The Gunong Sayang Association, also known as Persatuan Gunong Sayang, is a Peranakan social club that has been instrumental in preserving the art form of dondang sayang, the singing of Malay poetry. The Association aims to create an awareness of Peranakan culture through acting, singing and dancing, and is well known for its Wayang Peranakan (Peranakan theatre).
The Gunong Sayang Association (“gunong sayang” means “mountain of love”) was established in February 1910 and helped to bring the originally domestic art of Peranakan poetry singing, dondang sayang, into the public arena. Sometimes referred to as “musical debating”, dondang sayang is the singing of pantuns or four-line verses set to music. It is performed by at least two singers who compose and exchange pantuns extemporaneously. Dondang sayang is considered an artform as it requires great dexterity, wit and skill to compose verses on the spot, and pantun experts have been known to carry on dondang sayang sessions for hours at a time.
In the early days, dondang sayang singers performed at amusement parks and on radio, and attracted many followers. Its popularity was encouraged in 1911 by publications such as the serialised Panton Dondang Sayang Baba Baba Pranakan by Koh Hoon Teck, a founder of the Association. In 1926, another collection of such poetry, Pantun Dendang Sayang dengan Cherita Buah Brakal, fuelled interest in the artform.
The Association was dormant during the Japanese Occupation, but experienced a postwar revival when pantun performances became popular and were held at the National Library and Victoria Memorial Hall.
The Association was located at 140 Ceylon Road for some years and relocated to Lorong 24A, off Geylang Road, in the 1990s.
Membership in the Association was initially only for men. The members would meet on Sundays for dondang sayang sessions, with each performance accompanied by a small orchestra of violins, accordions and guitars. The artform was highly popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Dondang Sayang singers were regularly invited to Malay community centres to perform.
By the late 1970s, however, the dondang sayang section of the Association featured only about 60 men, mostly pensioners, with the youngest in his forties. They performed infrequently, usually once every six weeks and on public holidays. The increasing popularity of jazz, disco and other forms of popular music led to dwindling interest that was further eroded by the lack of fluency in Malay among younger Peranakans.
In May 1980, the Association opened its doors to the general public. With a monthly subscription of only $3, the Association hoped to increase its membership. By the late 1980s, women were included in the Association, beginning with the spouses of male members. Today, there are the Nonya Sayang and Adek Sayang subgroups for women and children.
The Association’s current activities include the singing of dondang sayang and asli songs, joget sessions, cooking demonstrations of Peranakan dishes, and outings to places of interest in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
Since the 1950s, the Association has also staged wayang Peranakan performances, which became an annual occurrence beginning in 1985. These stage productions are performed using the Peranakan patois of Malay and the Hokkien dialect, and usually feature the customs and traditions surrounding occasions such as birthdays, weddings, engagements and funerals. Over the years, the plays have been written by well-known Peranakans such as Felix Chia, Henry Tan and William Tan, with the more recent plays primarily by G. T. Lye. In keeping with wayang Peranakan tradition, wherein it was originally considered improper for women to be on stage, men tend to take on the main female roles, leading to the development of male actors with strong skills as female impersonators. Despite criticisms that the plays are predictable and tend to focus on typical Peranakan domestic issues, the performances have remained popular and have been staged at the Art Festival and other key performing arts events.
The Association has strong links with the Peranakan Association as many members belong to both associations. In 1996, the two associations jointly organised the 9th Baba Convention for the first time.
Prominent members of the Association include Koh Hoon Teck, a well-known dondang sayang singer and a founding member of the Association. As a pantun expert, it had been one of Koh's wishes that dondang sayang should be sung at his funeral. Upon his death in 1956, his family members and close friends accordingly arranged for a “pantun party” at his gravesite in Bukit Brown cemetery.
Gwee Peng Kwee, Koh’s nephew, was a famous female impersonator who was instrumental in reviving the Association through active fund-raising after its dormancy during the Japanese Occupation. A pantun master like his uncle, Gwee passed away in 1986.
G. T. Lye, Gwee’s son, has directed and acted in many Association stage productions over the years. Following the family tradition, he is a veteran female impersonator who has played the role of the Peranakan matriarch numerous times.
William Tan, a popular female impersonator of the 1950s and 1960s, and his cousin Henry Tan were responsible for writing a number of the annual wayang Peranakan productions.
Actress Sally Gan, a veteran of the Association who passed away in 2006, was well loved for her role
- Bonny Tan and Joanna Tan, "Gunong Sayang Association", Singapore Infopedia, 24 May 2010.
This article was written by Bonny Tan and Joanna Tan.