The Pioneering Spirit – the music of a generation

Born in Singapore in 1943, Mr. Thien Yoek Lin was only five years old when he followed his foster family to a rural town in China called “Gan Zhe”. There, he fell headlong into life as a trainee in Chinese opera, while his parents worked on a farm. He remembers school with fond memories, his love for singing, performing, drawing, and other art forms kindled. Even though lessons were intensive, beginning at 8am each day and ending only at 5pm, he did not mind. After classes, he would sometimes enjoy outdoor performances with his peers.

When he returned to Singapore in his late teens, he joined the Foochow Association as an opera performer, and played all kinds of roles from foot soldier to old ladies. During this time, he was invited to perform at special occasions such as birthday and wedding celebrations. In return, he was reimbursed for the transport and treated to the food.

The hardest thing to master was the acrobatic moves such as somersaults, and Mr. Thien has had his fair share of injuries.

His most serious injury occurred when he broke his leg and crushed his ankle falling off a table. It took him one month to recover from that injury.

After he retired as a Chinese opera performer, he took to selling drinks at the kopitiam (local coffee shop) with his cousin. Beaming with pride, Mr. Thien shared that he could hold six cups of coffee at one go with both hands. He has also cleared tables at the canteen of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital near the one-room rental flat that he has been residing for over 20 years.

Today, Chinese opera has been described as an endangered art form. The music that speaks of bygone days adds colour to an important part of Singapore’s formative years. Mr. Thien misses the vibrant Chinese opera scene of yesteryear. He now contents himself with watching the opera DVDs that his sister occasionally buys for him. He also looks out for listings of art galleries in the Chinese newspapers. 

Mr. Thien says that he has no regrets in life, although he does sometimes look longingly at families with children. In his youth, he was drawn to the freedom of being single, and was concerned that he would not be able to provide for a family. When asked how he stays so positive, Mr. Thien said that life is short, and he is contented with his lot. Staff of Lions Befrienders’ Befriending and Cluster Support service currently visit Mr. Thien.

We salute our pioneers by telling their stories. Getting the seniors to share their stories can be a therapeutic process for them as well. “Telling stories is our way of coping, a way of creating shape out of a mess. It binds everyone together.” – Film-maker Sarah Polley.