Sadly, only a handful of people, mostly senior citizens, could appreciate her virtuosity. Others milled about lighting joss sticks, laughing, eating. I wanted to tell them to stop and watch a master at work but I knew they wouldn’t understand. Times have changed.

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