Singapore Stories Wayang Performer

Day In The Life: Going Backstage With a Wayang Performer

Author: Lester V. Ledesma

Chinese street opera (also known as wayang) is one of the world’s most ancient forms of theatre. Go backstage with wayang performer and TV actor, Nick Shen Weijun, as he prepares for a performance with Singapore’s oldest living opera troupe.

“Sorry I can’t talk right now, I have to concentrate on what I am doing,” says Nick Shen Weijun. The 43-year-old Singaporean sits on a makeshift desk as he covers his hair with a net. Before him, a jumble of brushes, tissues, eyebrow pencils, and tubes of face paint await his attention.

He coats his entire face with a layer of white, and next the shades of bright red on the cheeks, a layer of black on the eyes, and thick extensions for the hairline. There is still the ornate headpiece, and an elaborate costume to put on before he completes his transformation into The Teochew Warrior, one of the main characters in the classic Chinese play The Six Kingdoms Appoint a Prime Minister.

A veteran TV personality, Weijun is a fixture in local small-screen dramas like Titoudao, an English series about Singapore’s most famous Hokkien opera troupe. However, after his studio work is done, in the evenings, actor Nick Shen Weijun is a wayang (Chinese street opera) performer.


Tonight, he is performing at the Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple in Singapore’s Changi neighbourhood.

Backstage, Weijun and his cast-mates at Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe are busy preparing for their performance. Established in 1864, this is Singapore’s oldest living opera troupe.

Chinese street opera is one of the most ancient forms of theatre in the world. Sadly, this time-honoured art form did not fare well in post-1970s Singapore due to gradual Westernisation and a decline in the popularity of dialects in favour of Standard Chinese.



Born to a family with links to the Lao Sai Tao Yuan, Weijun remembers watching his first opera show when he was little.

“I was so fascinated by the makeup and the costumes that I painted myself with poster colours to pretend I was a wayang star,” he recalls. “My parents didn’t encourage my interest in Chinese opera, though. At that time, Singapore was a place where kids were raised to be doctors or lawyers.”

Despite his parents’ disapproval, by the time he was 13, he was performing bit roles in various plays. Perhaps it was this early exposure to theatre that made him pursue a career in acting. While he was getting noticed for his roles in Singaporean TV dramas, Weijun kept earning his chops on the wayang stage.

In 2018, with the Lao Sai Tao Yuan in dire financial straits, Shen used his savings to buy the entire troupe – actors, crew, props, and all. These days, he takes care of Lao Sai Tao Yuan’s operations. He is also tireless in promoting Chinese opera to a younger audience, organising workshops in schools, museums, and community centres.



At the temple fair, the play begins with an ear-splitting crash of cymbals, pipes, and strings. One by one, the characters appear, bellowing their dialogues in loud, stylised voices. While my ears are ringing from the auditory pounding, my eyes are feasting on the gorgeous tableau of colours and costumes. I am drawn to the subtlety of the actors’ movements; how their eyes roll with their facial expressions, and at the way their bodies flow with studied elegance.

Afterwards, the cast and crew still have work to do – there are costumes and props to be packed away, backgrounds to fold, and tons of make-up to remove.

Weijun sorts out a few logistics issues before he retreats to a corner to quietly rehearse his lines for tomorrow’s show. He looks at his troupe-mates and thinks aloud. “It would be great to someday produce a movie or TV show featuring these wayang veterans”, he says. “This isn’t just a company of actors, you know. Almost everyone you see here has been a Chinese opera performer since childhood. There are several lifetimes’ worth of artistic experience in this troupe.”

“We are all family here. Chinese street opera is our passion, and the stage is our home. To give up on this would be to let a piece of Singapore disappear.”