More Than A Job - Getai artiste Lee Peifen: Sing sing sing

Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

More Than a Job

Whatever your chosen craft, vocation or profession, we all have work to do. In a biweekly series, Yahoo Singapore talks to individuals who have chosen unique, unconventional and distinctive careers. For some, it’s about passion. Others have a sense of duty. But for all of them, it’s more than a job.

Deep in the heartlands of Bukit Batok West, it was time to celebrate the birthday of the guardian deity Guan Gong with a getai performance.

The performance venue was a stage beneath a tent on a basketball court. Backstage, Lee Pei Fen, 28, got dressed in a portable changing room. The show, which included other performers, was to last three hours, during which Lee hosted and also performed a couple of songs.

By the time Lee stepped on stage, an audience of about 200 had gathered. Despite having performed full-time for more than a decade, she admitted that she still gets nervous before a show starts. “It’s like, you need to go to the toilet, you know,” she said with a laugh.  

“And you think, oh my god, there’s so (many) people. But you just got to grab the mic, go up on stage and showcase the best of you.”

Literally ‘song stage’ in Mandarin, getai consists of live stage performances with dazzling, often over-the-top costumes, and quick-fire banter. Getai is a common sight in the heartlands during the Hungry Ghost Festival in August and other religious festivals.

A career in the getai industry

(Video by Jeremy Ho) 

Lee hosts about 20 shows a month. Her clients range from clan associations, to temples, community centres and corporate entities. During the Seventh Month, which takes place in August this year, she can perform almost daily. The crowd ranges from as few as 30, to thousands.

She was coy when asked how much she charges for each show. Pressed by Yahoo Singapore if it amounted to a four-figure sum, she would only say, “I can only say that it’s not too bad. I think it’s not on the high four-figure side lah.”

During the Bukit Batok West show, Lee collected a steady stream of red packets from the audience. Their contents can range from $2 all the way up to $100, said Lee.

Veteran getai organiser Aaron Tan, 40, said that Lee is one of the most popular artistes around. “When she first started out, not many youngsters want to get involved in getai. It was not that trendy and not so high profile. As time went by and the reputation of getai grew, her reputation also grew,” said the boss of Lex (S) Entertainment.

Tan added, “She’s super bilingual, and speaks dialect as well. She is hardworking, and she got the luck.”

Standing out on stage

Lee Pei Fen grabs a bite before going on stage. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

The getai industry has gotten more competitive since Lee started out, with the influx of artistes from across the Causeway and other countries such as China and Indonesia. For veteran getai artiste Sam Lu, in his 40s, the way to stand out is with fashion.

“I have a designer in Thailand who makes two or three new costumes for me every month. We must also raise our standards in order to be able to compete with the foreign artistes, “ said Lu, who also started out at a young age.

Lee is also careful to dress well, with costumes made by tailors in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. One typically costs $400 to $500, and can go up to four figures.  Sequins are a prominent feature on her favourite kind of costume. “If you see our stage, they have a lot of strong lighting, so if you have sequins and glitter, it will be more glamorous,” said Lee.

Unwelcome attention

Lee Pei Fen performs at Bukit Batok West. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore

Lee started performing full-time after graduating with a diploma in business administration. Her first getai performance was at the age of six, when she discovered the high of being applauded.

“When you perform and when you receive that kind of applause, it’s like, I’m the mega superstar on stage. That’s a very high level of satisfaction, even though it’s just a very short 20 or 30 minute performance,” said Lee.

Not all of the attention is welcome. Besides letters from admirers, Lee, who is single, once received a live rabbit as a gift. More than once, she has been followed home, which “really freaks me out a lot”. As if to underscore the point, Yahoo Singapore’s interview with Lee is interrupted by a fan who thrusts his camera at this reporter and insists on taking a photo with her.

Perhaps it is just as well that Lee’s parents accompany her to every performance. Her housewife mother is her manager and hairstylist – “She’s the pao kah liao (Hokkien for ‘do everything’) – while her father, who works as a painter, serves as chauffeur.

A career for life

How long does Lee intend to continue performing? “For as long as I’m still wanted in this industry,” said the pint-sized performer, who once harboured dreams of becoming a teacher.

“This is where I grew up. I’m proud to say that this is like my second home.”

But what of her ambitions of her younger days, when she considered trying out for the pop music industry, of becoming the next Stefanie Sun? “It just didn’t happen,” said Lee matter-of-factly.

“Eventually, when I was in this line, I told myself, okay be contented with what you have. 知足常乐,” she said, citing a Chinese proverb that means being content with what one has.

“I think it’s quite good already.”

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Look out for the next instalment of More Than A Job on Monday, 15 Aug.