Source: The Straits Times

Singapore’s Getai Culture: Behind the Glitz and Glamour

Live music. Flashy neon lights. Flamboyant costumes. Elaborate hairdos. 

At first glance, a Getai show appears to be an ordinary concert or performance. However, Getai is nothing but ordinary. In fact, the event is staged for ghosts. Yes, you read that right – ghosts.

The Origin of Getai

Getai History
Getai in the Past (Source: 《新加坡歌台史话》)

Getai (歌台), which literally translates to Song Stage in English, traces its origins to the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during the 1940s. Amid the dreariness of the occupation, Getai became one of the few sources of entertainment for the local Chinese majority to listen to familiar tunes live. Located in amusement parks with no entrance fees, it quickly amassed popularity up to the early 1950s. 

A Brief History of the Japanese Occupation (1942-45)

Banana Money
Banana Money (Source: The Straits Times)

On 15th February 1942, Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival signed documents surrendering the British reign in Singapore to the Japanese. This historical day marked the start of the terror-filled Japanese Occupation. With an estimated death count of 25,000 in the first year alone under Operation Sook Ching (Blackburn, 2000), feelings of desolation and despair ran high during such trying times. This is further compounded by economic hyperinflation due to the introduction of a new currency, the Japanese Banana money. Food and daily necessities were scarce, food rationing was in place, leading to the proliferation of black markets.

“Nipponisation” of Singapore

Japanese propagandaJapanese propaganda in the form of a children’s songbook about loyalty to Japan (Source: National Heritage Board)

With mainstream radio and media platforms mobilised by the Japanese, Japanese propaganda magnifying Japan’s success and prosperity blasted the local population. Coined as the “Nipponisation” of Singapore, the new occupants attempted to shape and tame locals into their ideals of good citizens. Education was closely monitored by the Japanese, where locals were taught the language, as well as the Japanese paradigm of the way of life. There was little to no freedom of choice or mobility.


End of Japanese OccupationLocal children celebrating the end of WWII (Source: DW)

Understood in this light, it is no wonder that when the Japanese finally surrendered on 2nd September 1945, locals celebrated – they were finally liberated from the suffocation of World War II. While many daunting challenges laid ahead, it is in this newfound freedom did entertainment sources, including Getai, shine.

The Decline of Getai in the 1950s

Official striptease invitation in the 1950s
Strip Tease in the 1950s (Source: Jonathan Bollen)

Despite its initial success, the art form began declining during the late 1950s. With increasing stability within the country post-war, more forms of entertainment were made available for locals. For instance, the 1960s and 70s heralded the arrival of striptease performances and colourised television. This resulted in once-loyal Getai audiences flocking to these new trends. 

The Rise of a New Era

Street Getai
Street Getai (Source: Pinterest)

Although locals were ready to bid farewell to Getai, the art form was adamant about remaining in the local scene. The 1970s marked the start of a new Getai era – street Getai. On top of live singing, street Getai regained popularity with the inclusion of hosts enacting comical and raunchy skits. Speaking in Hokkien and Cantonese dialects, the performances were set on makeshift stages below housing blocks, parking lots and temples.

While Getai was performed all year round, it slowly became a cornerstone of Buddhist and Taoist religious practices. This is most prevalent during the Hungry Ghost Month, the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. On the first day of the seventh month, believers trust that restless spirits are released from the afterlife. Given the opportunity to roam amongst the living for a month, Getai serves as a form of amusement to keep the spirits, addressed endearingly as “Good Brothers” (好兄弟), appeased. To attract them, the front row seats of every show are always left invitingly empty. 

Beyond a religious practice, Getai became increasingly sought after following media reforms by the government. In 1979, a “Speak more Mandarin and fewer dialects” (“多讲华语,少说方言“) campaign was introduced. To standardise the Chinese language, locals saw the removal of their beloved dialect content from mainstream media. As a result, Getai became the sole platform for them to stay in touch with their tongue.

Getai Language

Singlish (Source: Weekender Singapore)

Birthed from a multicultural country, Hokkien, Cantonese, Chinese, Malay and English are often interchangeably used in the performances. While songs are mostly sung in Chinese, skits often use a combination of the local languages known as “Singlish”.

Singlish, referred to as Singaporean English, is used colloquially in everyday conversation and has unconventional features of Standard English. Having its own subset of expressions such as “lah”, “lor”, “meh”, “leh”, the language is further influenced by sentence structures and nuanced intonations from the non-English local languages. According to a 2018 article by Christina Ng in Culture Trip, “lah”, which she describes as a “simple three-letter word can mean an affirmation, dismissal, exasperation or exclamation in different contexts”. For instance, a coherent, easily understandable Singlish sentence would be, “Alamak! Don’t need so kaypoh lah, agak agak know can already.” Here, “lah” carries hints of exasperation. Phrases such as “alamak” (an expression of surprise or dismay) and “agak agak” (an estimate of) are lexical borrowings from the Malay language. Likewise, “kaypoh” originates from the Hokkien dialect, which signifies a busybody or a nosy person. The sentence structure of the latter part follows the Chinese language, “大概知道就行了“ where “知道” refers to “know” and “行了“ can be translated to “can already”.

Getai Rituals

Reciting Prayers

Getai Rituals and Prayers
Wang Lei praying before a performance (Source: Marshall Cavendish Education)

Before every show, performers would burn offerings while reciting prayers for success behind the Getai stage. This is regarded as an essential ritual for a smooth-sailing performance. In an article with Marshall Cavendish, veteran Getai host Wang Lei is reported to have never skipped the custom for the past twenty years. 

