The Teenage Kotai Singer

loading Catherine Wong.

At 19 years old, Catherine Wong is one of the youngest kotai (“song stage” in Hokkien) singers in Penang. Her foray into the industry makes for a curious anecdote: “When I was 16, a friend’s father who happened to be a kotai show organiser had a pre-show hiccup – he urgently needed an extra singer. This friend of mine knew that I could sing – I was previously in the school choir – and persuaded me to perform.”

Wong is one of the youngest kotai singers in Penang.

Wong began receiving bookings from show organisers impressed with her voice, and a four-song set list soon expanded into 45-minute to two-hour long shows. “My audience mostly live around the area where the kotai shows are performed. These aunties and uncles love variety; so aside from my own set list, I’d sing in Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka, as well as Malay, English and Thai. They especially love it when I perform ‘月亮代表我的心’ (The Moon Represents My Heart), made famous by Teresa Teng.”

The crowd is typically placid, but Wong finds engaging with them to be a delightful challenge. “Crowd interaction is important. I know kotai has a bad reputation; many assume we are just talentless sexy showgirls, but this can’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are some who would willingly go down to the ground to entertain the crowd, either by joining them for a drink or striking up conversation for extra tips. But this also depends on the show organisers – some like ‘hot’ shows but others don’t.

“Personally, I’m not comfortable performing in that manner. I rely more on my voice instead. The Chinese have many deities that they pray to, and some temples will request that the singers dress modestly as a sign of respect.

On some nights during the Hungry Ghost Festival, Wong can perform up to four shows.

Kotai serves as a platform for singers to professionally showcase their talents..

Ghostly Encounters

Kotai performances peak during the seventh lunar month of Phor Thor, or Hungry Ghost Festival, when the Gates of Hell apparently open and spirits are free to wander in the land of the living for an entire month. “On some nights, I can even perform up to four shows!” says Wong.

The festival’s rituals and superstitions must be strictly observed and respected – a lesson Wong learned the grim way. “It is customary for singers to say a little prayer before going on stage, but being very new to the industry, I chose not to. Halfway through my performance, my CDs suddenly couldn’t play well and there was a strange buzzing sound coming from the speakers. Spooked, I had to stop my performance for a few minutes to ask for forgiveness. Since then, I’ve made it a point to say a prayer before each show. We also have certain ‘sensitive’ songs that we avoid performing during the festival. One of it is ‘今天不回家’ (I Won’t Go Home Tonight).”

Kotai Then and Now

Penang’s kotai industry is experiencing a rejuvenation; enthusiastic emcees have now become permanent fixtures as have duets and group performances. Competition is also tight among singers to secure show bookings, “You need to be a good singer and dancer – I had to learn different dances including belly dancing and K-pop when I first started; how the singer interacts with the audience is equally important. These will determine if you can raise your singing fees. It helps too if you’re active in pageant circuits and singing competitions.”

Crowd interaction is important. I know kotai has a bad reputation; many assume we are just talentless sexy showgirls, but this can’t be further from the truth ... the Chinese have many deities that they pray to, and some temples will request that the singers dress modestly as a sign of respect.

Costume choices have likewise moved past scanty lingerie – much to the relief of Wong’s father. “He wasn’t initially onboard with the idea of my performing because of the sexy elements of kotai shows, but he came around after I persuaded him to attend one of my performances. My go-to style is a blouse and a skirt. Some I had tailor-made and the rest are bought online; but because I’m in the entertainment industry, I make it a point to have a wardrobe change every year.

Kotai performers are definitely different from the artistes under recording labels, but kotai still serves as a platform for us singers to professionally showcase our talents. I’ve had invitations to perform in both West and East Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In Indonesia especially, we are treated like real celebrities.”

As much as Wong enjoys performing though, turning it into a full-time career is not on the cards for her. “I’ve just completed my STPM examinations and I’m hoping to pursue my tertiary education, either in mass communications or the performing arts.”

Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.



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