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Apr 14, 2013

Mr Storyteller

Can Mr Storyteller, Kong Ko Seng Seh, a once familiar figure in the Chinatowns of South-East Asia, survive in the era of mass education and the media - radio, television, cinema and newspapers?  He is surely a member of a vanishing race, with his tales from Chinese history and mythology, holding enthralled men who had never learned to read or write, bringing colour to the drab lives of the cubicle-dwellers.

There they squatted in the evening around his small table with its hissing pressure lamp, seeking escape and securing it for a brief space just as effectively as those who can afford more expensive routes via the screen, the opera stage or the electronic wizardry of the TV box.

Mr Storyteller's voice transported his listeners into the world of gods and goddesses, kings, heroes, concubines, chaste women, filial sons and vagabonds and rogues.  Often he read from his little stock of books, but sometimes the tales had come to know so well fell easily from his tongue.  Perhaps it ws the Hsi Yu Chi, the journey to the Western Paradise by the pilgrim Thang Cheng, seeking humbly for the true texts of the teachings of the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Here he wove with words the images of Sun Hou-Tzu and Chu Pa-Chieh, the monkey and the pig  who were Thang Cheng's companions in the quest.  It might be the favourite tale of the men who sat before Mr Storyteller that night, for he came to know them all - the regulars, the casuals and the curious.

Or it would be one of the adventures of Kuan Ti, the God of War, but originally a kind of Robin Hood figure, whose thrilling exploits are recounted in the San Kuo Chi Yen I, the celebrated Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The audience was carried back across the centuries - 2,000 years to the later Han period.  Perhaps it was the tale of the peach tree orchard.

Here the three heroes, Kuan Kung, a soldier who had fled after killing an officer for an act of sexual tyranny, Chang Fei, the butcher, and Lui Pei, the pedlar of straw sandals, took an oath of loyalty to each other and the service of the state. 

The classic is high adventure - intrigues, plots, battles, miraculous escapes in a crusade to restore the declining power of the Han Dynasty.

Here indeed were heroes to inspire Mr Storyteller and fire the imagination of the poor and lonely.  Here was a simple soldier, Kuan Kung, whose valorous deeds, with the passing of the centuries, carried him to a passing of the centuries, carried him to a posthumous dukedom, to "Warrior Prince and Bringer of  Civilization" and finally, under a Ming emperor, after 600 years, deification as "Faithful and Loyal Deity (ti),  Supporter of Heaven, Protector of the Realm." 

The cult of Kuan Ti reached its peak under the Manchus, when it was believed in 1856 that he appeared in the sky to support the imperial forces.  More than 1,600 temples and countless shrines were dedicated to the god-hero, whose exploits Mr Storyteller knew and recounted with easy fluency.

It was not always god-hero adventure.  Sometimes it was high romance, about beautiful women who brought emperors and kingdoms to ruin, like Hsi Shih, the peerless and Yang Kueifei, most celebrated of concubines.  Sometimes these expeditions into the legendary past, lasting two-and-a-half hours, took three nights to complete.  Who could miss a magical session, although the story might have been heard countless times, who begrudge the five or ten cents for escape from a harsh and drab world? 

But, as we have said, Mr Storyteller, spinning his tales in Cantonese, Teochew or Hokkien, has competition.  True there was a spell when he was mobilized to carry the message of a new nationalism and identify to people in the byways who could then be reached by no other means.  The art even had a popular spell on radio.  But the authentic Mr Storyteller if the last of his kind. 

There will always be a place for a good story and good storyteller, but the sonorous voice coming from behind the light on the little table in the back street must soon be stilled, for how can it match the magic of electronics and full colour - within the reach of all and spellbinding all but the traditionalist?

Source:  The Straits Times Annual, 1969
The above article is shared on this blog the "Mr Storyteller" of the vanished trade in the early days in Singapore.   When my father migrated from Quemoy, China and many of his villagers and neighbors were among the audience to listen to these storytellers.

It appears that only men among the audience who listen to these storytellers.

During the 1950s when I attended Kai Kok Public School in Bukit Ho Swee kampong, I loved listening to the Chinese teacher to tell stories to us in class.

In the evening at home after dinner, I will then repeat these folk stories to my mother.  So I became a storyteller for my mother.  The stories were told exactly as I heard them from the teacher.

My mother enjoyed to listen to these stories retold by me in a mixture of smattering of  Hokkien and Mandarin with entertainment and often laughed with fun.  Maybe not the stories.  Its the way I spoke with "rojak" of Hokkien and Mandarin while learning both the dialect and Chinese language in school and at home.  My mother speaks and understands only in Hokkien.  She was happy to listen to these stories.

Everyone can be a storyteller and I learnt from this way to be a storyteller to my mother.
To tell a story!

We sometimes forget what a powerful gift that is.   I am sure that at the dawn of civilization when hunters went out to kill a mammoth on which their clan would have to live for the next six months, some man, not necessarily one of the shrewdest when it came to tracking the beast or the bravest when the animal was cornered, returned at night to sit by the campfire and relate the incidents of that day.

He told of the bird that guided his hunt; he told of the heroic resolution of the prey, noble and defensive with skills not encountered before; he identified the men who led the assault and the one on whom all depended when it seemed the mammoth would escape; and this fireside narrator lent that day  a glory that it could never otherwise have gained.” 

James Michener, The World is my Home

My favorite stories I grew up with Aesop Fables books borrowed from the National Library when I was young.

Aesop is famous for a life lived almost 2000 years ago.  There are hundreds of stories credited to Aesop even though some of the stories were probably written by others.

The legend of Aesop claims he lived around the sixth century BC.  He was born a slave and was owned by two different masters.  He was granted his freedom due to his wit and intelligence.  Once acquiring his freedom he traveled extensively telling his stories.  King Crosius of Lydia was so impressed with Aesop that he soon became a member of the kings court.

While on a mission to Delphi for the king he was discouraged when he arrived at an obvious discrepancy in the kings orders.  the citizens of Delphi put a golden bowl from Apollo's temple in his luggage.  The Delphians then captured him on his way home upon searching his belongings the bowl was found.  He was found guilty of sacrilege to the god Apollo and thrown from a cliff.

The fables are short stories which teach a moral lesson. Children will enjoy reading the stories with their parents. Parents will find it fun to teach your children during quality reading time.

I will provide a couple of examples and I hope you pursue the fables to be read to your children and/or your grandchildren. I am sure you know some of these fables already even if you do not realize that they came from Aesop.

How many stories have we heard from our parents or greatparents, uncles or aunties, our school teachers?

Are stories told to share experiences for listeners to learn from lessons in life or told for entertainment, fairy tales or horror stories?

The Aesop Fables are available online  here  for everyone to enjoy as an educational learning tool.

The YouTube video versions in English, Malay, Indian and Chinese are found below:

Anggur Asam (Aesop Fables in Malay)
Aesop Fables in Tamil
Aesop Fables in Mandarin



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