By Jocelyn Lee
Thirteen-year-old Tan Kai Qing leads a double life.
By day, she is a dutiful secondary school student sporting a ponytail. By night, she dons make-up and sequinned outfits, and transforms into a singer belting out Hokkien hits in the sometimes sleazy world of the getai stage.
Barely in her teens, she pops up on makeshift stages that have sprung up in Singapore's heartland for the Hungry Ghost Festival getai season now on.
Taking her turn between bawdy comedians and raunchy female singers who have had years in the game, the plucky girl puts aside any fatigue to charm crowds with renditions of old favourites such as Troubled Hearts and Devoted Flower, delivered in a clear, powerful voice.
Watching on proudly is her karaoke jockey mother Doris Lee, 44, and warehouse supervisor father Lawrence Tan, 43, who chauffeurs her to the gigs.
Despite Kai Qing's tender years, big bucks are at stake. She expects to have raked in $10,000 in performance payments by the time the season wraps up at the end of this month.
The schoolgirl, who has two older brothers aged 15 and 18, will have worked hard for the money - performing 30 days straight, waking up at 5.30am for school and calling it a night at 10.30pm after her last getai song.
She is one of five child stars doing the getai rounds this year, up from just one last year, say organisers. They range in age from four to 16.
The young performers are popular because they are cute and different from the average getai singers, who are usually a decade older, say the organisers.
However, some people feel that kids should not be performing at getais, as the street shows often boast lewd humour and skimpy costumes in acts performed to a mostly male audience.
Madam Lin Poh Chee, 52, a mother of two girls, says: 'Getais are meant for adult performers, and young kids should not be appearing and singing at such venues. You don't know what kind of bad influences they will get from performing at such places.'
Kai Qing's mother, Madam Lee, disagrees. 'I feel very proud of my daughter when I see her on stage receiving thunderous applause from the audience.'
And 48-year-old Linda Ho, the mother of another child act, the 2Z Sisters (Pek Zia Wei, 10, and Pek Zia Xuan, 11), says she watches over her daughters carefully during performances and inbetween to ensure they are sheltered from bad elements.
'I have educated them well and I believe they won't be influenced easily by bad company,' she says.
This is Kai Qing's first year in the getai circuit. Her mother was herself a getai singer and she introduced her daughter to the glitzy night-time world. When Kai Qing showed she was keen on performing, she stopped singing so that she could chaperone her daughter.
Kai Qing is fluent in Hokkien and loves listening to Hokkien songs for their catchy rhythms. 'I've been interested in getai since I was nine when I followed my family to catch the shows.'
Singing gigs a stepping stone
Despite the long hours, she enjoys what she is doing. 'I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I can perform on stage for so many people.'
Still, it is a hard grind to earn the $80 she gets for each 20-minute performance. There is no time to waste in her packed schedule. The Sec 1 student at Regent Secondary School finishes her schoolday at 1pm. She gets home to her family's four-room HDB flat in Choa Chu Kang at 2pm, then takes a nap till 5pm before preparing for her getai performances.
There is no time to do her homework after school, so she gets it done in-between lessons in school. During the getai season, she also does not have time to go out with her friends.
She has to leave her home by 6.30pm to be first in line to perform at a 7.30pm show, because of the getai industry's unwritten rule of first-come-first-on for performers. If she is late, she has to wait up to two hours for her turn.
Elsewhere in the evenings, other parents are getting their child stars ready for their getai gigs too.
Interior designer Benson Pek, 50, father of the 2Z Sisters, arranges to meet his clients before 6.30pm every day so that he can ferry his daughters - pupils at Princess Elizabeth Primary School - to their venues. 'I want to be there for them at every stage of their growth. My sacrifices are definitely worth it,' he says.
Although this year is the 2Z Sisters' getai debut, they have been performing at banquets and dinner shows since they were five. They usually sing Mandarin and Hokkien songs such as Innocent, Lively And Pretty and Chase Chase Chase.
They earn more than $100 for each 20-minute performance. Racing between two shows each evening, they can net a night's income of more than $200.
Their mother, Madam Ho, is a hairdresser and closes her salon earlier during the getai season to follow her daughters around. 'As I have my own business, I can be flexible with my time so I don't think it is inconvenient for me at all,' she says.
Indeed, the proud parents of getai gig kids that LifeStyle spoke to regard the shows as opportunities for their children to show off their vocals.
Mrs Caline Lee, 43, mother of four-year-old getai star Cody Lee, feels that the stage is a good training ground for her daughter, who loves to sing and perform. Cody made headlines this month when she debuted as one of the youngest getai acts around, singing Hokkien songs without understanding the lyrics.
'People may think it is inappropriate for Cody, but I think we should just let her pursue her passion and do what she likes,' says Mrs Lee, who runs her own business.
Kai Qing's mum feels the same way. She says: 'Singing at getais is one of the biggest performing opportunities for Kai Qing and I just hope that she will make it big one day.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 17, 2008.