Pet Sounds: Anna Tham

Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]

Chinese opera

Rapid rush of hollow percussion, bleak wail of dida, magnificent echo of gong, voices ring onstage and off, sweet and tactful like a songbird’s, or coarse and sharp with hell’s fury. So many tunes I cannot recognize or name. Each new to the ear and familiar to the heart. All compiled into an aural feast so instinctive and warm, with little side noises adding to the fun: a melon seed is cracked open between teeth, wind flaps idly by a paper fan, an old slow voice spoils the plot to their friends, who have already known the story for 80 years.

My grandmother introduced me to the world of Cantonese theatre, through the beautiful festival of Ma Noeng Daan. That was a hot day 20 years ago, when she led me into a vivid mist of painted faces, lion troupe banners, bamboo thatches, and into that rare moment when we had ever spent time together alone. Most other times we met we were surrounded by the extended family; she is my grandmother, but also someone’s mother, mother-in-law, sister and wife, as many roles as those I have to pull off, and we both play them as needed. All except during that show, when there was no one else. She is just my grandmother, and I only her granddaughter, secluded in a happy bustle for one day.

As we both grow old, I have newer friends to mingle with, and she has newer grandchildren to pamper. So many years have passed and my feelings for my grandmother have changed in so many ways. I used to always hear those crackly, broken tunes from an ancient radio in a Chinese medicine shop, or from a distant village lion troupe rehearsal in the middle of the night. Now they have become sounds I hear in my dreams, in my head, and they remind me dearly of home.

In the recent few years I often try to find a way back to that crowded bamboo shed. My grandmother and I, in foldable chairs, sweating, sharing a piece of but zhai gou. She sang along to a story I didn’t understand, and there was nothing between us.


AnnaAnna Tham is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2015). [Click here to read all entries by Anna.]

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