Reserving front row seats

Getai front row seats
Front Row Seats of Getai Performances (Source: The Straits Times)

As seen in the set-up above, first-row audience seats are dedicated to “special friends” from the afterlife. Here, offerings such as water, oranges and incense paper are placed. 

Apart from rituals leading up to the performances, there are customs done during the entirety of the Hungry Ghost Month itself. 

Burning paper offerings

Paper OfferingsTwo ladies burning a paper car as an offering to ancestors (Source: Coconuts)

During the Hungry Ghost Month, items such as paper money, luxury bags, cars and even houses are burnt as offerings. Individuals who engage in the practice believe that through burning these products, their ancestors would be able to receive them in the afterlife.

Preparing a feast

Hungy Ghost MonthFood prepared for the ancestors (Source: Justaiwantour)

To appease the roaming spirits, food is plentiful during the season. Families would prepare feasts for their ancestors accompanied with incense, the sweet aroma invitingly beckoning the supernatural to enjoy the meal. 

Present-day Getai

Resorts World Sentosa Getai
Getai The Musical at Resorts World Sentosa (Source: RWScoop)

While Getai performances are targeted at spirits, its popularity amongst the living plays a vital role in ensuring its continuation. Coined as a must-see festivity during the Hungry Ghost Month, it has reached Singapore’s Resort World Sentosa and Orchard Road, the city’s internationally renowned retail district. Its presence also extends into other Chinese festivities such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year.

Going Online

Getai Virtual ShowsA Getai Virtual Broadcast (Source: The Straits Times)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Getai went into the virtual world. Despite the lack of face-to-face interactions with the audience members, the shows were equally as successful, with Getai broadcasting Youtube channels such as LEX-S Watch Live Channel receiving tens of thousands of views per session. During the two to three hour-long broadcasts, Getai performances even included fundraisers, raising donations for charities such as the Singapore Cancer Society (Teo, 2020). 

In spite of cramped studio conditions and the lack of physical audience members, for full-time Getai performers like Febe Huang, this was necessary as a means to an end. In a 2020 interview with Reuters, she describes how COVID-19 had left her for months without income, having to resort to selling things online to make ends meet. With Getai returning in an unconventional manner, she is thus able to continue working. This sentiment was shared with veteran Getai performer Liu Ling Ling, who expressed her gratitude for the presence of an online Getai platform to remain in the spotlight.

Adapting to a New Generation

Taiwanese Getai star Hao HaoTaiwanese Getai star Hao Hao (Source: The Straits Times)

To keep up with the times, present-day Getai shows have included youthful EDM renditions of traditional dialect songs on top of their usual setlists. Performances are now live-streamed on Youtube and Facebook, in an attempt to gain traction from younger age groups. 

However, the effectiveness of these modern additions in attracting a more diversified audience remains in question. In reality, the majority of the Getai audience are elderly folk, who have matured with it as a backdrop of their childhood memories. Unlike the seniors, its sentimental value is lost to the younger generations that had grown up with television and video games instead.

Additionally, external factors play a significant role in the stubbornly unchanging overall Getai age demographic. With growing restrictions imposed by the state, potential Getai talents are being pushed out both physically and metaphorically. The country’s overwhelming success in eliminating dialect in the 1970s has arguably given birth to a generation of youth disinterested in continuing the art form. Furthermore, with Singapore’s restriction on festivals continuing after 10.30pm (2000), lesser performers are hired for the trademark nighttime Getai shows. This intrusion by the government presents fewer opportunities for fresh new faces to join the scene. Despite how Geitai attempts to advertise itself in local media through films such as 881 (2007) and reality shows like GeTai Challenge (2015), many remain pessimistic about its future altogether, with Channel News Asia going to the extent of labelling it as a “dying trade” (2019). 

Significance of Preserving Getai culture

Getai culture fashion and makeup
Source: The Straits Times

In the context of religion

While the future of Getai remains uncertain, it is imperative for locals to continue keeping the culture alive. Getai goes beyond a source of entertainment, serving as a respected tradition passed down from generation to generation. With Buddhism being Singapore’s largest religion, Getai has established itself as a vital ritual that unifies locals.

In the context of cultural identity

Getai also serves as a source for locals, especially the dialect-speaking elderly, to reclaim their identity. According to the National University of Singapore scholar Hong Chin Yan’s 2020 publication on Hungry Ghost Festivals in Singapore, languages serve a crucial role in defining one’s self-identity. Through having a tangible platform for dialect-speaking locals to immerse themselves in, however temporary, provides a sense of belonging while protecting their cultural identity.

Getai as a symbolism of endurance

Throughout the ups and downs of Getai’s timeline, it has proved itself as a symbol of endurance borne out of adversity. From facing competition with other entertainment forms to being physically pushed away by the state, Getai organisers have, time and time again, evolved and worked around constraints. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Getai went online and saw audiences from all around the world. With live streams averaging a massive viewership count of thirty thousand during peak seasons, Getai organisers have proved their abilities in constantly modernising it to what it is today. Hence, Getai should not be fossilised and viewed as a part of Singapore’s history, but instead, as a continuous and dynamic art form that continually adapts to the times. Beyond the flashy lights, flamboyant costumes and elaborate hairdos lies a story of endurance and perseverance – Getai culture had, and hopefully will continue to stay.

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